The Debates Are Too Important To Be in the Hands of Corporate Media and the DNC

We need independently run debates that put substantive policy discussion first.

Julie Hollar

(Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

We shouldn’t be sur­prised that our pres­i­den­tial debates seem aimed less at inform­ing the pub­lic than at boost­ing net­work rat­ings and keep­ing the world safe from so-called rad­i­cal ideas, giv­en that the par­ties and major net­works dic­tate the terms — the for­mat, the ques­tions, the audi­ence, who’s in and who’s out. And all are drenched in cor­po­rate dol­lars. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, reliant on big-mon­ey donors, has lit­tle inter­est in bol­ster­ing the left-wing poli­cies of pro­gres­sive can­di­dates. And the net­works rely on adver­tis­ers; as Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) point­ed out in the sec­ond debate, the health­care indus­try ran adver­tise­ments dur­ing com­mer­cial breaks. The mil­lion­aire cable news hosts — as much as they might protest that they’re nobody’s pup­pet — know which ques­tions will please their cor­po­rate own­ers and spon­sors and which won’t.

We should also have single-issue debates on healthcare, gun control, women’s rights and more

Analy­ses I did for Fair­ness and Accu­ra­cy in Report­ing show that the pol­i­cy ques­tions both NBC and CNN asked, espe­cial­ly on health­care and the econ­o­my, leaned heav­i­ly on indus­try talk­ing points and assump­tions. For instance, NBC men­tioned free col­lege” in four ques­tions, but focused entire­ly on whether the pro­gram would cost too much or be actu­al­ly achiev­able” rather than, say, the prob­lem of stu­dent debt or socioe­co­nom­ic dis­par­i­ties in access to high­er education.

Oth­er mod­els are avail­able. The League of Women Vot­ers used to spon­sor gen­er­al elec­tion debates, and typ­i­cal­ly tapped more sober print jour­nal­ists, who lack the same pres­sure to gen­er­ate rat­ings, to lead the ques­tion­ing. But the Repub­li­can and Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties effec­tive­ly mus­cled out the League in 1988, form­ing the sup­pos­ed­ly non­par­ti­san (but actu­al­ly bipar­ti­san) Com­mis­sion on Pres­i­den­tial Debates, which demand­ed full con­trol over choos­ing ques­tion­ers, the audi­ence, press access and more. The League minced no words upon its withdrawal:

The demands of the two cam­paign orga­ni­za­tions [the DNC and RNC] would per­pe­trate a fraud on the Amer­i­can vot­er. … It has become clear to us that the can­di­dates’ orga­ni­za­tions aim to add debates to their list of cam­paign-trail cha­rades devoid of sub­stance, spon­tane­ity and answers to tough ques­tions. … The League has no inten­tion of becom­ing an acces­so­ry to the hood­wink­ing of the Amer­i­can public.

In the pri­maries, the par­ties and their media accom­plices try to win­now the field as quick­ly as pos­si­ble. This year, Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates are already being knocked out of the debates for low polling num­bers or fundrais­ing dol­lars — near­ly five months before the Iowa cau­cus­es. But ear­ly on, most can­di­dates are large­ly unknown and expect­ed to have low poll num­bers; the whole point of the ear­ly pri­ma­ry debates ought to be to help peo­ple get to know the can­di­dates and their ideas.

Which brings us to the next prob­lem. With 30-and 60-sec­ond time lim­its, what can we expect beyond glossy talk­ing points? Take the cli­mate cri­sis. In the first debate, Sen. Kamala Har­ris (Calif.) was asked to explain, in 60 sec­onds, her plan for cli­mate change. Gov. Jay Inslee (Wash.), the can­di­date with the most devel­oped plan thus far, has around 200 pages out­lin­ing his pro­pos­als. Though Inslee has since dropped out, Bernie Sanders released in August a 13,000-word cli­mate plan, and sev­er­al of Warren’s famous plans tack­le dif­fer­ent aspects of the cri­sis. Six­ty sec­onds is absurd and insulting.

Those in con­trol might argue that we can’t have it both ways, keep­ing an expan­sive field of can­di­dates and giv­ing them all ade­quate time to dis­cuss those com­pli­cat­ed issues. But there is an obvi­ous — and easy — solu­tion. Envi­ron­men­tal activists, led by the Sun­rise Move­ment, have been call­ing for a sin­gle-issue cli­mate debate, but the DNC under Tom Perez vot­ed down a pro­posed cli­mate debate in August. In 2015, the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment called for a BLM-themed debate, which the DNC like­wise rebuffed. We should also have sin­gle-issue debates on health­care, gun con­trol, women’s rights and more.

CNN recent­ly agreed to host a town hall on cli­mate, and NBC will be host­ing a mul­ti-day cli­mate forum, but it’s not enough. Town halls and forums don’t get the same audi­ence that debates get, though they will give Perez a way to claim the DNC is doing enough on cli­mate — even while we suf­fer debates like the one July 30, in which the CNN hosts asked more non-pol­i­cy ques­tions (e.g., are the can­di­dates mov­ing too far to the left”?) than cli­mate questions.

What it comes down to is this: We’ll nev­er get thought­ful, sub­stan­tive pol­i­cy dis­cus­sions while the debates are con­trolled by orga­ni­za­tions depen­dent on big mon­ey. We need to give the debates to the League of Women Vot­ers or to anoth­er inde­pen­dent orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cat­ed to democ­ra­cy rather than dollars.

Julie Hol­lar is the senior ana­lyst for Fair­ness and Accu­ra­cy in Reporting’s Elec­tion Focus 2020 project.
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