Presidential Debates Reflect All That Is Wrong With Dominant Media

This week on CNN there will be wall-to-wall coverage of the two Democratic Party primary debates. If this new round is anything like the first round of debates on MSNBC, we can expect the questions asked of these candidates to be loaded with bias and dubious presumptions.

For instance, when Lester Holt asked about health care, he didn’t ask about why we spend the most in the world, or about the role that private insurance plays in that. On both nights he asked about support for a “government-run” program — a term that is both inaccurate and pushed into the national discourse by the for-profit heath industry. The questions revolved around whether people in the U.S. can keep their “private insurance,” rather than on how to fix a broken system that will cost about $36 trillion over the next 10 years and that leaves 30 million people uninsured.

Many of the other questions in the last round of debates started with the presumption that being progressive will hurt candidates in the general election. Others lacked true substance and instead seemed designed in an effort to create replayable “moments.” CNN will reportedly be charging $300,000 for a 30-second ad during the debates. Meanwhile, the debates have already included ridiculous “pre-game” coverage akin to a sporting event, including a clock counting down the hours until the spectacle begins. The goal of the candidates, noted MSNBC’s John Heilemann on “Saturday Night Politics,” will be to create memorable moments that will be shown by cable news endlessly for the next few news cycles.

A quick look at debates throughout American history shows that moderators for these productions have long asked questions like this, even dating back to the first presidential debate in U.S. history.

The first general election presidential debate took place in 1960 when then-Vice President Richard Nixon touted experience as a key virtue against his opponent John F. Kennedy. One of the moderators from that evening, Sander Vanocur of NBC News, asked Nixon about a memorable quote from President Eisenhower from a month prior.

“In his news conference on [August 24, 1960], President Eisenhower was asked to give one example of a major idea of yours that he adopted,” said Vanocur. “His reply was, and I’m quoting, ‘If you give me a week [sic] I might think of one. I don’t remember.’”

The line quickly became a talking point in Kennedy advertisements. The exchange was ranked one of seven in a BuzzFeed News list of the most “defining moments from presidential history” as recently as 2012.

It is a memorable moment, of course. It was also, however, a pretty lackluster question, given the stakes of the Cold War, civil rights struggles and the U.S.’s growing role in Vietnam. Whatever his motivation, the moderator chose to ask a question about a quip that had dominated the news cycle for some time — and not about policy or politics. Instead, Vanocur gave what might be the first televised “gotcha question” in the history of presidential debates.

In fact, to this day, Vanocur and other broadcast journalists of the era are hailed as pioneers in the field who were dedicated to objectivity. Amusingly, according to C-SPAN footage, when Vanocur was asked to moderate a debate in the 1990s, he claimed he did not like “explosiveness” in politics and prefers “when [it is] dull.” It is not the job of a journalist to “make fireworks,” he said, boasting about his formative years when “civility was the order of the day.”

However, Vanocur’s question exemplifies how the presidential debates since the beginning have been defined by a shallowness that has well-served the financial interests of corporate media and their wealthy patrons.

“Critics of the media today often imagine a past golden age,” said Noam Chomsky in an interview with Truthout. “It wasn’t there.”

Howard Dean’s Scream and Other Needless Questions

Contemporary examples of lackluster questions during presidential debates are not hard to find.

Consider the way ABC’s Peter Jennings asked John Kerry about his tax plans in 2004: “In your career, you voted to raise billions of dollars in taxes. You’ve advocated spending billions more in this particular campaign…. What will you say exactly, precisely, if at that time President Bush says, ‘Senator Kerry is going to raise your taxes and I am not?’”

He asked the same question of Howard Dean minutes later but added a unique caveat. Dean could choose to ignore that question and talk about his now infamous “Dean Scream,” which has nothing at all to do with substance or issues.

“I do also, in fairness, want to give you a choice here, if you’d like to use some of the time to talk [about]what some people think was your overly enthusiastic speech to your supporters the other night,” Jennings offered Dean.

The two options were defending taxation or discussing a perceived blunder that has nothing to do with governing.

In the same debate, political reporter John DiStaso from the New Hampshire Union Leader was also a moderator. He was accused of conservative bias from Columbia Journalism Review, which said he wrote a story under the headline, “Presidential Adviser Defends Decision to Liberate Iraq,” after talking with Karl Rove following the debate in New Hampshire.

DiStaso asked about these issues at the debate and did so with the doctrinal assumption that U.S. foreign policy is benevolent and aimed at stopping oppression:

“Reverend Sharpton, your Iraq policy calls for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. And as a human rights advocate, is there anywhere in the world today where you would send troops, or use military force, to combat government-sponsored killing, genocide or oppression?”

He asked veteran-turned anti-Vietnam War activist John Kerry, “If you were in the Oval Office, how would you feel and how would you view a returning war veteran who tossed his medals away?”

Things did not get much better in 2008. Wolf Blitzer was especially aggressive in pushing Democrats on the merits of U.S. intervention in the 2008 presidential campaign, when he was the moderator for a Democratic primary debate in Chicago.

He baited nearly all of the candidates on stage to explain at which point they would justify a military strike on Iran. Consider his questions to then-Senator John Edwards.

* “Senator Edwards, how far would you go, if necessary, to stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb?”

* “But you’re saying only economic sanctions, not a military threat that should be on the table. Is that what you’re saying?”

* “But you’re saying only economic sanctions, not a military threat that should be on the table. Is that what you’re saying?”

The thirst for vows of hawkishness is rather disturbing, especially given that it occurred during U.S. aggression in Iraq. This trend was repeated with other candidates in that debate and similarly framed questions have often dominated questions about U.S. regime change and wars of aggression in the media, and especially in post 9/11 presidential debates.

Moderators Frame Questions in the Language of Industry PR

Jeff Cohen, former MSNBC talk show host and founder of media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), tells Truthout that presidential debate moderators have long been “asking questions that make doctrinal elite assumptions or parrot industry talking points for the donor class.”

The typical questions, Cohen said, are along the lines of “Are you Democrats too ‘left’ to win?” in every election cycle he can remember.

Examples of this are not hard to find. At the first debates on MSNBC, Lester Holt repeatedly described Medicare for All as a “government-run” health care system, a term literally put into public discourse by industry power brokers and GOP allies, according to a recent report by the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative. The report found 13,300 news results with the phrase “government-run health care” but just three with “corporate-run health care,” a ratio of 4,433 to 1.

“It makes complete sense for the insurance industry and its partisan allies to employ this linguistic sleight of hand, but media and polling organizations have fallen into their trap,” concluded the report.

This kind of bias is especially evident in the presidential debates, since they will reach a massive audience and guide how many people vote. Without fair and substantive moderation and coverage, this puts voters in a tough spot.

Right-Wing Commentators Are Regularly Given a Platform

During the 2016 Republican primary, CNN included Hugh Hewitt, a well-known conservative writer who made his personal politics known in his questions and asked them from the perspective of a conservative voter. No left-wing commentators have been given a similar platform.

“Hewitt’s presence wasn’t a one-time thing, either. He asked questions alongside CNN journalists for each of the four GOP debates CNN hosted,” writes Julie Hollar, senior analyst for FAIR. “But — funny thing — when CNN hosted Democratic primary debates, it didn’t partner with any left-wing media.”

FAIR asked readers to “call on CNN to play fair and include a progressive journalist in its Democratic debates,” citing Democracy Now!, The Intercept and The Nation as representative examples of credible left-leaning outlets. The Roots Action Education Fund, a progressive online organizing group, also received more than 9,000 signatures for a similar appeal at the time of writing.

“The debate is meaningless without a progressive journalist, who would represent at least half of the U.S. population,” said one signatory of the Roots Action petition.

Can We Have Meaningful Debates?

In Rolling Stone, journalist Matt Taibbi recently lamented the media’s constant use of sports metaphors and “random lottery drawings” on CNN as a new low.

“TV has been working to turn politics into an upbeat, bankable product like sports, game shows, or reality programming for a while now,” Taibbi wrote. “It’s why the sets for cable TV election-night coverage are indistinguishable from Sunday NFL Countdown, and debate coverage is always littered with boxing metaphors.”

But there’s no reason to surrender the debates to the right or corporate media and the two major parties. The election reform group FairVote (along with the Green and Libertarian parties) have petitioned for more inclusive debates that allow more parties with ongoing litigation. The cases quote pollster Doug Schoen, who has found that for third-party candidates to meet the threshold of support to be included in debates, they would have to spend $113 million.

This was possible for a billionaire like Ross Perot, but no other third parties have cracked the nationally televised debates between the major candidates. To date these and other reforms have been resisted by the two major parties, the networks and much of the dominant media.

The public wants these changes as well. About 75 percent of voters polled said the debate system “sabotages the electoral process.” The Annenberg Public Policy Center has also suggested debates have a broader array of moderators, rather than just broadcasters, and has called for viewers to have more control over the camera angle they watch the debates from. The center has also suggested eliminating all of the time wasted during applause by getting rid of studio audiences and has proposed “less intrusion from the moderator” and more transparency on any agreements on the rules between parties, campaigns and networks.

CNN’s debate will draw a huge television audience this week. The problem, however, is that viewers may very well come away understanding less about the issues than they did going in.