Presidential debates so far this cycle have brought cable news networks their biggest ratings in years, but also on the Republican side, some changes to the formats. Not just in breaking the large field into two tiers, but in changing the format that would have prevented, say, CNN moderator Candy Crowley from correcting a matter of fact in the 2012 Presidential debates. Also, a partisan conservative radio host was added to the roster for the CNN Republican debate (such “balance” apparently unnecessary at Fox News, according to the Republicans who set up the requirements.
As Anderson Cooper was preparing to moderate tonight’s initial Democratic Presidential Debate (CNN, 8:30 p.m.) of the season in Las Vegas recently, I talked to him for a Q & A published in The Washington Post.
For his part, he said there are no new 2016 party edicts to follow.
“I’ve never been given any restrictions on anything like that,” Cooper said. “As far as I know, I wouldn’t imagine there’s any restrictions. In every debate I’ve ever done, going back to 2004 was the first time I did one for the Democratic primary, there’s never been any restrictions in terms of questions.
“There’s limitations in terms of followups and timing, but that’s mostly on the candidates’ side,” he added. “But I absolutely think somebody says something that’s factually incorrect, it’s the moderator’s job or any reporter’s job to point out what the facts are.”
When I asked about the partisan conservative radio questioner Hugh Hewitt at the last CNN debate, he said, “I honestly don’t know about that. I wasn’t involved in the details of the Republican debate.”
But, he added, “I think it’s always worthwhile that people from different vantage points and different viewpoints. I like having different people involved. I like having people from different walks of life and different backgrounds and people coming to things from different vantage points. I think that’s important As far as I’m concerned I’m always happy to have a variety of topics, a variety of people asking questions. I think it all adds to the mix.”
Speaking of mix, I asked him about recent changes at CNN that have put prime time shows one might see on travel channels bumping his own “Anderson Cooper 360” to a new time slot.
“I think there’s prime time programming that has to do with storytelling, and there’s different ways of telling stories,” Cooper said. “I learn a lot from watching Anthony Bourdain and Lisa Ling and a lot of these shows, a lot of the documentaries I think you can learn a lot from. And they can bring people who may not be interested to watch an evening newscast on a particular day, but if there’s a compelling story.
“I think Anthony Bourdain makes total sense and I think all these shows that CNN has been running actually just add to what makes CNN interesting to watch. I’m a big proponent of where CNN is at and I think Jeff [Zucker] has brought an incredible energy to the place, he’s got a great programming background, he watches programming, he knows television, he’s very hands on, and I like that. And I like people giving me feedback — praise or criticism or whatever it may be, but giving comments. I’m a big believer in : I’m still learning. I still want to get better and there’s stuff I’m always trying to get better at, as I think all of us should be trying to do. So I’m excited about it.
“I watch all those those programs. I’ve gone to places because Antony Bourdain (went there). I went to Tangiers because Bourdain went there and it looked interesting, and I actually went to the places he went to. So to me, it all feels natural. It all feels like a good fit.”
Cooper was talking to me in advance of an appearance he was going to make with reality TV producer and Bravo talk show host Andy Cohen in Washington. Although the two are longtime friends, they have a lot in common. Cohen got his start as a news producer; and Cooper first came to my attention as a reality show host.
“That probably says more about you, though,” Cooper said. “But yeah, Andy has a news background, I worked for two seasons on ‘The Mole’ in 1999 and 2000.”
Which brings to mind a whole new direction for presidential debates: The forums have long been compared to elimination competitions along the lines of “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race” and even “The Bachelor.” But this year’s race could also be seen as a restaging of “The Mole” with Cooper back as host. After all, Donald Trump has famously given to Democratic campaigns in the past; Lincoln Chaffee is a former Republican.
The CNN Democratic Presidential debate, which also features Jim Webb, Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, starts at 8:30 p.m. tonight. “Anderson Cooper & Andy Cohen: Deep Talk and Shallow Tales” comes to the Warner Theatre in Washington D.C. Saturday at 8 p.m.