The Democratic National Committee has announced the lineups for its first two presidential primary debates, which will be hosted by NBC on June 26 and 27. For many voters, it will be their first real chance to learn about and evaluate the candidates. But despite new nods to diversity, there is little evidence so far to suggest that the debates will be any less circumscribed and shallow than those in the past.
In response to pressure from Democratic and environmental activists, DNC chair Tom Perez rejected the idea of holding a climate debate, because it “would be putting our thumb on the scale”—presumably not in favor of the planet, but on behalf of Jay Inslee, the candidate who requested the debate. It’s true that the scandal over the DNC’s scale-tipping for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries should make it sensitive to such concerns. The trouble is, the DNC builds the scale itself, and it’s hardly neutral to begin with.
By establishing thresholds for both polling and number of financial contributors that have to be reached in order to participate in debates (with more stringent thresholds in place for upcoming debates), the DNC throws the advantage to politicians who can afford the outrageously expensive online ad buys necessary to drum up far-flung supporters. And Inslee is far from the only candidate in favor of such a debate, as Perez suggested; more importantly, Democratic voters overwhelmingly want a climate debate, and they consistently name climate change and the environment as top issues.
But never fear; corporate media will take care of it: “I have the utmost confidence that, based on our conversations with networks, climate change will be discussed early and often during our party’s primary debates,” Perez wrote.
There are strong reasons to doubt this; there has been a near-blackout on climate-related questions in presidential and primary debates in the past several years. Even if the debates do raise climate questions, the particulars of the questions matter. In an entire debate devoted to climate change, candidates would be hard-pressed to evade specifics, but in two-hour events covering a wide range of issues, viewers will be lucky to get more than a couple of minutes on what is arguably the most complex emergency facing the next president—and some candidates will almost certainly escape climate questions entirely.
There are other serious issues facing the country—inequality, healthcare, racist police violence, immigration and reproductive justice jump to mind. If candidates are willing to spend a couple of hours comparing ideas on a particular topic, and voters are interested, why stand in the way?
The media hosts are also attempting to preempt voters’ concerns about diversity: The first host, NBC, has announced its moderator team, and four out of five are not non-Latino white men over the age of 45—quite a reversal of fortune for those in the latter category. This change has rightfully been praised, and hopefully, the other media hosts will follow suit in future debates. But corporate diversity is still, ultimately, corporate, and we can still expect the range of ideas expressed to be sharply limited.
The hand-wringing over the inclusion of “opinionator” Rachel Maddow as a moderator highlights the lack of space for progressive perspectives in the debates. In the 2016 primaries, corporate media included right-wing commentator Hugh Hewitt alongside CNN anchors to question Republican primary candidates; no progressive commentator was included in a Democratic debate. Maddow, whose Russia obsession keeps her “left” perspective a safe distance from any challenge to MSNBC corporate advertisers, is unlikely to give voice to key progressive concerns in the way Hewitt unabashedly represented the right.
Instead, tightly controlled by the parties and the media, the televised debates prioritize style over substance, encouraging candidates to eschew clear policy positions in favor of bland platitudes. Of course, if corporate media’s goal were an informed electorate, voters would already know more about the candidates’ positions than about their jockeying in the polls, and the debates would carry less weight.
But beyond the DNC debates, media could elevate the conversation with more and better coverage of the candidate forums being organized to address particular topics—which, because they are “forums” and not “debates,” seem to evade the DNC’s ban on specificity. On June 17, for example, the Poor People’s Campaign held a forum on poverty and systemic racism, which nine candidates attended. Questions were mostly asked by poor people and activists rather than journalists, and the narrow focus meant that the candidates had to dive deep on an issue that was not raised by moderators in a single one of the nine DNC debates in the last election cycle.
As the first event in which Biden faced his opponents, the forum received fairly widespread coverage, but most outlets focused almost exclusively on Biden (e.g., Washington Post), with some covering only his comments on bipartisanship, not poverty (e.g., Newsweek). Even in the New York Times, which refreshingly treated the event itself as newsworthy, key voices were notably absent: those of the poor.