Aug 1 2008

Dubious Debates

How media moderators lowered the level of Election ’08

Given the early start and lengthy run of Election 2008’s presidential primaries, the full slates of candidates in both the Democratic and Republican parties, and voters’ concerns with pressing issues, it is not surprising that the media featured a large number of debates. Roughly 40 were held between April 2007 and May 2008 (depending upon whether so-called “forums” and an interactive “mashup” online debate created by Yahoo! and the Huffington Post are included). The volume at times seemed overwhelming, as in January 2008, when six debates (one called a forum) were held.

Despite the potential for voter exhaustion, we might still welcome the extensive media time devoted to debates. These events should afford us great opportunities to learn about the candidates’ positions and gauge each contender’s capacity for leadership. Unfortunately, the media’s approach to the debates generally ensured that these prospects could not be realized.

The debates were overwhelmingly moderated by corporate media personalities, and nearly all of them displayed biases, promoted inaccuracies and shirked their responsibility to generate fair and thorough discussions of key political issues. In particular, moderators focused on presumed contenders and dismissed others in both parties, emphasized rivalries and trivial matters of personality and style, and asked questions from a right-wing perspective that assumed conservative positions to be correct and cast other views as unreasonable and unelectable.

The few debates that offered exceptions to these rules—two sponsored by PBS (6/28/07, 9/27/07) featuring journalists of color, and two sponsored by the Des Moines Register and Iowa Public Television (12/12/07, 12/13/07)—serve as important reminders of what purposes debates (and the media who control them) should serve.

The Democrats who matter . . .

In both Democratic and Republican debates, the media moderators assumed from the outset that each party had a “top tier” of candidates (Extra!, 7-8/07), formulating questions and allotting time based on these judgments. At the start of the Democratic debates, Sen. Hillary Clinton, former Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama were considered the front-runners and were questioned accordingly.

Brian Williams--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Peabody Awards

Brian Williams–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Peabody Awards

In the April 26, 2007, MSNBC debate in South Carolina, for example, moderator Brian Williams asked only these three to explain how they would pay for their plans for reforming healthcare, an issue that he noted “ranks a solid second in virtually every opinion poll in the United States.” Williams asked Gov. Bill Richardson a more restricted version of the question, asking how he could maintain his “position against raising taxes to pay for” his proposal for healthcare reform. Sen. Christopher Dodd, Sen. Joseph Biden, Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Sen. Mike Gravel were not asked any form of the question.

Only Clinton, Obama and Edwards faced a question from Williams about foreign policy and national security:

If, God forbid . . . while we were gathered here tonight, we learned that two American cities had been hit simultaneously by terrorists, and we further learned, beyond the shadow of a doubt, it had been the work of Al-Qaeda, how would you change the U.S. military stance overseas as a result?”

While the media deferred to Clinton, Edwards and Obama as the three front-runners, it was clear early on that they viewed Clinton as the presumptive leader and Obama as her main challenger. ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos began the August 19, 2007, debate by asking “the two questions that have really been dominating this race so far”: “Is Barack Obama . . . experienced enough to be president? And can . . . Hillary Clinton, in part because of [her] experience, bring the country together and bring about the kind of change that all of you say the country needs?”

. . . And the also-rans


The other candidates were frequently not treated as viable alternatives and were asked to comment not on their own plans but on those of Clinton, Obama and—at times—Edwards. Dodd, for example, was asked in various debates about Clinton’s electability and her approach to Iran (MSNBC, 9/26/07; NBC, 10/30/07). At the August 19, 2007, ABC debate, Stephanopoulos asked Dodd the seemingly rhetorical question of whether, given that he had “called Senator Obama’s views confusing and confused, dangerous and irresponsible,” he believed Obama was “ready to be president.” Shortly thereafter, Stephanopoulos queried Biden, “Why isn’t Senator Obama ready?”

Edwards was put in the role of commentator at times during the NBC debate of October 30, 2007, as when Tim Russert asked him, “What double-talk are you suggesting that Senator Clinton’s been engaging in on Iran?” At other points, though, Edwards was presumed to stand with Clinton and Obama. Williams asked Richardson to defend his candidacy not on its own terms but in contrast to the presumptive contenders, including Edwards: “Is your contention that, say, the top three front-runners in this race are less qualified than you are to be president?”

The media did not even attempt to hide their dismissal of Kucinich. In the MSNBC debate of April 26, 2007, Williams cast Kucinich as the ultimate outsider who was responsible for explaining why he did not “have more traction politically in the United States.” Ironically, Williams himself illustrated the media’s role in marginalizing Kucinich when he asked the candidate not to explain his position that Vice President Cheney should be impeached, but instead to argue against the media’s foregone conclusion: “Is this a proper use of public congressional time and energy?”

A presumed opponent


The media’s assumption that Clinton was the Democratic frontrunner also influenced questions asked of the Republicans in their debates. In the first Republican debate on MSNBC on May 3, 2007, Chris Matthews asked the panel, “Seriously, would it be good for America to have Bill Clinton back living in the White House?”

Chris Wallace--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/jim greenhill

Chris Wallace–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/jim greenhill

In the Fox News debate five months later (10/21/07), Chris Wallace led the candidates into an extensive conversation by remarking: “Gentlemen, you all have a couple of things in common. You all seem to be planning to run against Hillary Clinton in the general election, and at this point all of you—I repeat, all of you—are losing to her in the polls. So let’s talk about how you intend to beat her.”

NBC’s Russert similarly asked former Governor Mitt Romney (1/24/08) how, given that “if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, she’ll be running as a team with her husband,” he would “run against Hillary and Bill Clinton in November?”

In Fox News’ debate on January 10, 2008, Wallace’s challenge to Romney presumed that Clinton and Sen. John McCain were the parties’ frontrunners: “After John McCain beat you in New Hampshire and Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama, is it just possible that voters want Washington experience more than they want change?” The fact that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Obama won the Iowa caucuses five days before the New Hampshire primary was ignored.

Giuliani and other frontrunners


Romney and McCain—along with, early on, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani—were positioned by the media as the strongest Republican candidates. As with the Democrats, others were often asked to comment on these presumed leaders and not on their own proposals.

At a Fox News debate (5/15/07), for example, Wallace asked Rep. Tom Tan-credo about his signature issue to elicit not his own views but his opinion of others’: “You have made the fight against illegal immigration the centerpiece of your campaign. . . . Do you think that Senator McCain and Mayor Giuliani and Governor Romney are soft on immigration, and if so, why?”

During CNN’s debate on June 5, 2007, Wolf Blitzer asked Sen. Sam Brownback if, given Giuliani’s supposed pro-choice position (see Extra!, 1-2/08), he would “be able to support him” for president; in a Fox News debate three months later (9/5/07), Brownback was asked if he was “persuaded by Senator McCain’s argument against taking the pledge . . . not to increase marginal tax rates.”

At the same debate, Huckabee was asked by Fox’s Wendell Goler if there was “any real difference between Governor Romney’s willingness to allow legalized abortion in some states and Mayor Giuliani’s support—effective support—for a woman’s right to choose?” (If Huckabee’s prudent answer—“Wendell, I’m going to let them sort out whatever differences they have”—was polite advice to the media about the absurdity of asking questions in this fashion, it was not taken.)

Mockery and marginalization


The most pointed opponent of the Bush administration from the Republican side, Rep. Ron Paul, was cast in a role analogous to that of Kucinich, its strongest critic on the Democratic side. Paul, too, was routinely ignored; when included, he was similarly mocked and marginalized. Fox News’ Chris Wallace (5/15/07) dismissed Paul’s recommendation that “we should pull our troops out” of Iraq, asking if in light of a “recent poll” that “found that 77 percent of Republicans disapprove of the idea of setting a timetable for withdrawal,” he was “running for the nomination of the wrong party.”

As if the question needed to be asked again, Goler challenged Paul later in the same debate about his anti-war stance: “Are you out of step with your party? Is your party out of step with the rest of the world? If either of those is the case, why are you seeking its nomination?” Eight months later, Fox News (1/10/08) had apparently not tired of dismissing Paul; Carl Cameron offered him “yet another question about electability”: “Do you have any, sir?”

By making these assumptions, which both presupposed and encouraged particular outcomes, the media negated the ostensible purpose of the debates, which is to allow party members to pick their standard bearers. Media often seemed to feel instead that it was their job to make these decisions, and that the debates were their vehicles to enforce them.

In contrast to the blatant favoritism and presumptions in these debates, four exceptions are notable. In the two debates sponsored by PBS (6/28/07; 9/27/07) and featuring Tavis Smiley and other prominent journalists of color, as well as in both the debates sponsored by the Des Moines Register and Iowa Public Television (12/12/07,12/13/07), candidates were all asked the same questions, were held to similar time limits, and were not challenged to critique the electability or positions of others. (The Register did, however, limit the Democratic debate and weed the field in a very real sense by excluding Kucinich and Gravel. And the four top-polling Republican candidates at the time of the PBS debate—Giuliani, McCain, Romney and former Sen. Fred Thompson—declined to attend that event.)

Fostering infighting


While many Americans have decried the unpleasant personal attacks and attention on irrelevant matters that have come to dominate recent elections, the debates have shown that the media not only emphasize but also foster—even at times attempt to create—personality-based infighting and other distractions.

Consider, for example, an exchange in the first Republican debate (5/3/07) between MSNBC’s Matthews and Huckabee on Romney’s Mormonism. Matthews asked, “Governor Huckabee, you’ve criticized Governor Romney for saying his faith wouldn’t get in the way of his public life, his governing. Do you want to back that up tonight?” Huckabee simply repeated the generalization that he made in the interview to which Matthews referred (ABC’s This Week, 2/11/07), noting that his faith influenced his own decisions, and suggesting that a candidate’s faith would not be strong if that were not the case.

Seemingly disappointed that Huckabee would not take the bait, Matthews remarked: “But you answered in direct response to . . . Governor Romney and his Mormonism. Why are you pulling back now?” He even tried to generate the argument a different way, asking Romney, “Governor Romney, do you accept the fact he wasn’t talking about you?”

ABC News’ (1/5/08) Charles Gibson similarly attempted to get McCain and Romney to fight, noting they had been “going at each other in interviews and in ads about . . . the constancy of [their] principles.” After each candidate explained their own views with no reference to the other’s, Gibson appeared dissatisfied: “I must say, you don’t sound like two guys who have been sniping at one another over and over in your ads and interviews. You sound different.”

Ironically, CNN’s Blitzer tried to use Democratic candidate Edwards’ comments in the November 15, 2007, debate about the irrelevance of personal attacks to generate just such an assault against him. Edwards noted:

You know, before I came over here tonight, I was thinking, we’re going to have this debate; when we finish, all of you are going to be on television saying, oh, who scored points, who won the debate. . . . The question is, will America be fine? . . . Thirty-seven million people in this country live in poverty every day. Forty-seven million Americans have no health care coverage. . . . There’s nothing personal about this.

Blitzer responded by asking “Senator Dodd to weigh in”: “You . . . made a statement earlier in the week—and I’m quoting you now—you’re ‘surprised at just how angry Senator Edwards has become.’ And you’ve suggested he’s not the same person I once knew. . . . Tell us what you mean.” Dodd, to his credit, refused to attack Edwards, and instead agreed that they should focus on the issues rather than “waste time on the shrillness of this debate.”

Guilt by association


For various Democrats and Republicans, the media’s emphasis on irrelevant matters at times amounted to guilt by association. While of course candidates cannot be held responsible for the views of all their supporters, Obama was asked to comment on the support of Louis Farrakhan (NBC, 2/26/08) and former Weatherman William Ayers (ABC, 4/16/08); Ron Paul was confronted with the fact that among his followers are “9/11 Truthers” (Fox News, 1/10/08), who believe the 9/11 attacks were a conspiracy involving the United States government.

The media’s repeated attempts to hold Obama responsible for the views of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, reached a new level of absurdity when Obama was asked by Stephanopoulos (ABC, 4/16/08): “Number one, do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do? And number two, if you get the nomination, what will you do when those sermons are played on television again and again and again?”

Obama’s response—“the notion that somehow the American people are going to be distracted once again by comments not made by me but by somebody who is associated with me, that I have disowned . . . doesn’t give the American people enough credit”—might have been a challenge to move on to substantive issues. But Stephanopoulos demonstrated that he was not yet ready to do that, following up with, “But you do believe [Reverend Wright is] as patriotic as you are?”

Xenophobic spin


Real issues were brought up by media figures during both Democratic and Republican debates. Yet these questions were often strongly biased, emanating from a right-wing perspective, relying on inaccurate or one-sided information, and putting proponents of progressive views on the defensive.

Consider, for example, the wording of most questions about proclaiming English the “official” language of the United States—something the United States has managed to do without for 232 years. Edwards was asked by NBC’s Brian Williams (1/15/08), “What would be the problem with English as an official language, as a bedrock requirement of citizenship?”

CNN’s Blitzer (6/3/07) asked the Democrats to indicate by a show of hands if they “believe English should be the official language of the United States”—receiving an affirmation only from Gravel. Two days later, at the subsequent Republican debate (6/5/07), Blitzer treated support for an official language as a position that required no explanation:

Sunday night, I asked the eight Democratic presidential candidates. . . . Only one of them said English should be the official language of the United States. If there’s someone here who doesn’t believe English should be the official language of the United States, please speak up right now.

Questions on the related issue of illegal immigration were similarly skewed toward a conservative, even xenophobic perspective. NPR’s Steve Inskeep (12/4/07), after reminding Edwards of his recent comments “that illegal workers are exploited, that they’re paid less; if they try to report problems, they’re asked about their immigration status,” then challenged the candidate: “But you have also said that you do not believe that illegal immigration is driving down wages. If they’re being paid less, how can they not be driving down wages?” The obvious point—that employers, not workers, determine compensation and thus “drive down” wages—was overlooked in the rush to portray immigrants as a threat.

In the Republican debates, the media’s anti-immigrant assumptions were even harsher. Fox News’ Wallace (5/15/07) asked Romney to “explain” his previously stated view that illegal immigrants who “are here paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process toward application for citizenship” (Lowell Sun, 3/30/06). When Romney noted that “people should have no advantage by having come here illegally,” Wallace made it clear what he thought should happen: “But you’re not telling them to go home, sir.”

Tax cuts are good


Questions relating to taxes generally assumed opposition to tax increases and belief in the benefit of lowering taxes, taking it for granted that Bush’s tax cuts were good for Americans and the economy. In the Democratic debate of January 5, 2008, held at Manchester’s Saint Anselm College, ABC’s Gibson expressed concern that all of the candidates had supported “letting some of the Bush tax cuts lapse.” Attempting to explain his unease, Gibson noted, “we are approaching recession, [and] it is consumers who have spent us out of recession in most cases.”

The “trickle-down” premise here—that giving tax cuts to the wealthy generates spending—is generally rejected by economists, and Clinton noted that the candidates were not proposing getting rid of “middle-class tax cuts.” Yet Gibson offered an odd example to suggest that ostensibly middle-class Americans would be hurt: “If you take a family of . . . two professors here at Saint Anselm, they’re going to be in the $200,000 category that you’re talking about lifting the taxes on.” (Actually, the average salary for the highest-ranking professors at Saint Anselm for 2007-08, according to the American Association of University Professors, is $81,100.)

Three months later, Gibson (ABC, 4/16/08) similarly challenged Clinton, “If the economy is as weak a year from now as it is today, will you persist in your plans to roll back President Bush’s tax cuts for wealthier Americans?”

For the Republicans, support for the Bush tax cuts was assumed. MSNBC’s Matthews’ invitation in the first debate (5/3/07) for each candidate to “mention a tax he’d like to cut, in addition to the Bush tax cuts, keeping them in effect,” set a tone that continued throughout the season.

Any history of raising taxes, from this perspective, was highly problematic. Despite the fact that in January 2008, Huckabee won the Iowa caucus and came in second place in many polls and in the South Carolina primary—and, by the following month, was McCain’s only challenger—he was cast in debates that month as a marginal candidate largely because he had raised taxes as governor of Arkansas (ABC, 1/5/08; Fox News, 1/10/08).

It is instructive to compare the formulation and tone of these questions on immigration and taxes to those posed during the PBS debates. PBS’s Ray Suarez (9/27/07), for example, asked Paul about the 12 million “illegal immigrants living in the United States”: “Is it desirable, is it even practical, to try to send them all home? If the next Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, will you sign it, or will you support sending the 12 million home?”

During PBS’s Democratic forum (6/28/07), nationally syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, Jr., posed a question to all of the candidates: “This week, billionaire Warren Buffett said that the very wealthy aren’t taxed nearly enough. . . . Do you agree that the rich aren’t paying their fair share of taxes and, if so, what would you do about it?”

Iraq ‘reality’


On perhaps the most pressing and momentous issue this election year, the war in Iraq, the media’s conservative, pro-administration and generally pro-war stance influenced questioning of candidates in both parties. The first question in the first Democratic debate, asked by MSNBC’s Williams (4/26/07), set the tone:

Senator Clinton, your party’s leader in the United States Senate, Harry Reid, recently said the war in Iraq is lost. A letter to today’s USA Today calls his comments “treasonous” and says if General Patton were alive today, Patton would “wipe his boots” with Senator Reid. Do you agree with the position of your leader in the Senate?

Biden was asked the same question, while Obama was confronted with the tired (but apparently not dead) right-wing charge that opponents of the war are insensitive toward the troops: “You have called this war in Iraq, quote, ‘dumb,’ close quote. How do you square that position with those who have sacrificed so much?”

NBC’s Russert (2/26/08) asked first Clinton and then Obama whether if “the Americans get out in total and Al-Qaeda resurges and Iraq goes to hell,” they would reserve the right “to re-invade” Iraq “to stabilize it.” When Clinton protested, “You know, Tim, you ask a lot of hypotheticals,” Russert tellingly remarked, “But this is reality,” suggesting that war supporters’ projections of the future had crystallized into fact for him.

Indeed, in the media’s narrative, the war effort, particularly the troop “surge,” has been a success; given this presumption, opposition to the war is deemed irresponsible and destructive. In the January 5, 2008, debate, ABC’s Gibson challenged the Democratic candidates: “You all opposed [the ‘surge’]. But there are real signs it has worked.” After a videotaped presentation by ABC’s Terry McCarthy in Baghdad attributing accomplishments to the troop increase, Gibson demanded, “So I want to ask all of you, are any of you ready to say that the surge has worked?”

Clinton and Richardson both aptly commented that the escalation in troops had not delivered on its promises of allowing the Iraqi government to begin to solve their own problems; Gibson, though, would have none of it:

I’m not here to debate—but parliament meets, and the oil law is under consideration, de-Ba’athification has progressed to some extent, and were it not for the surge, instead of counting votes we’d be counting bodies in the streets. . . . Would you have seen this kind of greater security in Iraq if we had followed your recommendations to pull the troops out last year?

Perhaps Gibson’s assertion that he was not supposed to participate in the debate was meant to imply that his pro-war declaration was an anomaly, but clearly this was not the case. In ABC’s debate of April 16, 2008, Gibson once again challenged Clinton, “You [and Senator Obama] both were there when [General Petraeus] testified, saying that the gains in Iraq are fragile and are reversible. Are you essentially saying, ‘I know better than the military commanders here’?”

‘Marching orders from Al-Qaeda’


During the Republican debates, the media were even bolder in their pro-war, pro-“surge,” anti-withdrawal stance. In Fox News’ debate of May 15, 2007, for example, Wallace asked Romney, “Can you foresee any circumstances under which you would pull out of Iraq without leaving behind a stable political and security situation?” and challenged Tancredo as to whether his opposition to the troop increase and his discussion of “November as a time frame for beginning to pull some of our troops back from the frontlines” was “in effect giving our enemies a timetable for retreat.”

During the same debate, Goler repeated the administration’s discredited invocation of September 11 as a justification for war. When Paul advocated a “noninterventionist foreign policy,” Goler challenged, “Congressman, you don’t think that changed with the 9/11 attacks, sir?”

During Fox NewsSeptember 5, 2007 debate, Goler derided Romney: “You have suggested that U.S. troops in Iraq move to a support phase after the surge . . . and a standby phase after that in Kuwait and Qatar. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems even Hillary Clinton is willing to commit troops to Iraq longer than that, sir.”

Besides delivering what is certainly in Fox News’ terms the ultimate insult to Romney by comparing him to Clinton, Goler endorsed not only the war but also a continued strong military presence. When Paul argued that he wanted troops to “leave completely” and that continued intervention was not wanted by those “in the region” and made us “less safe,” Wallace mocked him: “Congressman Paul . . . you’re basically saying that we should take our marching orders from Al-Qaeda?”

Notably absent from most of these debates—either Republican or Democratic —were questions posed from a progressive point of view. Had the media offered inquiries that assumed left-leaning points of view were viable, candidates might have articulated progressive positions without fear of being marginalized, and conservatives would have faced the same “devil’s advocate” challenges that progressives routinely faced.

Questioning the media


Notably, certain candidates from both parties were able within the debates to briefly but cogently criticize the media’s performance. After NBC’s Russert (10/30/07) asked the Democratic candidates if they would “pledge to the American people that Iran will not develop a nuclear bomb while you are president,” Kucinich pointed out:

With all due respect to our friends from the media here, the media itself has to be careful how you frame these questions. . . . The media did play a role in taking us into war in Iraq, and I’m urging . . . restraint upon you and our president, whose rhetoric is out of control.

Christopher Dodd similarly commented on the media’s choice of questions. After Russert (NBC, 9/26/07) asked Dodd to explain a previous comment that he could “understand why [Bush] would want Senator Clinton to be the nominee,” Dodd took him to task for the question, wondering “whether or not you’re actually trying to in a sense encourage a certain outcome here.”

After being challenged as to whether he disavowed the “9/11 Truthers” (Fox News, 1/10/08), Ron Paul protested, “I don’t endorse what they say and I don’t believe that, so, please,

could I participate in the current debate rather than picking this out.”

The media may not have demonstrated much respect for Kucinich, Dodd and Paul, their presumed “bottom tier” candidates, but they would do well in the future to take to heart their critiques.

Jacqueline Bacon’s most recent book is Freedom’s Journal: The First African-American Newspaper (Lexington Books, 2007). She writes frequently for Extra! and other periodicals on issues related to race, history, rhetoric and the media. Her website is