What Gets Asked at Debates–and Who Gets Asked It?: A FAIR study of presidential primary debate questions


Moderators at the presidential primary debates. First row: Bret Baier (Fox), Megyn Kelly (Fox), Chris Wallace (Fox); second row: Anderson Cooper (CNN), Jake Tapper (CNN), John Dickerson (CBS); third row: Nancy Cordes (CBS), Don Lemon (CNN), Gerard Baker (WSJ)

Originally published at Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting. Reposted at Common Dreams.

It’s not 2016 yet, but the 2016 presidential election cycle has already seen two Democratic primary debates, four Republican primary debates and four Republican “undercard” debates (for the GOP candidates who weren’t considered ready for primetime). A fifth pair of Republican debates will be held tonight, December 15.

With all this debating, you might think voters were getting a broad view of the policies that the major-party candidates were offering. But as in past elections (FAIR Media Advisory, 10/26/12), the establishment media figures who have moderated the debates have thus far focused the discussion on a narrow range of topics, a FAIR analysis of debate questions finds.

The 536 questions asked in the first four Republican debates, four Republican undercard debates and two Democratic debates were divided into six categories: economic, social, international, immigration, environment and non-policy questions. If the same question was asked to multiple candidates, it was counted each time, but clarifying and follow-up questions to the same candidate were not counted.

FAIR also studied the percentage of questions each candidate was asked. While moderators clearly took candidates’ positions in opinion polls into account when distributing questions, some seemed to get asked more—or less—based on media assumptions about who was and was not a serious contender.

What Was Asked About


CNN partnered with Salem Media in the 9/16 debate and with the New York Times and Des Moines Register in the 10/13 debate; in the 11/10 debate, Fox Business Channel partnered with the Wall Street Journal.

One hundred sixty-four (31 percent) of the questions were categorized as non-policy related. A subset of these questions—14, or 3 percent of total questions—involved questions about candidates’ records in public or private life, as when Marco Rubio was asked about “your absentee record in the Senate.” Six of the 14 questions regarding candidates’ records involved Hillary Clinton’s handling of email as secretary of State.

The non-policy category also included questions about electability (of Bernie Sanders, “How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?” or to Lindsey Graham: “How do you explain why so many of your constituents would rather have Donald Trump as the Republican nominee than you?”), general questions about other candidates (“Would you feel comfortable with Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear codes?” or  “Do you want to tell Secretary Clinton why she shouldn’t get the crown?”), personal questions (“Which enemy are you most proud of?” or “What is your biggest weakness?” or “What experience would you draw on in a crisis?”) and questions about party loyalty (including the first question asked in the entire debate season: “Is there anyone on stage who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican Party?”).

Twenty-eight of the non-policy questions (5 percent of all questions) might fairly be categorized as silly, e.g., “What would you want your Secret Service codename to be?” or “What are the three apps that you use most frequently on your cellphone?” or “Should the day after the Super Bowl be a national holiday?” Even the more substantive questions in this category, though, tended to illustrate Paul Waldman’s observation in the Washington Post (10/29/15) that “the defining characteristic of almost every debate in recent years is that the journalists doing the questioning go out of their way to try to create drama.”

The next largest category was economic policy, whose 143 questions constituted 27 percent of all questions. Taxes (42 questions) dominated those discussions, followed by social spending (21) and economic growth (21). The questions about social spending (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) were often framed to Republicans as a question of bootstraps (“How do you get Americans who are able to take the job instead of a handout?”) or in terms of costs (“Considering the mounting cost of Medicare, was [President Ronald Reagan] right to oppose it?”).

Some economic questions did address more progressive concerns: There were eight questions about the minimum wage, six about inequality (“Are there specific steps you would require from corporate America to try and reduce the income inequality?” or “In all candor, you [Clinton] and your husband are part of the one percent. How can you credibly represent the views of the middle class?”) and three about corporate crime.

The 96 questions about social issues comprised 18 percent of all questions. There were 12 questions in this category about surveillance, sometimes unhelpfully personalized (“Edward Snowden, is he a traitor or a hero?”) and other times policy-focused (“Would you shut down the NSA surveillance program?”). Questions about women’s health (12) were often in the context of Planned Parenthood (“Would you be willing to shut down the government when it comes to defunding this group?”) and sometimes about appointing Supreme Court justices (“Is it time for conservatives to impose a litmus test on abortion?”). The 11 questions on gun control were sometimes framed from the right (“Would encouraging more people to be armed be part of your response to a mass shooting?”) and sometimes from the left (“Is Bernie Sanders tough enough on guns?”). There were seven questions about marijuana, seven about marriage equality and five about education.

In the international policy arena, whose 90 questions constituted 17 percent of all questions, the 37 questions about the Syrian civil war, the Islamic State and the “War on Terror” more broadly took center stage. These questions were largely asked from the right, seemingly urging candidates to adopt more hawkish positions: “Under what circumstances would a President Sanders actually use force?” or “How do you propose we screen [Syrian refugees] to keep citizens safe?”

This pattern was particularly pronounced in the CBS Democratic debate the day after the Paris attacks, as when Sanders was asked, “In the previous debate, you said the greatest threat to national security was climate change. Do you still believe that?” or when Clinton was queried: “A couple of days ago you were asked if you would declare war on ISIS and you said no. What would you say now?”

Other international questions dealt with general policy (“When are we going to get some names on your military and your foreign policy advisers?” or “Is [Clinton] too quick to use military force?”), Iran (12 questions) and, unsurprisingly, Benghazi (5).

Thirty-six (7 percent) of all questions were about immigration—counted as a separate category because of its mixed domestic and international aspect. Many questions in this category were framed in the context of unauthorized immigrants (“What do you say to the family of illegals? Are you going to break them apart?”), how immigrants affect the economy (“At the heart of this issue is the effect that illegal immigrants are having on our economy. What will you do about it?”), healthcare and education (“Do you support the undocumented immigrants getting Obamacare?”) and birthright citizenship (“Ms. Fiorina, the vast majority of countries do not have birthright citizenship…. Donald Trump is right about that. Why is it pandering when he says this?”).

What Was Not Asked About

Some topics deemed important by large segments of society got quite little—if any—attention. Although climate change is often regarded as the single greatest threat to humanity, moderators asked only nine questions about it—less than 2 percent of all questions. None of the six questions regarding campaign finance asked what candidates would do about the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions, or their plans to limit the influence of money on politics; they focused, rather, on whether candidates can personally be trusted, given their contributions from wealthy donors.

There were more questions about Hillary Clinton’s emails (6) and Benghazi (5) than about police brutality (2). Questions regarding institutional racism, including police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement (phrased in the unhelpful binary: “Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?”), came up less than 2 percent of the time. The only question about the rights of transgender people was not about healthcare or the increasingly disproportionate rate trans people are being murdered, but rather about how trans people serving in the armed forces affects the “definitely changing culture of the American military.”

None of the economics questions mentioned organized labor, or the US’s $500 billion trade deficit.

While there were zero questions about Sub-Saharan Africa, the only questions about Latin America were in the context of Trump’s claims that the Mexican government is sending rapists and drug dealers and criminals across the border. South Asia was ignored, while the only questions about East Asia were five that brought up China in the context of cyberwar and currency manipulation. Despite the heavy focus on the Middle East, no questions dealt directly with the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Whom Was Asked


Predictably, some candidates got asked more questions than others. In the Republican field, Donald Trump led the way, taking on average 16 percent of the questions in the main GOP debates, followed by Ben Carson and Jeb Bush (12 percent each). Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee, with 7 percent each, got the lowest percentage of questions in the major debates they took part in. The two leading Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, got nearly the same percentage of questions (33 vs. 31 percent), while the fewest questions on the Democratic side went to Lincoln Chafee, with 13 percent of the questions in the one debate he participated in.

Clearly, the moderators took the candidates’ relative positions in opinion polls into account when distributing questions, but there seemed to be other factors at work as well. We compared the percentage of questions asked each candidate to their average standing in polls at the time of each debate (using the Huffington Post’s poll-tracking feature). These two percentages aren’t directly comparable, since the polling positions of all the candidates on stage didn’t add up to 100, but they do give a basis for comparing popularity and debate attention.

One striking outlier is Jeb Bush; though Ben Carson polled on average more than twice as well as Bush (17 percent vs. 8 percent), they each were asked about the same percentage of questions (12 percent). Similarly, while Ted Cruz polled almost twice as well as Rand Paul (7 percent vs. 4 percent), moderators asked Paul a slightly larger portion of questions than Cruz (10 percent vs. 9 percent). (Paul’s share of questions got a boost in the third Republican debate, which focused on economic issues–topics where Paul is more in line with the Republican establishment than he is on other issues.)

On the Democratic side, the less-crowded field allowed for a somewhat more egalitarian distribution of questions. Martin O’Malley, for example, got approximately two-thirds as many questions as the front-running candidate, Clinton, who outpolled him 25-to-1. On the Republican side, the lowest-ranked candidates on the main stage got about half as many questions as frontrunner Trump, with about one-tenth as much support in polls. Although Jim Webb complained repeatedly about how few questions he was asked in his first and only debate, in terms of percentages it was almost as many (15 percent vs. 16 percent) as Trump was asked on the more crowded GOP stage.


Fordham Students Condemn Revelations in the ‘Drone Papers’

Drone Papers

Originally published in the Fordham Observer.

In what NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden called the “most important national security story of the year,” The Intercept has published an eight-part exposé about the U.S. drone assassination program based on documents provided by a whistleblower within the intelligence community. The Drone Papers reveal the inner workings of President Obama’s covert kill/capture program between 2011 and 2013, a key window in the evolution of the drone wars.

Reporter Ryan Devereaux, in “Manhunting in the Hindu Kush,” part five of The Intercept’s investigation, describes Operation Haymaker, a campaign against Taliban and al Qaeda forces in northeastern Afghanistan. According to the documents, the term “jackpot” refers to an operation that kills its intended target, and anyone else killed in the airstrike is dubbed an “enemy killed in action” (EKIA) until proven otherwise. However, Article 50 of Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions states, “In case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered to be a civilian.”

Thomas H. Lee, Leitner Family Professor of International Law, considers this classification a possible violation of international law.“If a strike is on a military target in a military setting, and the bomber classifies everyone killed who is proximate to the target as ‘enemy combatant’ killed in action, does it violate the Law of War?  Arguably yes, under a strict reading of the Additional Protocol, which the United States did not ratify in large part because of concerns about issues just like this,” he said.

Ahmad Awad, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’17, a history major, called the government’s EKIA classification “very, very bizarre. It’s usually ‘you’re innocent until proven guilty.’ It’s not that you’re an enemy… If they don’t have substantial evidence to prove that it is a potential enemy of the United States and they’re just labeling people as enemies, that’s horrible. That’s not right. That should not be done for people who possibly are just innocent civilians in one of these nations that we are authorizing strikes in.”
Jeanelle Augustin, FCLC ’16, an anthropology major, agreed: “It sounds totally contrary to what we say our own justice model is here in America.”Sapphira Lurie, FCLC ’17, a comparative literature major, said, “The term ‘enemy killed in action’ had to be invented to imply that those murdered in drone strikes could even be considered a possible threat. So here, the terminology points towards the editorial authority used by imperialists to justify their attacks.”

One document, detailing the period between May and September 2012, reveals that there were 19 jackpots and 155 EKIAs, meaning that almost nine out of 10 people killed weren’t the intended targets. Just months before that, President Obama defended what he called “very precise, precision strikes,” stating that “actually drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.”

“In any other context, that would be a failing grade,” Augustin said. Shady Azmy, FCLC ’19, a psychology major, agreed: “Those are terrible statistics.” “That makes me feel that this drone program that we are doing is not that effective. It’s not an accurate program… that’s a very high collateral damage compared to what they’re saying about low collateral damage. It’s the complete opposite of what they’re intending to do,” Awad said.

The “low collateral damage” that Awad referred to is another of the Drone Papers’ revelations. In a May 2013 speech about drone policy, President Obama said, “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured” before a strike is authorized. But one document, described by journalist Cora Currier in “The Kill Chain,” part three of the investigation, shows that the “near certainty” principle isn’t actually applied to civilians. Currier reports that there must be “near certainty” that the target is present – not that no civilians will be killed or injured – and a “low CDE [collateral damage estimate],” meaning a low chance of civilian death or injury.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been documenting this “collateral damage” for years, finding that between 159 and 261 civilians have been killed by drone strikes in Yemen and between seven and 52 in Somalia since 2002.

Augustin said, “If we’re not sure that civilians may or may not die, it seems to me as though we would be committing terror to those civilian populations.” Alvarez offered a metaphor: “It sounds like a guess and check. That sounds like when I’m writing code, and when I screw up the code, I just have to do it again.” And Awad asked, “What do they consider a low collateral damage estimate? How many innocent lives are lost?”

That same document, which reveals the administration’s two-step process for creating and acting on its kill list, shows that once President Obama approved a target to be killed, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) had at the time (and may still have) a 60-day window for lethal action in Yemen and Somalia in 2011 and 2012. The administration has nonetheless defended the drone program as a means to prevent “imminent threats” to the United States.

Awad said, “I don’t know how imminent the threat can be if they’re given a 60 day window. I think that an imminent threat would be one that we have substantial evidence to prove that he or she is within a short period of time, has the capability of either attacking the U.S. mainland or attacking a U.S. embassy, or that American civilians are at stake.” Daniel Alvarez, FCLC ’19, a philosophy major agreed: “I feel like that’s way too much time.”

While a 60-day authorization window may seem to Awad and Alvarez an unreasonably long period of time, Lee said it may not violate international law: “The proportionality/tailoring aspects of international law of war are very nebulous, but two months, as opposed to two years, seems okay unless it straddles a peace event that can reasonably be viewed as a material change in the circumstances.”

In the documents obtained by The Intercept, there’s a bevy of corporate language used to describe aspects of the assassination program: the “tyranny of distance,” a reference to the great lengths drones must fly from their bases to targeted countries; “baseball card,” a reference to a slide of information about a candidate for assassination that is presented to members of the chain of command; a slide titled “Manhunting Basics”; “Arab features” to describe someone being targeted; “Find, Fix, Finish,” JSOC’s assassination doctrine; and of course jackpot and EKIA.

Augustin called this language “definitely a mechanism to dehumanize people.” Awad said he was “shocked” by these terms. “It kind of makes it seem that this is a game, and it’s a hunting game,” he said.

The documents are also a further confirmation of CIA Director and former counterterrorism adviser John Brennan’s, FCRH ’77, role in the drone program, specifically his top role in deciding whom should be killed, portrayed in an illustration (pictured below) by The Intercept‘s Josh Begley. Fordham University awarded Brennan an honorary degree in 2012 and rejected a petition to revoke that degree this past May.


Chain of Command