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Disservice Journalism at the Democratic Presidential Debates

by Matthew Yglesias

It was LaShannon Spencer's lucky night. She'd been picked, you see, to ask a question at yesterday's Democratic presidential debate. And she had a good one. "We constantly hear healthcare questions and questions pertaining to the war," she observed, "but we don't hear questions pertaining to the supreme court justices or education." Consequently, she wanted to use her question-asking opportunity to learn about the candidates' approach to the judiciary: "If you are elected president, what qualities must the appointee possess?"

Spencer was right. I can't recall having heard anything about judges from the major contenders. And presidents have, historically, taken a variety of different approaches to judicial appointments. So it'd be interesting to hear what the candidates think about this.

Not interesting, though, to CNN's Suzanne Malveaux, who decided that she would direct the question to Chris Dodd with a proviso "in answering that question, also tell us whether or not you would require your nominees to support abortion rights."

That's not an interesting question. Nobody who follows politics closely enough to be sitting at home watching a primary debate on television could possibly experience uncertainty as to whether or not the leading Democrats would appoint pro-choice supreme court justices. Nevertheless, it's considered impolitic to have a publicly stated litmus test for your judicial nominees. But any Democrat who, when directly asked, refused to commit to appointing pro-choice justices would be in hot water with feminist and reproductive-rights groups. Hence, while Spencer's question prompted some interesting responses - Chris Dodd said he wants people with a record in the judiciary, Joe Biden called for a return to the days of nominating people with experience in elective office, and Barack Obama riffed on the judicial branch's unique responsibility to secure the interests of those who lack "clout" in the political process - Malveaux's prompted nothing but tedious verbal footwork.

And the crazy thing about it is that she almost certainly asked it in order to prompt nothing but tedious tip-toeing. Earlier, before the real people were allowed to ask their questions, moderator Wolf Blitzer decided to take up the candidates' time asking them about driving licences for illegal immigrants, even though this isn't a very important issue, isn't really a question the president has the constitutional authority to deal with, and was discussed in the previous debate and ad nauseum in the period between the debates.

In response, almost every Democrat tried to explain to Blitzer that to understand their position on this issue you had to understand their position on the larger question of immigration policy. Blitzer clearly regarded these efforts as a shameful dodge. Explaining that he wanted "to make sure the viewers and those of us who are here fully understand all of your positions on this" he then demanded a reductive answer to the question: "barring, avoiding, assuring there isn't going to be comprehensive immigration reform, do you support or oppose driver's licences for illegal immigrants?" This, however, is the reverse of helping viewers fully understand the candidates' positions on the topic. By refusing to let them discuss their complete take on the immigration issue, Blitzer was ensuring that the audience would walk away with a partial and distorted view of where the contenders stand.

And he was doing it, of course, by design. As with the abortion question, the narrow framing of the immigration issue around driving licences forced the Democrats to choose between saying something that will piss off Latino groups (no licences) and something that polls badly with voters (licences for illegals). That the Democrats might have an answer that makes both groups happy - comprehensive reform - isn't something the media is interested in, even if the voters might be.

The pattern is consistent. Spencer wasn't quite right, for example, to say that the candidates never get asked about education policy. Earlier in the evening, for example, Blitzer asked a preposterously loaded question: "What is wrong with rewarding a teacher who excels at the job that they're doing by paying them more than an average teacher would make?" This has little to do with the federal government's role in education policy and reflects a pretty question-begging approach to the issue, since it simply assumes the existence of a solid metric of teacher performance. It does, however, set up a squeeze play between teacher's unions and what the press thinks the general public wants to hear, and that's good enough for Blitzer.

CNN's moderators, in short, following the example set by Tim Russert in the last debate, just decided that they weren't really interested in producing a debate that would inform the public about where the candidates stand on important issues. Instead, they locked horns in a sophomoric battle of wits in which they tried - and overwhelmingly failed - to trip someone up with a question that put them in an awkward position, even if it meant focusing their questions on trivia or even scolding candidates for trying to put their answers in context. Ordinary people, by contrast, wanted to get information about under-discussed issues. Aside from the supreme court question, one man did want to hear the candidates' general thoughts on immigration, a woman asked about Iran policy and another asked about the disparity in compensation between soldiers and mercenaries. The only really dumb question from the audience was about whether Hillary Clinton preferred pearls or diamonds, and the questioner says CNN forced her to ask it instead of a question about issues.

The professionals, by contrast, asked almost nothing but dumb questions that often - I think of Blitzer asking whether human rights is more important than national security - seem to deliberately have been framed poorly, specifically because doing so is more likely to produce an awkward moment. This, it seems, is what helps television personalities climb the greasy pole of vapid press cynicism, but it's a gross abdication of the press's responsibility to try to help people understand the world.

Matthew Yglesias is staff writer at the American Prospect.

© 2007 The Guardian

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