After a night of reflection, most people who watched the second presidential debate seem to agree on which moment stood out the most. Moderator Martha Raddatz asked both candidates how the campaign has changed them, and specifically asked Donald Trump if he is a changed man since the 2005 tape where he talked about sexually assaulting women. In case you missed the debate and don’t want to watch all 90 minutes, here is the relevant eight minute segment courtesy of C-Span. Trump dismissed the tape as “locker room talk,” shocking a wide range of male athletes. Hillary Clinton criticized Trump’s broader record of denigrating groups of people. Then Trump tried to pivot to Clinton’s e-mails:
Trump: “If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation, because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it, and we’re going to have a special prosecutor.
So we’re going to get a special prosecutor, and we’re going to look into it, because you know what? People have been — their lives have been destroyed for doing one-fifth of what you’ve done. And it’s a disgrace. And honestly, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
And then Clinton’s reply:
Clinton: It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.
Trump: [interrupts] Because you’d be in jail.
American televised presidential debates began in 1960. We have seen candidates who hate each other before. But there is no precedent in the United States for one candidate pledging criminal charges against their opponent if they happen to win the election. We’ve seen it in Ukraine, Congo and other nations conducting some of their first votes, but never in the United States. Some commentators immediately argued this was the most important part of the debate. On the other hand, CNN didn’t even mention this exchange in their first 20 minutes of post-debate coverage. What’s going on with CNN?
I happened to watch CNN’s post-debate coverage last night. They started with an A team of three correspondents giving their first impressions of the debate from the event floor. Then they went to a B team of pundits in a studio for their first impressions. After around 25 minutes they went back to the A team. Dana Bash was now focused on Trump’s desire to put Clinton in jail. The other commentators agreed that this was unprecedented in the United States.
Before the first presidential debate, Nate Silver said on his podcast that everyone should have to wait at least 30 minutes before giving any kind of on camera post-debate analysis. He has lived up to his word on FiveThirtyEight’s post-debate podcasts, even though he and his fellow podcasters know they will be losing members of the East Coast audience who can’t stay up after midnight for their podcast to finish. If CNN had waited 30 minutes before giving any post-debate analysis, they probably would have led with this threat or Trump rejecting his running mate’s views on Syria. (As of writing this, Trump rejecting Pence is one slot higher than threatening to jail Clinton on CNN’s website.)
Summarizing debates is hard enough as it is. A lot of things happen in those 90 minutes. Even if a debate is unlikely to change someone’s vote, we all have to sit down and prioritize what was the most important thing that happened, second most important, etc. I’m glad I never had to sit down and immediately crank out a story where I had to make those calls as a professional journalist. Among other things, I’d be very cranky about “style points” since I lost a lot of high school debates my freshman year strictly on “style points.”
Over the last year I’ve gotten re-acquainted with having to write on deadline, since I was recapping baseball games. Every sports game has a clear winner and loser. However, there are still some games where it is difficult to prioritize which specific play or strategy led a team to victory. Debates are much harder to summarize because different people may legitimately have different things as their top priority. People who care about Trump as a Republican standard-bearer may focus on any Trump statement suggesting internal dissension. Women who have survived sexual assault may place the greatest emphasis on Anderson Cooper saying “You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?” and Trump needing considerable prompting before he could claim he didn’t assault anyone. People worried about Trump violating the norms of American democracy may focus on his desire to jail Clinton.
It’s perfectly reasonable to pick out any of these moments as the most important thing to happen during last night’s debate. This isn’t an exhaustive list either. I just have to start somewhere. We all do. There’s a reason why the Washington Post put six stories next to each other at the top of their website a few hours after the debate. No single story can explain all the important things that happen during a debate. Of course there’s no way CNN commentators could do a good job going live right after the debate ends.