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  • Only 10 of 170 questions at the first Democratic primary debates were about the climate crisis, making it obvious we need a climate debate

    Less than 6% of questions focused on climate, and half of candidates weren't asked about it at all

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS & EVLONDO COOPER


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    The climate crisis got short shrift during both nights of the first Democratic primary debates in Miami on June 26 and 27, showing why activists continue to demand a debate dedicated entirely to the issue of climate change.

    The moderators asked a total of 170 questions over the course of the two nights, but just 10 were focused on climate change, or less than 6% -- five questions each night.

    The percentage of climate questions increased slightly compared to the average number asked during the 2016 election cycle debates. During 20 presidential primary debates in 2015 and 2016, only 1.5% of the questions were about climate change.

    NBC's Chuck Todd and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow asked the climate questions on both nights of the June 26-27 debates. Their questions on the first night were poor, in some cases ignoring the crushing costs of climate disaster and instead fixating on the potential costs of taking climate action. The questions on the second night were at least more productive, asking candidates to describe their proposals and plans for action.

    Todd’s question to California Sen. Kamala Harris:

    We are moving to climate, guys. Sen. Harris, I’m addressing you first on this. You live in a state that has been hit by drought, wildfires, flooding; climate change is a major concern for voters in your state. It’s pretty obvious, obviously this state as well. Last night, voters heard many of the candidates weigh in on their proposals. Explain specifically what yours is.

    Todd’s question to South Bend, IN, Mayor Pete Buttigieg:

    Mayor Buttigieg, in your climate plan, if you are elected president, in your first term, how is this going to help farmers impacted by climate change in the Midwest?

    Maddow’s question to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper:

    Governor, you have said that oil and gas companies should be a part of the solution on climate change. Lots of your colleagues on stage tonight have talked about moving away from fossil fuels entirely. Can oil and gas companies be real partners in this fight?

    Maddow’s question to former Vice President Joe Biden:

    Vice President Biden, on the issue of how you do this, Democrats are arguing robustly among themselves about what's the best way to tackle climate change, but if we’re honest, many Republicans, including the president, are still not sure if they believe it is even a serious problem. So, are there significant ways you can cut carbon emissions if you have to do it with no support from Congress?

    Maddow also gave Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders 30 seconds to offer a response on climate change.

    Still, only half of the participating candidates, 10 of 20, were even given the opportunity to weigh in on climate, and no one got to go into any depth, address follow-up questions, or debate fellow candidates on the specifics of proposals.

    Now climate activists are pushing with even more persistence for a debate all about combating climate catastrophe. And they have a new ally who's employed by one of the networks that hosted the first Democratic debates: MSNBC's Chris Hayes. He sent this tweet after the second night of the debate wrapped up:

    Methodology: In counting the number of questions asked by debate moderators, Media Matters included invitations to candidates to make 30-second responses. We did not include invitations to make closing statements. We also did not include interjections and clarifications from the moderators unless they were interjections to allow a different candidate to speak. Follow-up questions to the same candidate on the same topic were counted as separate questions.

  • Only 6% of the questions at the first Democratic primary debate were about climate change -- and they weren't great

    Five of 10 candidates on stage were not asked about climate change at all

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS & EVLONDO COOPER


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Note: This post is about night one of the first Democratic debate. For analysis of both nights, June 26 and 27, see here

    On the first night of the first Democratic presidential primary debate in Miami, on June 26, only 6% of the moderators' questions were about the climate crisis. The five moderators posed a total of 82 questions to the participating candidates and just five of the questions centered on climate change. Only five of the 10 candidates were asked about climate change; the other half were not invited to discuss the topic.

    During 20 presidential primary debates in 2015 and 2016, just 1.5% of moderators' questions were about climate change. This first primary debate night was only a mediocre improvement over that cycle -- and an inauspicious beginning to the 2020 campaign season.

    Three of the climate-related questions posed by NBC's Chuck Todd were particularly poor, emphasizing the potential costs or difficulties of taking climate action, without noting the extreme danger of not taking action.

    Todd's question to former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke:

    Congressman O’Rourke, you’ve also put out a big climate change plan from your campaign. You want some big changes in a pretty short period of time, including switching to renewable energy, pushing to replace gas-powered cars in favor of electric ones. What’s your message to a voter who supports the overall goal of what you’re trying to do, but suddenly feels as if government is telling them how to live and ordering them how to live? What is that balance like?

    Todd's question to former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro:

    Secretary Castro, who pays for the mitigation to climate, whether it’s building seawalls for people that are perhaps living in places that they shouldn’t be living? Is this a federal government issue that needs to do that? Do they have to move these people? What do you do about that, where maybe they’re building a house someplace that isn’t safe, who pays to build that house? And how much should the government be bailing them out?

    Todd's question to Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan:

    Congressman Ryan, I got a full question for you here, which is simply this: There are a lot of the climate plans that include pricing carbon, taxing carbon in some way. This type of proposal has been tried in a few places, whether it’s Washington state where voters voted it down. You’ve had the yellow vest movement. We had in Australia one party get rejected out of fear of the costs of climate change sort of being put on the backs of the consumer. If pricing carbon is just politically impossible, how do we pay for climate mitigation?

    That Todd's climate questions were weak should not be a surprise. On the relatively rare occasions when Todd brings up climate change while hosting NBC's Meet the Press, he tends to ask questions that frame the issue too narrowly and through an overly political lens.

    MSNBC's Rachel Maddow asked one climate question of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. She focused on climate impacts in the host city of Miami and asked Inslee whether his climate action plan could "save" the city:

    You have staked your candidacy on the issue of climate change. It is first, second, and third priority for you. You've said it's all the issues. Let's get specific. We're here in Miami which is already experiencing serious flooding on sunny days as a result of sea level rise. Parts of Miami Beach and the Keys could be underwater in our lifetimes. Does your plan save Miami?

    In the fifth and final climate question of the night, Todd offered former Maryland Rep. John Delaney 30 seconds to discuss carbon pricing.

    Climate activists and Democratic voters who've been calling for a dedicated climate debate were not happy with the low number of questions allotted to the subject and the feeble nature of those questions. Their continued calls for the Democratic National Committee to hold a climate-focused debate have only been bolstered by the moderators’ lackluster performance.

    Methodology: In counting the number of questions asked by debate moderators, Media Matters included invitations to candidates to make 30-second responses. We did not include invitations to make closing statements. We also did not include interjections and clarifications from the moderators unless they were interjections to allow a different candidate to speak. Follow-up questions to the same candidate on the same topic were counted as separate questions. 

  • Moderators should make climate change a big focus at the first primary debate. Here's how.

    Do’s and don’ts for the moderators of the upcoming Democratic presidential debate in Florida

    Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    The leadership of the Democratic National Committee is so far refusing to hold a presidential primary debate focused on climate change, despite calls from 15 candidates and more than 200,000 voters. So at least for the first debate, set to take place over two nights on June 26 and 27, it will be up to the moderators to decide how much of a focus to put on the climate crisis. That could be a problem.

    In defending the decision, DNC chair Tom Perez wrote, "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." He explained, "I made clear to our media partners that the issue of climate change must be featured prominently in our debates. That didn’t happen in 2016 — and it was wrong."

    Perez is correct that the climate crisis should have gotten more attention the last time around. During the 2016 season presidential primary debates, only 1.5% of questions from moderators were about climate change, and nine out of 20 debates didn't feature any climate questions.

    But is he right that we can count on the networks’ moderators to do better -- much better -- this time?

    Here we offer do’s and don’ts to help moderators give the climate crisis the serious attention it deserves. The first debate, which is being hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo, will have five moderators: José Diaz-Balart, Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Rachel Maddow, and Chuck Todd.

    DO ask multiple questions about climate change and give all candidates a chance to weigh in

    The No. 1 task for moderators is to give the climate crisis much more attention than it’s received in past debates, which means not just asking about the topic one time but addressing it from multiple angles in multiple questions. 

    And as they ask those questions, the moderators need to give all candidates an opportunity to discuss the issue. This may be a challenge, as the two-night debate will include 20 candidates, 10 on stage at a time, but voters need to hear from all of them in order to make informed choices about who deserves their support.  

    DON'T frame climate change as a narrow political issue

    Too often, when generalist journalists ask questions related to climate change, they frame the issue through the narrow lens of horse-race politics. We've seen this happen repeatedly in recent months on the Sunday morning political shows -- including on NBC's Meet the Press, hosted by Chuck Todd, one of the moderators of the upcoming debate. 

    On the May 19 episode of the show, Todd brought up climate change during an interview with Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, but his question was more about how to beat Trump than how to tackle the climate crisis:

    Well, let me start with something the vice president, former vice president, said yesterday. And it was a fascinating way -- he was talking about his climate change proposal. And he said, “If you want to know what the first and most important plank in my climate proposal is,” it was, quote, “beat Trump.” You have said, if all the Democrats do is focus on Trump, you lose. Essentially, Biden is saying, no, no, no, no, no, it is all about Trump. Your reaction.

    Rachel Maddow, another moderator at the June 26-27 debate, shifted a climate conversation to electoral politics during a March 4 interview she conducted on her MSNBC show with Democratic presidential candidate and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. After Inslee spoke about his commitment to climate action, Maddow noted that climate change is important to Democratic primary voters, but then asked whether a climate-centric candidate can win over voters in coal-producing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio and thus beat Trump.

    Instead of focusing so heavily on the race against Trump, the moderators should prompt candidates to explain the specifics of how they would tackle the climate crisis.

    DON’T downplay the seriousness of climate change as a topic

    Many mainstream political journalists do not consider the climate crisis to be a top-tier issue, and that dismissive attitude can come through in the questions they ask -- even when those questions involve climate change. 

    The Democratic presidential primary debate in November 2015, for example, featured one climate-related question, but it actually appeared to downplay the problem. After a lengthy discussion about ISIS and terrorism, moderator John Dickerson of CBS asked Sanders, “In the previous debate you said the greatest threat to national security was climate change. Do you still believe that?” Sanders affirmed that he did, but voters didn’t learn much new from that exchange -- except that the moderator seemed to think it surprising that a presidential candidate could consider the climate crisis to be a massive national security threat. 

    DON’T reflexively change the subject away from climate change if a candidate brings it up

    In 2016 debates, candidates regularly raised the issue of climate change even when they weren't asked about it, but moderators then steered the discussions away from climate and back to other topics. This happened during the three presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The moderators asked the candidates no climate questions, but Clinton raised the issue herself in all three debates, and Trump raised it once, saying it wasn't as serious as the problem of nuclear weapons. On all of those occasions, moderators failed to engage and ask follow-up questions related to climate change.

    Todd also has a tendency to do this on Meet the Press. For example, during an April 14 interview with Inslee, Todd's first four questions for the governor were about immigration. Although Inslee twice pointed out that climate change is a factor pushing people to migrate, Todd pivoted the immigration conversation away from climate change. 

    At the debate later this month, moderators should take note when candidates bring up climate change and find good opportunities to ask them subsequent questions about it.

    DO ask specific questions about candidates’ plans and proposed solutions

    Voters need to hear about the solutions and policy approaches that candidates are endorsing to address the climate crisis, so it is important for moderators to ask specific and substantive questions. If moderators are short on ideas, they can look to the many suggestions coming from journalists and activists.

    The Tampa Bay Times offered some good questions in an editorial titled “Democratic presidential debates should highlight climate change”:

    How would the candidates change the nation’s energy mix? What federal support would they make available to states and cities to harden their transportation systems, utilities and other infrastructure? How would Washington expand mass transit nationwide to curtail automobile emissions? Is it finally time to create a national catastrophe fund as insurance against hurricanes and the other forms of extreme weather that have been hammering the Midwest?

    Six environmental and energy journalists posed potential debate questions in a recent piece published in the Columbia Journalism Review.

    While making the case for a dedicated climate debate, David Turnbull of the activist group Oil Change International published a list of 60 climate-related questions that moderators could ask.

    DO ask follow-up questions

    When moderators have asked climate questions in past debates, some candidates have tried to skate by with vague answers and platitudes about the importance of a clean environment. We saw this in a number of 2018 senator and governor debates.

    The solution is for moderators to ask follow-up questions and press candidates for more details and specifics. This has proved successful in some CNN town halls with Democratic presidential candidates this year. For example, during a February 18 town hall with Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, an audience member asked her about the Green New Deal, and then moderator Don Lemon followed up with questions that elicited more specific answers.

    DO help voters understand the differences between candidates' climate plans and approaches

    Though the Democratic presidential contenders all say climate change is a serious crisis that needs to be addressed, they have diverse views on the best ways to do that. For example, the candidates have widely differing opinions on nuclear power, fracking, and fossil fuel exports, as The Washington Post has documented.

    R.L. Miller of the super PAC Climate Hawks Vote has started a list of questions that moderators could ask to help illuminate those policy differences.

    DO study up on climate science and policy

    Moderators should read up to make sure that they understand the basics of climate science and climate policy well enough to ask informed questions and spot any misinformation that may arise.

    This would be less of a concern if the DNC agreed to have a dedicated climate debate with moderators who are knowledgeable about the subject area. Journalists with a strong background in climate and energy reporting would be best positioned to ask intelligent questions and spotlight important areas of disagreement.

    DON’T let candidates get away with lies or distortions

    Chuck Todd should take this recommendation in particular to heart. During a discussion about climate change on Meet the Press in November of last year, one of Todd’s guests made an absurd claim about global temperatures dropping and Todd let it slide by with no pushback. He caught a lot of flak for that, and he tried to redeem himself a month later by hosting a Meet the Press episode dedicated entirely to informed discussion of climate change, so we can hope he’ll be quicker on the draw if any climate misinformation crops up in the coming debate.

    DO ask climate questions related to Florida

    The first Democratic debate this year will take place in Miami, which is visibly and obviously under extreme threat from climate change. The whole state of Florida is already being dramatically affected.

    Moderators should seize the opportunity to ask questions about climate-related challenges in Miami and in Florida more broadly, many of which would be relevant to other coastal communities in the U.S.

    They could start by considering questions that a bipartisan group of 21 Florida mayors suggested ahead of presidential primary debates in 2016, including one on protecting coastal infrastructure.

    The editorial board of the Miami Herald recently suggested another topic:

    How climate change and the rising sea will impact South Florida more immediately and severely than many other parts of the country. Candidates should be prepared to detail short- and long-term solutions for their Florida audience, they should offer creative ideas that reveal they understand what’s at stake for us.

    The Tampa Bay Times, in its recent editorial calling for debates to focus on climate change, raised more Florida-centric topics worthy of discussion:

    Tidal flooding already pours into Miami even on sunny days. Miami Beach has spent hundreds of millions of dollars for new stormwater management systems to pump seawater from the neighborhoods. Red Tide and algae blooms are costing the fishing, restaurant and tourism industries tens of millions of dollars a year. A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that residential properties in the state valued now at about $26 billion are at risk of chronic flooding by 2045. And the longer we wait for a fix, the more expensive it gets.

    And a final DO, this one for the public: Tell NBC and the moderators what climate questions you want to hear

    NBC is soliciting debate questions from the public via its website. Send in your suggestions.

    Tweet at the moderators with your climate questions: José Diaz-Balart, Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Rachel Maddow, and Chuck Todd. And get more traction for those tweets by using the hashtag #climatedebate.

  • Hyping Trump’s Latest “Discipline,” Pundits Whitewash His Recent Unhinged Days

    ››› ››› TYLER CHERRY

    Media figures are once again hyping a “disciplined” Donald Trump in the final days of the presidential campaign, ignoring the Republican presidential nominee’s racist fearmongering, outlandish claims, and “new record” total of lies told in one day. The media has unremittingly sought a Trump “pivot,” which never actually materialized.

  • As Vintage Trump Pushes Conspiracy Theories And Uses Racial Slurs On CNBC, NBC Touts “A New Donald Trump”

    Blog ››› ››› TYLER CHERRY

    NBC Today host Savannah Guthrie commended Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump for not attacking Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over her recent pneumonia diagnosis, touting his so-called “restraint” as evidence of “a new Donald Trump.” Minutes later, the candidate engaged in vintage Trump behavior on NBC’s sister network CNBC, hurling racial slurs and outlandish conspiracy theories and once again flouting the media’s tendency to declare a Trump pivot.

    Trump and his surrogates plan “to refrain from commenting” on Clinton’s pneumonia diagnosis, as Bloomberg reported. For Guthrie, “this is a new Donald Trump.”

    NICOLLE WALLACE: Let me just say what I think the glaring, banner-worthy breaking news is this morning. Donald Trump hasn't tweeted about [Hillary Clinton's pneumonia diagnoses]. Donald Trump hasn't raged against her. Donald Trump hasn't called her a name. We are seeing, to me, the most dramatic 24-hour transformation of her opponent since he began running for president. I can't wait to see what his first comments are and if he's able to show restraint. That will mark, really to me, the most dramatic development in this campaign so far.

    SAVANNAH GUTHRIE (CO-HOST): Well, Nicolle, ask and ye shall receive. I've been told he did at an appearance this morning on another network and said, "I hope she gets well soon," and looks forward to seeing her at the debate. So Mark, this is a new Donald Trump.

    Right after Guthrie lapsed into the media’s persistent tendency of proclaiming a Trump “pivot,” the presidential candidate appeared on CNBC and lobbed his typical racial insults, speculated about corruption at the Federal Reserve, and suggested the presidential debates will be rigged, defying any semblance of a “new Donald Trump.” Here are a few examples of the vintage Donald Trump who appeared on CNBC just after NBC declared him “new”: 

    He Called Sen. Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas”

    Trump referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as “Pocahontas,” a racist slur he has used repeatedly on the campaign trail. Right-wing media have adopted Trump’s line of attack against Warren.

    BECKY QUICK (CO-HOST): Just last week Senator Elizabeth Warren was working with a group called Fed Up where they’re trying to put constraints on the Fed and get their arms around it a little more. I wonder in a Trump administration would you be trying to put more constraints on the Fed as well?

    DONALD TRUMP: What I would want to do is have a policy -- I wouldn't go by what Pocahontas wants you to do, because her agenda is obvious. I mean, she's a disaster. She’s also one of the least effective senators in the United States Senate. Nobody really understands that, but she's done nothing.

    He Claimed Fed Chair Janet Yellen Is Manipulating Interest Rates “Because She’s Obviously Political”

    Trump baselessly accused Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen of keeping interest rates “at zero because she’s obviously political and she’s doing what [President] Obama wants her to do,” even though the Federal Reserve operates independently of the White House. 

    JOE KERNEN (CO-HOST): Did you come to the conclusion that maybe [interest rates] can't stay at zero forever, and what do you think [the Federal Reserve] should do in September?

    DONALD TRUMP: Well it's staying at zero because she's obviously political and she’s doing what [President] Obama wants her to do and I know that's not supposed to be the way it is. But that's why it's low, because as soon as they go up your stock market’s going to go way down most likely, or possibly. And don't forget, I called Brexit. I did a lot of calling and what they are doing is, I believe it's a false market. Because money is essentially free.

    [...]

    I think they are keeping them down and they will keep them down even longer and any increase at all will be a very, very small increase, Joe, because, you know, they want to keep the market up so that Obama goes out and let the new guy, whoever that new-- let's call it the new guy, you know, OK, because I like the sound of that much better. But that the new person becomes president, let him raise interest rates or her raise interest rates and watch what happens to the stock market when that happens, OK, because you have no choice. The people that were hurt the worst are people that saved their money all their lives and thought they were going to live off their interests and those people are getting just absolutely creamed. In other words, the ones that did it right, they saved their money, they cut down on their mortgages, they did all of the things they did everything exactly right, and now they are getting practically zero interest on the money that they worked so hard for over 40 years. I mean, those people have really been -- you can almost say discriminated against. Now the interest rates are kept down by President Obama. I have no doubt that that's the reason that they are being kept down.

    He Claimed Clinton Is “Gaming The System” And Rigging The Presidential Debates

    Trump speculated that Clinton and her allies are “gaming the system” to try to rig the presidential debates. He said they’re accusing Matt Lauer of being “nice” to Trump during a forum he hosted between the two candidates, so that “the new person is going to try and be really hard on Trump just to show the establishment what he can do.” Trump floated the idea that there should be “no moderator” for the debates, and instead it should be “just Hillary and I sitting there talking.” Trump has baselessly asserted several times that various aspects of the election are or will be rigged.

    JOE KERNEN: I want to talk about the debates and how you are prepping for those, whether you like the moderators that are selected.

    [...]

    DONALD TRUMP: As far as the debates are concerned, the system is being gamed because everybody said that I won the so-called forum that your group put on, but they all said I won and that Matt Lauer was easy on me. Well he wasn't. I thought he was very professional, I have to be honest. I think he has been treated very unfairly. But they all said that I won. And what they’re doing is they’re gaming the system, so that when I go into the debate I’m going to get -- be treated very, very unfairly by the moderators.

    [...]

    They are saying about how Matt Lauer was nice to Trump. He wasn’t nice to me. He was tough on me. He gave me tough. I answered them better than she did. The fact is that they are gaming the system, and I think maybe we should have no moderator. Let Hillary and I sit there and just debate. Because I think the system is being rigged so it's going to be a very unfair debate. And I can see it happening right now because everybody was saying that he was soft on Trump. Well now the new person is going to try and be really hard on Trump just to show the establishment what he can do. So I think it's very unfair what they are doing. So I think we should have a debate with no moderator, just Hillary and I sitting there talking.