Debates more and more resemble sporting events, with elaborate pre-shows, postgames, and boxing metaphors. There are going to be a million of them this election cycle (well, not a million, but even this week there are two sanctioned debates, and next week another and next week … ), and every news organization wants theirs to stand out.
We think of the goal of these events as an actual pronouncement of a new policy, a revelation of character, or to expose a candidate’s shift in thinking. But a shock moment, a testy conflict, or something weird and spontaneous, like Hillary’s long bathroom break at the last debate—these are often better for business. People tweet that stuff. They talk about it. And often debates seem designed more for those moments—the boxing moments—than the substantive ones.
Tonight, Fusion will lay off the sports talk when we air the Iowa Brown & Black Presidential Forum here in Des Moines. This is a HUGE deal! Putting on an event like this, for the networks and the big cable news organizations, usually starts with calling up the specials unit and watching a formidable machine whirl into action. Fusion, on the other hand, has never done this before. We are barely two years old! In fact, most of us making this show haven’t put on anything quite like this, ever. (And I don’t know if a digital/print person like me has ever had a front-row seat in the control room during a presidential debate, but I do here. This is Fusion.)
To back up, if you are asking “What is Fusion?” Well, this event will show you. We are young—a young company with a young staff. We are multicultural and diverse, from the control room to the stage. We don’t have a machine to crank up, or a fallback plan. This is live on air, but also in the sense that it’s 8 a.m. and I’m about to read our questions for the candidates again, and then go get ready for a bomb sweep of Sheslow Audiorium at Drake University, where we will broadcast from.
It’s all live, starting now. And I don’t know how to put it right—thrilling doesn’t say it all. It’s just totally new.
When we started talking about election coverage at Fusion, we set one simple test for everything we’d do this year: be different.
We wanted new voices and unique stories. We wanted explorers over experts—reporters and writers whose interest in politics was personal, not professional. We wanted to work in different formats and on different platforms, from bots to Snapchat. And tonight, when we gather the three Democratic hopefuls for the Iowa Brown & Black Forum, it will truly be different from anyone else’s debate, interview, or sitdown.
The Brown & Black Forum has been around since 1984, and there’s never been a better moment for it. I could go deep on its history, but for that I will point you to this gorgeous profile of its incredible founders, Wayne Ford and Mary Campos. They tell the story best.
What I want to tell you about—and this was not my idea, but came from Alicia Menendez, Fusion’s insanely smart, serious, determined correspondent, and a co-moderator tonight—is how we actually put this event together, and how we decided what to actually ask the candidates. No one ever talks about this stuff. So we want to.
Step 1: Picking Your Moderators
Our first task was selecting our moderators. Number 1: Jorge Ramos. Formidable, fearless, outspoken, he’s an icon and a journalist, a challenger of power. We’re so lucky to have him anchor AMERICA at Fusion. And Alicia is his perfect counterpart. They’ve sat with the candidates before. They know the issues cold. They’re amazing on camera. These were no-brainers.
But who to match with them? Akilah Hughes is brilliant. She’s hilarious. She loves snacks, but she can swing from a conversation about Spicy Nacho Doritos to Benghazi in one breath. Check out her Fusion show on YouTube, “‘This Shouldn’t Be News.” She will surprise you.
Rembert Browne, currently at New York magazine, wrote a meditative, gripping piece for Grantland about the weight and importance of interviewing a president: what do you ask when you get one question? He’s thoughtful and spontaneous, he’s deep and silly. He’s really into politics. We’re fans, so we asked him to join us.
Just look at them. Two respected television journalists, a magazine writer, and a comedian/YouTube star. Three are under 35. Two Latino, two African-American. One has been deemed among the most influential people in the world. That’s amazing.
Step 2: Picking the Questions
We had our topics, the same the Forum has focused on since 1984: education, immigration, economic development, criminal justice, and health.
These issues are the issues of this election year—from terrifying raids on undocumented families to Black Lives Matter and chronic problems with policing in this country. Fusion pushes these conversations every single day with our talented, young, multicultural staff. Because this is the stuff that matters to us personally, and to our audience—the emerging new American majority.
We cast a wide net for questions. We asked members and friends of the Brown & Black Forum to share their thoughts. Our elections unit in New York did a series of brainstorms and drafts. We asked our followers on Twitter and Facebook. Our colleagues at The Root offered a list. Alicia and a producer pored over transcripts of prior debates and forums to make sure we wouldn’t do something that had already been done. We reached out to organizers focused on areas from veterans issues to student debt. And we asked students at three colleges in the Des Moines area to contribute.
By Christmas Day we had 45 pages of questions. Needless to say, that was too many for an event where we have about 25 minutes to question each candidate.
Dax Tejera, the executive producer of AMERICA, and I began making notes and cutting, looking for holes. Then the moderators, Dax’s team of producers, our show producers, and I met in Miami for two days last week to get in the same room and talk it out.
We over-indexed on certain things (policing) and under-indexed on others (health). It was a process of going over and over the list—cutting, suggesting, adding, and getting to a place where we had a good-looking mix: 12 questions for each candidate, four for each moderator, two from students or other citizens. (At least that is the plan right now as I write—this is live.) If there was a question we felt could be answered with a stump speech, it was axed. You can find plenty of talking points on their websites. (Did you know they all have websites? Have they told you the URL like you don’t know how to use Google?)
A good question is a good question, but strong delivery also makes an impact. We aimed to make sure our moderators were matched with questions they actually wanted to ask, and that each question was being delivered in a way and by a person who would have the best chance of provoking the most revelatory response. So, for instance, Alicia felt that the language in a question assigned to her was better suited to a 20-minute interview, not a forum like this. She rewrote it. Akilah reworked hers to sound like, well, Akilah.
We want this event to be informative and entertaining. We want the differences between candidates to be clear. It’s more than an election year event. It’s an opportunity to help young voters—and all voters—understand the candidates. The forum format, where each candidate is questioned separately, helps clear out the noise that distracts from this mission during a debate.
We want real engagement, real answers, and real commitments. We want reflection and honesty. We believe this would be good for all of the candidates to share with our audience—much of which will vote for the first time in 2016. We know they are looking for politicians to get real, as Akilah put it succinctly in this preview video.
This process will continue until we’re about to go on stage. It’s refinement and reaction and rewrite based on the news. … Oh wait, we have to go cut a question. George Stephanopoulos asked it yesterday. BRB.
Step 3: Making It Look Different
Our stage is not red white and blue. There is a lot of purple. We don’t have podiums, there are swivel chairs. Eighteen students will share the stage with us tonight, and some will ask questions—their own questions, not ones we’ve put in their mouths. The look is simple, fresh, casual-but-not-too. The moderators will move around a bit at the top of the show, but mostly what you will see is a sit-down—a serious engagement with the candidates in an intimate setting. This is not a network debate.
You’ll also be able to watch it everywhere. Streaming on YouTube, and then embedded on Fusion.net, Facebook, and a dozen or so other media partners. You can watch our Snapchat live story, which we’ll be building all day (it’s called Campaign 2016). Jorge Ramos will be showing off some behind the scenes stuff on Facebook Live; we’ll have time-lapse videos of our setup on Instagram. The Forum will come to you a little differently on each platform, as it should be.
Step 4: Putting the Thing On
So, it’s been real cold here. We’ve been running between our production office upstairs from Sheslow Auditorium and the truck outside where the control room is, and the diner down the street, blowing on fingers and hoping our eyelashes don’t crack off. It’s been a series of walk-throughs, rundowns, blocking, tweaking, rehearsals, read-throughs, and more rehearsals. It’s making the sauce and testing it over and over, adjusting the salt, the pepper, over and over. We let things simmer, and then cool them down. We sit at our computers in different cities or, now, in conference rooms in Des Moines and read, over and over again, so we don’t miss a follow-up, or one candidate is getting too much of one kind of question.
It’s the mix, and the feel. It’s getting it just right for the people asking questions.
It’s a different process, in a different city, on a different stage, with a different set of faces than you’ve ever seen before in an event like this.
And that’s why it’s going to be fucking awesome.
Join us live Monday at 8 p.m. ET as Fusion hosts the 2016 Iowa Brown & Black Democratic Presidential Forum from Drake University in Des Moines. Tune in to Fusion’s cable network, or watch the livestream on Fusion.net, Facebook, YouTube, Apple TV, and Roku. And download the Fusion app and join the conversation during the forum. Available on iOS and Android.
Hillary Frey is a reluctant news junkie and the director of global news operations at Fusion. In a past life, she was a culture and books editor. She's also a karaoke junkie.