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, 7/30/19, 8/2/19).
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.
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