News Release

Debate Moderators Frame Questions to Define Acceptable Politics


JULIE HOLLAR, jhollar at, @FAIRmediawatch
Hollar is senior analyst for the media watch group FAIR’s Election Focus 2020 project which is regularly producing well-documented analysis of corporate media bias. Recent pieces include “Media Stoop to ‘Russian Assistance’ to Explain Sanders’ Rise,” “NYT’s Look at Democratic Tax Plans Is an Orgy of Really Big Numbers” and “Bernie Sanders Can’t Win (by as Much) Unless Youth Vote Surges (Like It Recently Has).”

Hollar just wrote the wrote the piece “Debate Moderators Frame Questions to Define Acceptable Politics,” which analyzes how the corporate networks have dealt with the three most frequent topics:

• Healthcare

“The moderators have asked more questions about healthcare (161) than any other issue. When Medicare for All has been raised (specifically named in 24 questions, plus many more followups), it has been overwhelmingly associated with negative impacts: ‘forcing’ people off their private insurance (7/30/19), paying more in taxes, getting Donald Trump reelected (or ‘cost[ing] you critical votes’ — 11/20/19), forcing people in the health insurance industry out of work. … By contrast, Biden has gotten next to no scrutiny of his healthcare plan. In fact, he has received the same number of questions about the flaws of his opponents’ plans as he has questions — seldom critical — about his own plan. ‘You were an architect — one of the architects of Obamacare. So where do we go from here?’ (6/27/19)”

• Military Intervention

“A similar skew against positions that challenge the political establishment was apparent in questions about military intervention. Of the questions on Afghanistan, seven exhibited a distinct bias toward intervention, while only two framed intervention as potentially negative. … Five of the pro-intervention questions came from ABC. For example, when Elizabeth Warren was asked by David Muir (9/12/19)  whether she would ‘keep that promise to bring the troops home starting right now with no deal with the Taliban,’ and she answered in the affirmative, George Stephanopoulos badgered her further. …”

• Electability

“A perennial favorite topic among journalists is the question of electability, and the debates proved no exception. As we have pointed out many times, it’s an empirical question better left to voters and to head-to-head polls, but in the hands (and mouths) of journalists it becomes instead a tool to push Democratic candidates to the center (, 10/25/19, 2/11/20). In the debates, candidates were roped into conversations about electability 80 times by our count — but in a far from evenhanded way.

“Moderators raised the issue of Sanders’ electability three times as often as that of any other candidate. …

“It’s a remarkable skew, which could only begin to be justifiable if Sanders showed tremendous weakness in polling against Trump. But he doesn’t. Sanders has consistently topped Trump in head-to-head polls since the beginning of his campaign and is currently beating him by an average of 4.7 percentage points — as compared to 4.8 for Biden, 4.0 for Bloomberg, 2.0 for Warren and Buttigieg and 1.6 for Klobuchar.

“But that political reality — like the reality of Medicare for All’s popularity, and the unpopularity of the country’s ‘forever wars’ — is distinctly unfavored in the media. Hence the incentive for corporate media to use their control of debate questions to try to reshape those realities.”