Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Behind the scenes: Night on the Wedge



Joe Johns
360 Correspondent





Before the Debate
We had a great time preparing for last night's CNN/Congressional Black Caucus debate.

We got questions from all over, but mostly by e-mail. Then a handful of CNN editorial people got together in a conference room of our hotel to decide on the very best questions.

Sunday night the intensity revved up. We pretty much worked from mid-afternoon until 11pm -- had dinner brought in. Then the folks who had to be lucid on TV the next day went to bed. And the rest of the editorial staff stayed at it until about 4 am.

Monday morning, day of the debate, we were back at it -- selecting questions and debating the right way to say them. That went on until early afternoon. It's pretty intense stuff. Nobody said it, but I think the objective is to be clear, relevant, current, precise, provocative, and smart -- without crossing an invisible line that takes the focus off the candidates and puts it on the questioner.


Debate Night
Suzanne Malveaux and I were situated on what we called "The Wedge," a little desk out in the middle of the audience.

You could kind of feel the tension building for this debate because the campaigns of Sens. Clinton and Obama, had been lobbing smoke bombs at each other for days. I don't know what Anderson would say -- he's been a participant in many a political debate -- but from my point of view, the single most important thing is listening despite distractions.

You really have to zero in on what the candidates are saying and you can't zone out. Even though, for example, people in the audience are trying to get your attention. There was a nice lady sitting next to us who tapped me a couple times because she wanted to tell me something about what had just been said on the stage. I'm trying to hear what she's saying -- and I'm leaning over to listen. Then I think, "What am I doing? Sen. Obama's speaking and I'm not listening to him. This is not good."

There are always technical issues that can be distracting. Suzanne had problems with her IFB (earpiece) the first hour and we couldn't really talk because our microphones were open.
It was hard to get the message to the audio people in the control room -- though we quickly figured it out.

There was also concern about fatigue after the first hour, so to avoid that, Matt Hoye, one of the producers from the political unit, brought caffeine drinks that we stashed under the desk.

It got hotter in the room than expected. So, Matt brought me a terry cloth towel in case I started sweating.

The other thing that was interesting, is just how many times the candidates jumped right in and brought up issues that we'd discussed asking them about -- without any prompting.

How did it look to you?
Posted By CNNBLOG: 4:13 PM ET
  7 Comments
Joe,
I though that you did a great job. Congrats on that!

I think the debates went great! I really enjoyed them alot. And the questions were really good also. I hope the next debates are just as good.

Cynthia, Covington, Ga.
Posted By Blogger Cindy : 4:47 PM ET
"Sleep is for wimps!"

Just kidding! I know the crew works really hard and really long hours, but I just have to say thank you for continuing to provide interesting and engaging debates. I hate to see the candidates bickering like they do, but I am sure the organizers have no idea what reactions they will get. To some extent, at least it is enlightening to know where their focus is.

Or something.

But thanks!
Posted By Blogger IMGINGER : 5:19 PM ET
Don't you just hate it when someone in the audience tries to talk to you while you're watching the show?

Sounds like the room got warm from the heated exchanges between two of the candidates. CNN did a good job but after so long of the slinging I got frustrated with it and used my remote to find something less contentious to watch.

Thanks for the behind the scenes look though. I've always wondered what preparations have to be done for one of these debates.

Annie Kate
Birmingham AL
Posted By Blogger Annie Kate : 5:49 PM ET
Dear Joe,

How do you feel about asking questions that are rather compliments in a debate? What are CNN's rules in the debate? Were you not to be impartial? You certainly did not surprise by your planted questions/comment during last night's debate.
The other question that I have is why are older educated male AA blindly against Barrack? Is this a case study?
Posted By Blogger Freeman : 5:54 PM ET
Hello Mr Johns,
Thank you for the behind the scenes descriptions. It didn't look like you were sweating- you and your team stayed pretty cool and collected -as did Wolf Blitzer!
I am glad that race & politics, as well as other hot issues like Iraq and taxes didn't completely take over, and health care and financial concerns were on the table too. Still, global issues such as the environment and the obvious decline in how the US is regarded on the international stage, as well as a plan for our education system need to be discussed more. Our next president will have to keep these issues on the front burner(or at least on the stove), if the US is to sustain its standing in the global community -on all fronts.

JKM, Honolulu, HI
Posted By Anonymous JKM : 6:21 PM ET
Sounds like you as the moderators are on the hot seat as much as the candidates are. You did a fine job and if you sweat, you didn't let
'em see it!
Posted By Anonymous Bill, Louisville, Ky. : 7:31 PM ET
These debates are meaningless. They only have entertainment value and benefit the networks and their purses. The spins and counter-spins and interpretations by CNN anchors such as Anderson Cooper and the rest are even ridiculous and sophomoric. Misleading and out of context re-runs of partial video clips of the debates do not do justice to the candidates and the electorate. The bias of CNN is quite obvious.
Posted By Anonymous Matt, Toronto, ON : 10:55 PM ET
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