Presidential debates do as much to illustrate corporate media priorities as they do to showcase the candidates. They provide a snapshot into what the media, in this case represented by NBC’s Lester Holt, prioritizes as issues worthy of discussion.
A week before the debate,Comcast-owned NBC announced the topics, and one could already tell we weren’t going to be in for a substantive evening: “Achieving prosperity,” “America’s direction” and “securing America.” This generic approach lead to a generic debate that focused mostly on horserace disputes and vague, open-ended questions about taxes and jobs.
Holt didn’t ask any questions about the following topics: poverty, abortion, climate change, immigration, healthcare, student debt, privacy, LGBTQ rights or drug policy. (NBC reported before the debate that abortion and immigration were two of the policy issues that voters were most interested in, as indicated byGoogle searches, along with the economy and police shootings.)
What was discussed: jobs, Trump’s tax returns, who did or didn’t support the Iraq War, raising taxes on the rich, race (framed mostly in a way that pandered to Trump’s theme of a country in disarray), Russian cyberattacks, ISIS, Obama’s birth certificate, Clinton’s physical appearance and whether the candidates would accept the election results.
Obviously, a moderator can’t cover every topic in a 90-minute debate, but one can hardly imagine a scenario where the candidates weren’t asked to discuss taxes on the wealthy, ISIS and the specter of Russian cyberattacks—topics, not coincidentally, the average person is rarely if ever affected by, but receive nonstop discussion on cable news and opinion sections. Holt even framed raising taxes on the wealthy—whose share of national income has multiplied six-fold over the last 40 years—as something Clinton had to “defend.”
Total mentions from the moderator and the two candidates combined for ISIS were 24; Russia/Putin had 16 and Iran 19. Total mentions of abortion, poverty, health insurance, LGBTQ rights and voter suppression were zero. Climate change was only mentioned—once—because Clinton brought it up.
As FAIR (5/6/16) noted previously, in nine Democratic Party debates, there were no questions asked about poverty. As Think Progress (4/14/16) pointed out, there were also zero questions about abortion.
Issues specifically affecting the poor, LGBTQ people and women (aside from a question about Trump denying that Clinton had “a presidential look”) continue to be overlooked. To the extent race was discussed, it was framed with the false parity of “race relations.” Holt didn’t ask Clinton, for example, how she would fight racism—a word Holt never mentioned—but instead asked her how she would “heal the divide.” (In Holt’s defense, he did press Trump on his racist “birther” campaign.)
The next debate will be on October 9, hosted by ABC’s Martha Raddatz, a reporter noted for her closeness to military sources (FAIR Blog, 11/14/11).
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. You can follow him onTwitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.