Eighty-three minutes had elapsed in Tuesday night’s Democratic debate before the CBS News moderators got around to asking the candidates about coronavirus.
Among the topics covered before then: a municipal ban on big sodas, the future of the filibuster, and the Naked Cowboy who performs for tourists in Times Square, a reference that may have flown over the heads of viewers west of the Hudson River.
When Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, finally broached the issue of the virus pandemic during an unrelated answer, one of the moderators, anchor Gayle King, cut him off. “We’ll talk about that in the next segment,” she told Bloomberg, before pivoting to a question about whether his mayoral policies had improved New Yorkers’ life expectancies.
It was just one puzzling moment in a disjointed night of television. Over two hours, the CBS moderating team — which featured King, anchor Norah O’Donnell, and three other network journalists — struggled to keep control, calling for order as jawboning candidates talked over their questioners and each other.
The confusion began early and extended to the end, when O’Donnell mistimed a cue and prematurely declared the evening over.
“That concludes our debate —” O’Donnell told viewers confidently, before stopping herself. A brief silence ensued before her fellow moderator jumped in. “No, no, we have time for one more break, Norah, one more break,” King said, offering viewers an apologetic, this-stuff-happens grin. “Time flies when you’re having fun.”
Whether viewers were enjoying themselves was an open question. The Drudge Report issued a tough post-debate verdict: “CBS MESSY.”
After a fiery meeting last week in Las Vegas that drew record ratings, Tuesday’s Charleston, South Carolina, debate had promised viewers some juicy story lines. Could Bloomberg recover from his sputtering performance in Nevada? How would the candidates respond to a sharp drop in the stock market and President Donald Trump’s claim that two Supreme Court justices were biased against him?
The moderators did not ask about the stock market or the Supreme Court. Instead, the debate devolved at times into a shouting match, as candidates switched between ignoring the questions posed to them and pleading with the anchors to step in. “You’re the moderator, guys,” Sen. Bernie Sanders complained at one point, calling for order.
Former Vice President Joe Biden had his own gripes. “I guess the only way to do this is jump in and speak twice as long as you should,” he said at one point, adding later: “Why am I stopping? No one else stops.”
That was before Biden had an answer abruptly cut off by a musical cue signaling the start of a commercial break.
With tensions among the candidates running high as the Democratic primary heads toward Super Tuesday, an intense debate in Charleston was widely expected. Still, CBS News was the only major news network besides Fox News that had not yet hosted a Democratic primary debate in the 2020 race, perhaps a liability given the complexities involved.
NBC News, for instance, suffered a microphone failure during its initial debate in Miami last June, forcing an unplanned commercial break.
“Moderating a debate is not easy,” Mark Lukasiewicz, who produced 10 debates and candidate forums for NBC News, said Tuesday night. “Like being a debate participant, experience and practice helps. There wasn’t a lot of that on the stage tonight, and it showed.”