The Moderators' Agendas: An Analysis of What Was--and Wasn't--Asked at Debate

For Immediate Release

The Moderators' Agendas: An Analysis of What Was--and Wasn't--Asked at Debate

NEW YORK - The establishment media figures who moderated the 2012 major-party candidate debates confined the discussion to a remarkably narrow range of topics, a FAIR analysis of debate questions finds.

A wide variety of topics were never brought up in questions during the six total hours of debate. Among economic subjects, no questions were asked about poverty, income inequality, the housing crisis, labor unions, agriculture or the Federal Reserve.

Social issues were similarly truncated, with no questions raised about race or racism, gay rights (including marriage equality), civil liberties, criminal justice or drug legalization. Despite the fact that four Supreme Court justices are now over 70, candidates were never asked about what kind of nominations they would make to the high court or other judicial positions.

Notably, there was no mention of climate change, arguably the greatest single threat facing humanity--the first time that the issue did not come up in a presidential debate cycle since 1984 (Treehugger, 10/22/12). Nor, indeed, were any environmental topics raised, unless you count the question about gas prices asked by a voter in the town hall debate.

And international questions focused on a very narrow slice of the world, with none raising issues in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa or Europe, including Russia.

Counting questions

What questions were asked? FAIR looked at the topics raised in questions by moderators in the three presidential debates and the one vice-presidential debate, including the questions posed by undecided voters that were selected by moderator Candy Crowley for the October 16 "town hall" debate. (If a topic was raised in more than one question during a single debate segment, that was counted as a single mention of the topic.)

FAIR counted 28 topics that were mentioned a total of 53 times throughout 35 debate segments. Twenty-two of the mentions were categorized as economic issues, 20 touched on international policy and 10 dealt with social policies. An additional eight mentions were categorized as "other"--dealing with things like character, campaign tactics or the legacy of George W. Bush. (Some topics--such as trade--were counted in more than one category.)

Though the No. 1 issue among voters is overwhelmingly jobs, and this was a frequent subject of debate questions, the moderators raised economic topics framed around the federal budget more than twice as often, with 11 mentions versus five. The topic of the deficit was raised three times, taxes came up four times, and Social Security and Medicare were each brought up twice in the context of federal spending. There was also one mention of trade.

International policy questions focused heavily on the Middle East and conflicts in majority-Muslim countries. Libya and Afghanistan were brought up three times during the debates, while Iran and Syria were raised twice each, and Israel, Pakistan and Egypt were each discussed in a single segment. Aside from one discussion of China, the candidates were questioned about no other region of the world.

Not all international policy questions focused on a particular part of the world; six other debate segments involved questions dealing with the military, security or general international policy. One of these questions was about the drone wars, but moderator Bob Schieffer (10/22/12) pointedly declined to ask it of the person in charge of such wars: "Let me ask you, governor, because we know President Obama's position on this, what is your position on the use of drones?"

In the relatively few questions that dealt with social policy, healthcare came up three times--including two segments that asked about Medicare's contribution to the deficit. Gender issues were raised twice (pay equity and abortion), while immigration, education and gun control were each brought up once.

Important--or not

While no time was found for a wide range of critical political topics, moderators did find time to ask seemingly pointless questions, as when Jim Lehrer (10/3/12) asked of the presidential hopefuls, "Does the federal government have a responsibility to improve the quality of public education in America?" (Was he expecting one of them to maybe say no?) Or Martha Raddatz's query to the vice presidential candidates (10/11/12): "If you are elected, what could you both give to this country as a man, as a human being, that no one else could?"

The questions chosen by moderators at the debates presumably reflect the issues establishment media leaders see as important--and unimportant. In particular, the moderators seemed to place a much higher priority on federal budget issues than voters do when they are asked to name the most important issue facing the country.

The questions may also reflect partisan pressures: Based on the moderators' queries, the most important international policy issue facing the nation is the killing of the U.S. ambassador in Libya--an emphasis that would be hard to explain without considering the Romney campaign's decision to make it one of their central criticisms of Obama's foreign policy.

Such partisan and establishment influences should come as no surprise, given that the Commission on Presidential Debates is essentially controlled by the two major parties, with the campaigns allowed to vet the moderators (FAIR Media Advisory, 10/3/12)--a setup that will never result in tough questions across a true diversity of important issues.

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FAIR, the national media watch group, has been offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship since 1986. We work to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating for greater diversity in the press and by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints.

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