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PBS Decides What Debate Watchers Need Is More Talk From Pundits

Debates are one of the few opportunities most voters outside of the early voting states have to hear directly from the candidates without being filtered by journalist spin. Until now.

Candidates participate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University on December 19, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.

Candidates participate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University on December 19, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Debates are framed by the questions the journalists who moderate them ask, and, as FAIR has shown, those questions have built-in biases. Some issues are covered more than others, some policies are subject to harsher questioning, some ideological assumptions are more likely than others to inform the questions. But at the very least, debates are one of the few opportunities most voters outside of the early voting states have to hear directly from the candidates without being filtered by journalist spin. Until now.

In the sixth Democratic primary debate (12/19/19), hosted by PBS and PoliticoPBS doubled down on an unusual debate move: punditry during the breaks. It debuted the format in the last election cycle with a single punditry interlude in the middle of the debate it hosted with Facebook in February 2016. Now PBS—joined by Politico—is giving viewers not just a pre-debate and post-debate pundit roundtable, but three short commentary breaks at intervals during the debate .

The panel, chaired by the NewsHour's Lisa Desjardins, featured NewsHour reporter Stephanie Sy, NewsHour regular Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, and Politico's Ryan Lizza and Laura Barrón-López.

In the first commentary break, Desjardins marveled, "We hit the two big topics right off the top, the impeachment…and the economy…. But what difference did we hear?"

What viewers heard from the panel was Walter channeling Buttigieg in perhaps the most flattering light possible, characterizing his ideas as "really progressive," but, as opposed to a candidate like Warren, not "measuring our boldness just in how much tax we are putting on Americans, how big the programs are gonna be, that's just gonna come back and hurt the Democratic nominee." Walter was followed by Sy, who accused Warren of not directly answering the economy question directed at her—which was, "How do you answer top economists who say taxes of this magnitude would stifle growth and investment?" Desjardins agreed: "Right, she's the policy queen, so she has to also have some details."

Of course, viewers may have noticed that Warren did answer the question; she said those economists were wrong, and—rather than explain the methodological problem, explained the logic:

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You leave two cents with the billionaires, they're not eating more pizzas, they're not buying more cars. We can increase productivity in this country. And we can start building this economy from the ground up…. An economy that works, not for Wall Street, but that works for Main Street.

The dispute here is over a recent analysis released by the Penn Wharton Budget Model, widely covered in corporate media, that claimed Warren's wealth tax would slow economic growth from 1.5 percent to 1.3 percent over a decade. But, as critics have pointed out, the model absurdly assumes Warren would use the wealth tax to pay down the deficit, instead of funneling it into healthcare, paying off student debt, and public infrastructure, among other things that would presumably increase productivity and thus economic growth. (One might also point out that "top economists" also drew up Warren's wealth tax plan—and that the economists cited by Judy Woodruff are bankrolled by a raft of current and former CEOs.)

The panel was not entirely critical of the left, as Barrón-López pushed back in the second round of punditry on the idea—raised again by Desjardins—that Warren doesn’t answer the questions. But the centrists garnered the vast majority of the praise. Barron-Lopez followed her defense of Warren by noting that the foreign policy discussion gave Biden "an opportunity to show some of his strengths." Lizza highlighted that Klobuchar was "ticking up in Iowa" (where she's ticked up to fifth place in the polling averages); Sy later commented that Buttigieg and Klobuchar felt "fresh" on climate change, and that Biden was "able to play to some of his strengths" on China and on "cooperation" in Washington.

Remarkably absent from the first two rounds? Any analysis of Sanders' performance, let alone the kind of praise the centrists came in for. There were literally two brief mentions of the candidate polling in second place, neither of which were followed up on: that Sanders objected to the premise of a climate question, and that there was a confrontation between Sanders and Biden. Desjardins asked panelists about the confrontation (without mentioning what it was about) in tandem with a question about a confrontation between Klobuchar and Buttigieg. The two Politico panelists responded, both exclusively taking on the battle between the fourth- and seventh-ranked candidates, rather than the one between the first and second.

Desjardins referenced the spin room twice during these panels, telling viewers they would be entering it soon. Unfortunately for viewers, the reality was that they were already trapped inside of it.

Julie Hollar

Julie Hollar

Julie Hollar is the managing editor of FAIR's magazine, Extra!. Her work received an award from Project Censored in 2005, and she has been interviewed by such media outlets as the L.A. Times, Agence France-Presse and the San Francisco Chronicle. A graduate of Rice University, she has written for the Texas Observer and coordinated communications and activism at the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. Hollar also co-directed the 2006 documentary Boy I Am and was previously active in the Paper Tiger Television collective.

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