Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

A protester is seen during a climate change demonstration holding a placard that says, 'There Is No Planet B.'

A protester is seen during a climate change demonstration holding a placard that says, 'There Is No Planet B.' (Photo by Ronen Tivony/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

CNN Town Hall Went Deep on Climate Crisis—But Was Anyone Listening?

The moments in which CNN hosts tried to be "tough" on candidates were largely based on Republican talking points, like how much their plans would cost (ignoring how much inaction would cost), and whether Americans would be "forced" to drive electric cars or give up meat

Given the Democratic National Committee's refusal to allow its party's presidential hopefuls to take part in a televised climate debate, CNN (and, later this month, MSNBC) agreed to host "town halls" on the climate crisis—events with one candidate at a time on stage, fielding questions from network hosts as well as network-selected audience members.

CNN's climate crisis town hall (9/4/19) showed that, when it's not setting up mock combat among candidates, the network can actually provide thoughtful and substantive discussion about critical policy issues. Over the seven hours, the ten candidates were spared the ridiculously short time limits enforced in televised debates that require superficial answers. Environmental activists and other interested and well-informed citizens were given the opportunity to ask probing questions about specific plans, and to force candidates to answer for their past (and present) climate-related stances.

But it's not enough. Viewership for a town hall will never approach that for a party-sponsored debate—which is in part ensured by the lack of media hype and coverage. CNN averaged 1.1 million viewers across the seven hours of the town hall (TheHill.com, 9/5/19), compared to an average of nearly 10 million across the two nights of its debates (Hollywood Reporter, 8/1/19). Neither the Washington Post nor USA Today published write-ups of the event in their print editions the next day; the New York Times' write-up (9/5/19) played up the drama, focusing on one policy issue that it deemed "controversial"—the idea of a carbon tax (the "T-Word," as the headline put it).

Given that lack of coverage combined with low viewership, what impact will the town halls make? The media hosts of the upcoming debates ought to view them as a foundation for asking more climate questions in the debates, question that—now that candidates have established their positions in much more detail—can probe deeper. The danger, however, is that instead they'll take the town halls as a free pass to ask fewer climate-related questions, claiming the issue has already been covered.

And while we can hope for debate questions as informed as the ones CNN audience members asked at the town hall, many of the questions lobbed by CNN hosts themselves—like those from the first two debates—give us little reason to expect it.

The moments in which CNN hosts tried to be "tough" on candidates were largely based on Republican talking points, like how much their plans would cost (ignoring how much inaction would cost), and whether Americans would be "forced" to drive electric cars or give up meat.

Anderson Cooper, for example, followed up on an audience question about how Bernie Sanders would fund his climate plan by pressing Sanders, "Would you guarantee to the American public tonight that the responsibility for $16.3 trillion, which is a massive amount of money, wouldn't end up on taxpayers' shoulders?" Meanwhile, CNN's Chris Cuomo asked Elizabeth Warren: "Do you think that the government should be in the business of telling you what kind of lightbulb you can have?"

These echoed the framework both CNN and NBC used for their debate questions, which—across issues—leaned on right-wing assumptions and talking points (FAIR.org, 7/30/198/2/19).

Audience questions, on the other hand, were informed and useful, bringing some refreshing assumptions about things like the need for "massive industrial mobilization" to solve the climate crisis and frequent references to race- and class-based impacts of climate disruption. It's remarkable—and commendable—that they were given a platform by CNN. But we need more of that in the more widely viewed debates.


© 2021 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
Julia Hollar

Julie Hollar

Julie Hollar is FAIR’s senior analyst and managing editor. Julie has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Buddhist Monk and Peace Activist Thích Nhất Hạnh Dead at 95

"He inspired so many good people to dedicate themselves to working for a more just and compassionate world."

Jessica Corbett ·


Draft Order Shows Trump Considered Using Military to Seize Voting Machines

"This was part of the records that Trump was fighting to keep from the January 6th committee," one government watchdog noted.

Brett Wilkins ·


Groups Warn US Lawmakers Against Fueling 'New Cold War' With China

A policy of hostility toward Beijing, says a global justice advocate, has "become a convenient excuse for pushing a corporate, militarist agenda."

Jessica Corbett ·


Democracy 'On the Line' Says Bowman After Protest Arrest

"I will not stand by and I will not stay quiet while the fate of our democracy continues to hang loosely by a thread that the Senate is hellbent on tearing apart."

Julia Conley ·


To 'Hold Her Accountable for What She Did,' Primary Sinema Project Gets Into Gear

"Kyrsten Sinema is unfit to be a United States senator," the project asserts. "Just like the filibuster itself, we need to get rid of her if we want to save our democracy before it's too late."

Brett Wilkins ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo