There were no questions about the climate crisis during the CNN/New York Times Democratic presidential primary debate in Westerville, Ohio, on October 15. This is a marked decrease from the already meager number of climate questions asked by CNN’s moderators at a previous two-night Democratic primary debate in July.
Both CNN and MSNBC hosted well-received presidential forums devoted to the issue of climate change. But forums, which draw less attention than debates, limit interaction among candidates, and can conflict with other events, are no substitute for a dedicated climate debate or, at a minimum, a substantive climate discussion during a conventional debate.
Some environmental activists and climate journalists took to Twitter to express their dismay about the complete lack of climate questions in last night’s debate.
Discussion of the climate crisis and solutions to address it have been lacking in this year’s presidential primary debates. The climate crisis was the topic of 7% of questions during the ABC/Univision Democratic presidential primary debate in Houston on September 12, 9.5% of questions during CNN’s two-night debate in July, and less than 6% of the questions during the two-night debate hosted by NBC in late June.
Climate forums have limitations only a debate can address
As voters made climate change a top-tier issue, a coalition of environmental and progressive groups, including Credo Action, 350 Action, Greenpeace USA, Sunrise Movement, the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, and Daily Kos worked throughout the spring and summer to demand a Democratic National Committee-sanctioned climate debate, a demand that was officially rejected in August.
To their credit, both CNN and MSNBC hosted climate forums in September. CNN’s climate forum, which aired for seven hours and featured 10 Democratic candidates, was the most comprehensive discussion of climate policies in television history. MSNBC’s climate forum on September 19 and September 20 featured 11 Democratic candidates and one Republican and was a rare nod to youth activist groups that have been calling for political parties and media outlets to prioritize the climate crisis in the 2020 campaign cycle. Unfortunately, the forum format has limitations that make it an ill-suited substitute to either a climate debate or a conventional debate where climate change is discussed with the depth and urgency it deserves.
One of the biggest drawbacks to the forum format is that it can inadvertently pit different issue areas against each other. For example, on the second night of the MSNBC forum, GLAAD, One Iowa, The Gazette, and The Advocate hosted a historic LGBTQ forum at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Because it lacks the official imprimatur of the Democratic National Committee -- which also comes with logistical support -- not all the candidates will attend a forum, and even those who do are not allowed to appear on stage together to substantively discuss differences in their platforms.
Candidate forums also fail to garner as much attention and scrutiny as debates. Fourteen million viewers watched the ABC/Univision debate on September 12. And with approximately 15.3 million viewers on the first night and nearly 18.1 million on the second, the June two-night debate in Miami broke the record for the biggest audience for a Democratic primary debate. CNN’s seven-hour climate forum averaged 1.1 million viewers, while the portion of the MSNBC climate forum that was shown on air, All in with Chris Hayes: Climate in Crisis, averaged 1.3 million viewers. On YouTube, MSNBC’s forum has been viewed a little more than 110,100 times.
But viewers aren’t the only ones who shy away from candidate forums. Debates -- which bring top candidates onto the stage together -- draw significant media coverage from a broad range of political press. Broadcast and cable news networks run special coverage, put up countdown clocks, and host panels full of pundits detailing candidates’ responses to questions and to each other. The same cannot be said for individual candidate forums. Even the networks behind the forums failed to meaningfully examine climate discussions they hosted, opening the door for right-wing media outlets to distort and weaponize the events. A Media Matters study of the CNN climate forum found that Fox News ran 46 segments about the event, MSNBC ran eight, and CNN ran only five. Nearly half of Fox’s segments either downplayed or outright denied climate change, while 61 percent framed discussion of climate solutions through a distorted lens of Democratic extremism.
Will corporate TV news continue to fail on climate?
The forums demonstrated that corporate TV news can do a good job on climate when so inclined. But last night’s debate reinforces the need for mainstream media outlets to commit to sustained, substantive coverage of the climate crisis instead of one-off events. Initiatives like Covering Climate Now, a collaborative media project in which over 300 outlets worldwide produced dedicated climate change coverage for one week, were launched with the goal of covering climate crisis issues that have been either underreported or ignored in the media altogether. They also aim to correct the mainstream media’s shallow climate journalism, which too often focuses on the president or the political horse race. Notably, CNN was not part of the coalition.
MSNBC and The Washington Post will host the fifth debate on November 20 in Atlanta. The network’s moderators will have an opportunity to improve on CNN’s performance by engaging the candidates in a climate discussion that informs viewers. They should ask how the candidates plan to address the climate crisis and pushing them to compare and contrast their specific plans.
In counting the number of questions asked by debate moderators, Media Matters includes invitations to candidates to make responses, as well as follow-up questions to the same candidate on the same topic. We do not include invitations to make opening or closing statements. We also do not include interjections or clarifications from the moderators unless they are interjections to allow a different candidate to speak.