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Rating The Debates: America Weighs In

Megan Tady

Remember the Democratic presidential primary debate in April, when ABC's Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos delivered a stunningly lowbrow and ludicrous set of questions to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton? In a particularly dark moment for TV journalism - where junk news, celebrity gossip and "I can talk louder than you" punditry have replaced investigative reporting and hard-hitting news - this debate was a national embarrassment.  

As last night's presidential debate approached, the media were still obsessed with "lipstick on a pig" and deciding if Sarah Palin's husband should be called "First Dude." We simply can't hope for better journalism. It's time we held the accountable -- starting with the debate moderators.  

Which is exactly what 4,600 Americans did after last night's debate at While anchors and pundits were scrambling to spin the candidates' performances, Free Press and media analyst Andrew Tyndall helped Americans grade the media's performance. 

So how did American's rate the first presidential debates? The results are in:  

It appears that supporters of Sen. Barack Obama were more dissatisfied than supporters of Sen. John McCain with the narrow scope of the foreign policy questions chosen by Lehrer.

Rate the Debates

  Obama supporters in the panel tended to criticize the absence of questions on Africa (80% vs. 58% of McCain's) and China (74% vs.64%); and on the foreign policy issues of global warming (89% vs. 42%); human rights abuses (85% vs. 57%); AIDS and other diseases (86% vs. 55%); and globalized trade (76% vs. 56%).     The supporters of both candidates gave high marks to Lehrer's selection of questions about four major regions: At least 70% of each group scored him as "just right" for the time he devoted to Afghanistan and Pakistan; to Iran; to Russia and NATO; and to Iraq. 

Lehrer's decision to depart from the designated foreign policy topic of the debate and include questions about the financial crisis drew little criticism. More than half of each group of supporters rated the time he spent on high finance (50% of Obama's supporters vs. 50% of McCain's), federal spending (52% vs. 56%) and taxation (58% vs. 56%) as "just right." Many Obama supporters complained that Lehrer's economic questions did not also cover poverty (86% vs. 38%), Social Security (83% vs. 63%) and unemployment (77% vs. 46%) as well. 

There was little difference between the two groups of partisans in their assessment of Lehrer's performance. Fewer than 10% of the overall panel said he did a "poor job" (36% excellent, 54% adequate). The rest of the results can be found here. also asked volunteers to weigh in on the media's overall election coverage. McCain and Obama supporters alike tended to be more critical of the quality of election coverage by traditional broadcast news sources. Nearly 7 out of 10 McCain supporters (69%) rated election coverage by national network news as "poor" (versus 52% of Obama supporters). Nearly 7 out of 10 Obama supporters (68%) counted as "poor" local television news (versus 58% of McCain supporters).  

They were split on their assessment of commercial radio. Of McCain's supporters, 58% rated commercial radio coverage as either "adequate" or "excellent." Obama supporters overwhelmingly ranked commercial radio coverage as "poor" (78%).   

Interestingly, the two groups of supporters tended to watch the debate on different outlets. MSNBC (27%) and PBS (26%) were the favorite outlets for Obama partisans. Fox News Channel was the favorite for fully 43% of the McCain voters in the panel.  

Three more debates remain, giving you three more chances to rate them. Are the moderators covering the issues that matter to you, or are they focused on candidate gossip and campaign gotchas? Did they hold the candidates responsible, asking tough questions, or did they lob softballs? You be the judge.


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Megan Tady is a campaign coordinator and writer for Free Press, the national, nonprofit media reform organization, and a former National Political Reporter for

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