Citizens Want Debate Moderators to Challenge Candidate Spin

For Immediate Release

Free Press
Contact: 

Jen Howard, Free Press, (202) 265-1490 x22 or (703) 517-6273

Citizens Want Debate Moderators to Challenge Candidate Spin

NEW YORK - John McCain's supporters seemed happy with the ground rules of the
second presidential debate in Nashville. Barack Obama's supporters
seemed happy with the results.

Those are the findings of the third Citizens Media Scorecard of the
2008 campaign season. An online panel of more than 2,800 volunteers was
recruited by Free Press to rate the conduct of moderator Tom Brokaw
during Tuesday night's "town hall" debate.

Brokaw selected some questions from audience members and from more
than 6 million e-mail and Internet submissions, but a large portion of
the questions were his own. "Brokaw's balance of issues received high
marks from partisans of both candidates," said Andrew Tyndall of the Tyndall Report, who designed the survey. "And their complaints about bias were in perfect balance, too."

The panel thought that Brokaw's decision not to fact-check the
candidates or challenge their spin was a problem: 83% of Obama
supporters and 75% of McCain supporters wanted to see more challenging
follow-up questions from the moderator.

"Like other moderators before him, Brokaw allowed the senators to
avoid answering questions and meander to their own comfort zones," said
one volunteer rater.

"[Brokaw] kept saying their answers were too long but didn't focus enough on what they were saying," commented another.

Republican McCain has long insisted that he prefers the town hall
format for political debates. And, according to the panel, his
supporters share his preference. Almost half the McCain partisans (48%
vs. 24% for Barack Obama supporters) judged the town hall format in
Nashville to be superior to the moderated format 11 days ago in Oxford,
Miss.

By contrast, almost twice as many Obama supporters in the panel
preferred Jim Lehrer of PBS, the Mississippi moderator, over Brokaw
(43% vs. 21%) in a head-to-head comparison. After the Mississippi
debate, 42% of Obama supporters rated Lehrer's performance as
"excellent"; after the Nashville town hall, Brokaw received a lower 28%
"excellent" rating from Obama's fans.

Despite the format, Obama's supporters were more likely to say their
candidate won in Nashville (92% vs. 76% in Mississippi), whereas
McCain's supporters saw no improvement (84% said he won both). McCain's
supporters distinguished between their candidate's performance in the
foreign policy sequence of the town hall compared with economic and
social policy: 92% said McCain won in foreign policy, only 80% and 70%
in the latter issues.

There were signs that this second debate delivered diminishing
returns as a voter education exercise. Almost half the volunteers in
the panel stated that it taught them nothing new (45% of Obama
supporters, 55% of McCain's) about their opponent's views, a steep rise
from the 29% and 37%, respectively, who said the debate in Mississippi
was "not at all" helpful in learning the candidates' stances on the
issues.

Brokaw received high praise for his choice of issues. More than half
of each group of supporters (64% of Obama supporters, 50% of McCain's)
found the questions "extremely" serious and relevant. Brokaw received a
"just right" rating from more than half of the members of both groups
for his focus on four economic issues -- housing, taxes, the financial
crisis and federal spending (62%, 62%, 59% and 59%) -- as well as
energy and health care (70% and 74%). He also drew praise as "just
right" for his focus on war and peace, terrorism and human rights and
genocide (66%, 70% and 65%).

Criticism of Brokaw mostly concerned what he omitted. A majority of
both groups complained about Brokaw's lack of questioning on crime and
abortion (71% and 70%). Almost all McCain supporters (92%) wanted
questions on immigration; almost all Obama supporters (85%) wanted
questions on poverty.

There were few complaints about Brokaw's bias toward one candidate
or the other. Most of the members of each group of supporters found no
favoritism (74% of Obama's, 70% of McCain's); a minority saw evidence
of bias, almost always against their preferred candidate (25% and 26%).

Although Free Press extended outreach to all parts of the political
spectrum, Obama supporters considerably outnumbered McCain's in survey
respondents, as they have in our two previous panels. To avoid drowning
out the Republican perspective, Tyndall contrasted the ratings of the
two groups rather than combining them. Consisting of volunteers rather
than a random sample, these results cannot be projected to the
population at large.

The two groups of supporters tended to watch the debate on different
outlets. MSNBC (28%) and PBS (22%) were the favorite outlets for Obama
partisans. Fox News Channel was the favorite for fully half (50%) of
the McCain supporters. These viewing patterns have held firm for all
three debates to date.

Andrew Tyndall and Free Press experts are available to comment on
these results. To schedule an appearance, contact Jen Howard at (202)
265-1490 x22 or press@freepress.net.

For more information, visit RatetheDebates.org.

 

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Free Press is a national, nonpartisan organization working to reform the media. Through education, organizing and advocacy, we promote diverse and independent media ownership, strong public media, and universal access to communications. Learn more at www.freepress.net

The Tyndall Report has monitored the weekday nightly newscasts of three broadcast networks since 1987. This is Andrew Tyndall's sixth cycle keeping tabs on TV news coverage of the presidential election campaigns. Go to tyndallreport.com to follow each day's story rundown and search its database of almost 9,000 network news videostreams, including more than 1,100 stories, appearing on the network news on Campaign 2008.

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