First Democratic Debate a Return to Political Sanity, Media Drops Ball in Covering It

© Josh Sager – October 2015

On Tuesday, the first Democratic primary debate was held in Las Vegas and it was an amazing return to political sanity in a primary season gone off the rails. Compared to the GOP debates—with their casual racism and overt rejection of factual reality—this Democratic debate was filled with reasoned conversation and substance.

For the most part, this debate was a contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and the other three candidates were largely marginalized. This is illustrated through a simple look at the speaking-time each candidate was given (according to the NYTimes).

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The debate topics were varied and covered issues including climate change, war, taxation, economic fairness, gun control, Wall St. regulation, and college loan debt. For the most part, the candidates did a very good job keeping the debate factual and based in real policy ideas, rather than descending into the non-factual world that the GOP debates have occurred in.

Here are a few short excerpts from the debate:

In my opinion, this was the most devastating exchange of the night. While making her case that she would be tough on Wall St., Hillary made a Freudian slip when she admitted that “I represented Wall St., as a senator from New York.” After saying this, she argued that she has a record  of being tough on the financial industry because she scolded them in December of 2007 and demanded that they stop their illegal actions (clearly, given the crash of 2008, this wasn’t all that effective). When asked to respond, Bernie delivered one of the largest applause lines of the night when he said that “Congress does not regulate Wall Street. Wall Street regulates Congress.”

When talking about gun control, Hillary actually made a good case against Bernie Sanders’ past positions and a strong case for reform. In my opinion, this is the only exchange of the night where Hillary won a strong victory against her largest competitor.

One very significant area of agreement between Bernie and Hillary was that this election should be run on policy, not imaginary scandals, thus there was no room in the debate for talk about the Hillary email “scandal.” This exchange definitely reflects well on the character of Bernie Sanders and largely diffuses one of the largest irritants for the Hillary campaign in the future.

Hillary hits GOP for “big-government” hypocrisy:

Bernie explains democratic Socialism:

Bernie calls for end of drug war:

From a purely rhetorical point of view, progressive ideals were absolutely dominant on stage during this debate. Other than his position on guns, Bernie is the physical embodiment of progressive values (fair taxation, strong regulations, robust social programs, civil rights, etc.) and represented himself very well. Hillary also made a great show of promoting progressive ideals, even when those positions contradict her past positions (ex. opposing the TPP after calling it the “golden standard” for trade deals just a few months ago). The actual policy disagreements in this debate were relatively minor, particularly when we look at the policy positions of the GOP candidates, and almost exclusively fought on progressive grounds.

Personally, I trust Bernie to follow through with his progressive platform but do not have the same faith in Hillary. Her past actions simply contradict her current rhetoric and she has a long history of talking progressive, but governing center-right (much like Obama).

While the conduct on the debate stage was overwhelmingly positive, the media’s coverage of this debate has been an absolute disgrace. Many mainstream and liberal media outlets have exposed themselves as overtly biased against Bernie Sanders and in the tank for Hillary (at least, in the context of the primary).

Basically every poll to have been conducted during or after the debate found that Bernie Sanders absolutely dominated the stage. According to CNN’s own polling, Bernie won 81% of the audience, compared to Hillary’s 13%; Slate’s poll found that Bernie won 66% to Hillary’s 15%; Time’s poll found that Bernie won 59% to Hillary’s 12%; According to the DailyKos’s poll, Bernie won 57% to Hillary’s 36%. Even polling by the right wing outlets Drudge (Bernie 54%, Hillary’s 9%) and Fox (Bernie 79%, Hillary 15%) found that Bernie won the debate.

In addition to these polls, social media analysis by BrandWatch found that Bernie was mentioned more times on social media than the rest of the other candidates put together. Additionally, a Google search analysis found that Bernie was the candidate who the American public was searching for information about the most.

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While none of these polls are conclusive, or even scientific, they create a very compelling narrative that Bernie was the overwhelming victor of the debate. Despite this evidence of Bernie’s victory, most of the major headlines on mainstream and liberal news sites simply declared that Hillary was the victor. For example, the headline at Politico after the debate was “Insiders: A runaway victory for Clinton” while the HuffingtonPost had a rolling series of pro-Hillary headlines (see below).

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This disparity between the poll results and the headlines occurred across a very wide range of media outlets, but the most extreme case of bias was arguably committed by CNN itself (the supposedly “neutral” host). During the debate, CNN opened a poll on the victor of the debate and found that 81% of their watchers preferred Bernie. After the debate CNN removed this poll from its site and replaced it with a headline of “Clinton triumphs in Democratic debate as rivals compete to lose.” Given the evidence that they had available, both through their polling and the other polling at other sites, there is no excuse for this headline—it is simply a lie designed to support Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders.

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Credit to USUncut for screen-capturing this before CNN removed it.

I see three probable explanations for these failures by the media to accurately cover this debate.

First, there is the bias towards the political establishment in the media that could be leading many outlets to ignore Bernie in favor of Hillary. While Bernie won the first debate, he is still a long-shot for the candidacy, so these outlets would prefer to play it safe and not anger the person who may control their access to the White House in coming years.

Second, Bernie has refused to take corporate money for his campaign, thus limiting the number of advertisements that he will be able to buy during an election. As media outlets have made an astonishing amount of money during political seasons in recent years—profiting off of campaign finance deregulation and the floods of political advertising that flow across the airwaves—this creates a financial incentive to support the Hillary camp, which will buy more ad space from them.

Third, Hillary has significant contacts in the media (a function of her longstanding national profile and history of public service) and many liberal news outlets (ex. HuffPost) are staffed with people who overtly support her. This type of bias is pervasive, but extremely hard to combat, particularly when it permeates the editorial staff who are usually tasked with filtering out biased reporting.

2 thoughts on “First Democratic Debate a Return to Political Sanity, Media Drops Ball in Covering It

  1. The problem with the Dems is that they are sane, adult and issues -oriented. That doesn’t “sell papers”. Thee media wants outrageous, stupid and bombastic. Look how Anderson Cooper (a real lightweight) tried over and over to get the candidates involved in personal attacks and responding to rumors. . And how they refused and stuck to issues. Not controversial, just adult and intelligent.
    A good night for Dems. A bad night for shallow media “stars”.

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  2. I so enjoyed the entire night. Agree with your analysis of both Bernie and Hilary. While I think ultimately Hilary will be the nominee, which I find unfortunate it is good to see a candidate like Bernie in there pushing her to the left. Perhaps with this kind of attention we can actually hold the next president (which I expect to be a Dem) to some of the promises of the campaign season.

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