As America's pundits and newspapers rushed to pronounce the winners and losers of Tuesday night's 2020 Democratic presidential debate, progressives argued the event's moderators deserve to be placed in the latter category for framing healthcare questions around insurance industry talking points, hand-wringing about "demonizing" rich people, and failing to ask a single question about the greatest existential threat facing humanity.
While they completely ignored the climate crisis, the event's moderators—Erin Burnett and Anderson Cooper of CNN and Marc Lacey of the New York Times—managed to find time at the very end of the debate to ask a question that infuriated environmentalists who were waiting all night for the planetary emergency to take center stage.
"The mainstream media's continuing bizarre fetish for bipartisanship is the new climate denial. What an absolute joke."
—Brian Kahn, Earther
"Last week, Ellen DeGeneres was criticized after she and former President George W. Bush were seen laughing together at a football game. Ellen defended their friendship, saying, we're all different and I think that we've forgotten that that's OK that we're all different," said Burnett. "So in that spirit, we'd like you to tell us about a friendship that you've had that would surprise us and what impact it's had on you and your beliefs."
The question set off a flood of outrage.
"THEY ASKED A QUESTION ABOUT ELLEN AND GEORGE BUSH BUT NOT CLIMATE CHANGE. I AM LOSING MY GODDAMN MIND," Earther managing editor Brian Kahn tweeted. "CNN thought it was more important to use Ellen hanging out with a war criminal as a jumping off point to ask about bipartisan friendships than ask about the largest existential threat facing humanity."
"The mainstream media's continuing bizarre fetish for bipartisanship is the new climate denial," Kahn added. "What an absolute joke."
Climate researcher Leah Stokes called the lack of climate questions "complete irresponsibility."
"Do you not understand that our house is on fire, New York Times and CNN? Do you not understand the stakes?" Stokes wrote. "Shame on you."
Here's how the latest 3-hour #DemDebate ended...— NowThis (@nowthisnews) October 16, 2019
Ellen's friendship with George Bush: 22 minutes
Climate crisis: 0 minutes
LGBTQ+ rights: 0 minutes
Immigration: 0 minutes
Racial justice: 0 minutes pic.twitter.com/Gll1yFdias
The Ellen question capped off an event progressives said was dominated by corporate-friendly framing of major issues, healthcare being the most glaring example.
In one of the first questions of the night, Lacey of the Times asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) whether she would "raise taxes on the middle class to pay for" Medicare for All.
Critics were quick to point out that a similar version of that same question has been asked in every previous debate, and on each occasion moderators have failed to acknowledge that Medicare for All would also eliminate co-pays, premiums, and deductibles, resulting in lower overall costs for most Americans.
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Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) both stressed the latter point, but Lacey continued to focus exclusively on "middle class taxes," echoing insurance industry propaganda against Medicare for All.
"Well, as somebody who wrote the damn bill, as I said, let's be clear. Under the Medicare for all bill that I wrote, premiums are gone. Co-payments are gone. Deductibles are gone. All out-of-pocket expenses are gone," said Sanders. "At the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of people will save money on their healthcare bills."
In an email to supporters after the debate, People's Action executive director George Goehl wrote that the "corporate media once again used insurance company talking points to attack Medicare For All, repeatedly asking candidates 'How are you going to pay for it?'—but never once mentioning that Medicare for All will cut costs for everyday people."
"The truth is, costs will go up if we pass Medicare for All—for big corporations and the very, very rich," wrote Goehl. "Meanwhile, the rest of us will get a guaranteed right to healthcare, no matter how rich or poor we are. That’s why insurance companies and their lobbyists are fighting so hard—and spending so much—to frame the debate. If we pass Medicare for All, their days of profiteering off of other people’s misery are over."
Los Angeles Times columnist David Lazarus put it more bluntly on Twitter:
Dear dumbshit debate moderators: The way it works is taxes go up, while premiums, copays and deductibles go away, meaning most people save money— David Lazarus (@Davidlaz) October 16, 2019
The moderators' right-wing framing of Medicare for All pervaded other questions asked throughout Tuesday night's debate, which featured a historic 12 Democratic presidential candidates.
In a question on taxation directed at former Vice President Joe Biden, CNN host Erin Burnett said: "You have warned against demonizing rich people. Do you believe that Senator Sanders and Senator Warren's wealth tax plans do that?"
In her response, Warren flipped the question on its head.
"My question is not why do Bernie and I support a wealth tax," said Warren. "It's why is it does everyone else on this stage think it is more important to protect billionaires than it is to invest in an entire generation of Americans?"