BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Tuesday, Fox News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute staged the first of two debates with the Democratic presidential candidates before a responsive crowd on the campus of Morgan State University in Baltimore. It was a long and yet lively exchange. The candidates bobbed and weaved, jabbed and occasionally ducked behind their mikes under the mostly focused and persistent questioning of the journalists. Here's Ed Gordon, contributing editor of Savoy magazine, shooting the same question to Bob Graham he'd just posed to another candidate. [APPLAUSE]
ED GORDON: Mr. Graham, let me ask you the same question that I tried with Senator Kerry; see perhaps if you will give me a little bit more straightforward answer, [OH'S!] and that is whether or not-- I, I don't mean that in any disrespect, because he can't know the - specifically - but in your heart do you believe that the president intentionally misled the American people?
BOB GRAHAM: Yes. I have been a member-- [LAUGHTER/APPLAUSE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris Suellentrop is deputy Washington bureau chief for Slate.com. He wrote about this unusual collaboration of Fox News and the Congressional Black Caucus and what came of it. Chris, welcome to the show.
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: Thanks for having me on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the first line in your article was: "Can Fox News broadcast every Democratic presidential debate?" And I have to say -- I watched the debate and I thought it was fabulous! So I agree with you.
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: It was amazing, wasn't it? I mean the questions were great. It moved quickly. They kind of lost control at the end when they did sort of a let's-ask-every-candidate-the-same-question -- but up until that point I just thought it was great, and I thought the ding-ding bell to demonstrate that a candidate had finished his time was sort of a great addition. The bell would ding and you'd know that John Kerry or whoever had spoken 30 seconds past their time without having a moderator saying -"Excuse me, sir -- sir, you've passed your time." It just seemed to me that it would be that kind of simple but really great addition to a broadcast.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Apparently Fox News chief Roger Ailes jumped at the chance of televising these debates. Do you think it's because he wants the network to take a larger role or he wants to bring new people -- perhaps Democrats into the Fox fold, or what?
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: I would think if you're a cable news channel you would want to broadcast these debates -- I mean these are news junkies that watch these channels. There is the conspiracy theory that Fox wants to broadcast the debate so that they can package their anti-Democratic propaganda around the debate. I don't know if that's true, but there are lots of people on the internet who think that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now Fox, as we have pointed out a couple of times on this show, tends to skew to the right, but do you think the debate was more Democratic, say, than most Fox-watchers have usually had occasion to stomach?
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: Absolutely. I don't think it was a right wing debate; I don't think they were right wing questions. In fact, one of the things I was thinking about while I was watching it was--imagine the political differences between the people inside the debate hall and the people watching at home. [LAUGHTER] I just thought there couldn't be a wider gap between the Fox News television audience and the people inside that debate hall.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The National Black Caucus and Fox make strange bedfellows.
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: That's right. There was a - probably a lot--a lot of booing at home while the cheering was going on in the hall.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So do you think Fox has set a new paradigm for how debates should be conducted?
CHRIS SUELLENTROP:I don't know that it's a new paradigm but it's a better paradigm than the ones that Jim Lehrer hosted four years ago. There was a lot of criticism of Jim Lehrer's moderating of the Gore-Bush debates, and I think--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was too moderate, I think the view was.
CHRIS SUELLENTROP:[LAUGHS] Yes! I, and I think rightly so! I mean the debate should be more than just serving up talking points from the candidates. I mean you get that every day on the campaign trail; you get that on C-Span; you get that in a hundred different places. The debate should be a little tougher than that, and it should be a way to sort of see the candidates think on their feet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Much of the press speculation before this debate, as with the others, was that there'd be some kind of violence inflicted on frontrunner Howard Dean, or at least it seemed that the a lot of the candidate-watchers hoped there would be; and then the next day there seemed to be a sort of disappointment among commentators when it didn't happen!
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: Well yeah. We like to see blood. The entire debate, both in Albuquerque and in Baltimore, wasn't about Joe Lieberman attacking Howard Dean, but that was the most interesting, exciting and "sexy" thing that happened, and so that was the thing that most people wrote about and that becomes the story of the debate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So as you look at the press commentary following the debate, what do you think they missed?
CHRIS SUELLENTROP:You know, candidates like Dennis Kucinich or Bob Graham might have good nights and good performances, but because they're lagging in the polls, they're not deemed worthy of coverage -- they don't get coverage! To some extent I think that's reasonable, but it's also unfortunate for them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was your favorite moment?
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: Well my favorite moment was Howard Dean's line about, about Trent Lott. [CLIP FROM DEBATE PLAYS]
HOWARD DEAN:Well if the percent of minorities that's in your state has anything to do with how you can connect with African-American voters, then Trent Lott'd be Martin Luther King. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know what my favorite moment was?
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: What's that?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Al Sharpton's favorite song. [CLIP FROM DEBATE PLAYS]
AL SHARPTON: My favorite song is James Brown's song on, on the Republican Party--: Talkin' Loud - Sayin' Nothing. [LAUGHTER/APPLAUSE]
CHRIS SUELLENTROP:Well Al Sharpton was great. I missed him in Albuquerque. I don't want Al Sharpton to be a candidate, but I have a proposal that Al Sharpton should be allowed to participate in every debate -- Republican - Democratic -presidential - just as -- not comic relief, but sort of an entertaining interlude, just as-- and, and also just to keep everybody honest. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
CHRIS SUELLENTROP: Thank you. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris Suellentrop is the deputy Washington editor of Slate. [JAMES BROWN'S TALKIN' LOUD AND SAYIN' NOTHING]