How Framing Directs the Democratic Debates

By turning Democratic policy into Republican talking points, debate moderators make the events about themselves and their potential profit rather than about the candidates.

Scott Oatkin, Staff Writer

The Democratic debates have come and gone, and once more they have utterly failed to create the comprehensible and substantive discussion that voters long for. The candidates themselves play a role in diluting the understanding of policy, but this may be beyond their responsibility, as the blame also falls on the lap of another group: debate moderators. The directors of the conversation have a clear goal in mind — to extract sound bites that are as juicy as possible for the news cycle to regurgitate for the days post-debate. This inorganically generates a narrative that often fails to represent the true views of the candidates. Their weapons of choice are intentional framing of questions in an interrogative fashion and directing conversation away from policy explanation and into the territory of theatrics.

The first example came early in the third debate on the subject of healthcare. From the onset, leading candidates Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden came out with guns blazing to debate the issue that many say is most important to Democratic voters. Moderator George Stephanopoulos then turned to Warren and asked how her proposal for Medicare For All will be funded. He framed the question the way that many conservatives do, choosing not to focus on the intended benefits of the proposal but rather on the potential for a middle class tax hike. This also circumvents discussing the overall goal of a Medicare For All system: reducing total cost and eliminating upfront out-of-pocket expenses for emergencies and routine doctor visits. Warren, much like Sanders, is long used to these types of arguments regarding the costs of such a policy and was able to effectively direct back to the total costs being reduced under a M4A proposal.  

But Stephanopoulos had a goal in mind: he wanted to get Warren on the record saying she would raise middle class taxes. He makes this clear by following up Warren’s answer with “I know you believe the premiums and copays will go down, but will middle class taxes go up?” He entirely ignores the idea of total cost decreasing regardless of a tax increase or not, showing that he isn’t asking about the costs at all and frankly doesn’t care. It’s about being able to plant the idea in the minds of the average voter that Warren and Sanders are coming for your paycheck.

Why Stephanopoulous and his colleagues choose this framing is apparent. Increasing taxes for the middle-class is antithetical to the populist message of Sanders and Warren when it is not considered in the context of how M4A would save families money by getting rid of out-of-pocket expenses. Candidates have campaigned on not adjusting taxes and have been heavily scorned when they have failed to keep that promise (see former president George H.W. Bush). Working through the perspective of negatives while downplaying the positives only serves to blur a policy’s image in the minds of voters. It shifts the conversation away from an empirical view of healthcare policy and instead toward the almost devilish connotation around middle class taxes. 

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The question that arises is why? The Fourth Estate has an important duty to create a political discourse which is both informative and truthful and will allow the public to create educated judgements about our Executive Branch. The moderators of the third debate didn’t help inform voters. These people are part of a money-making system like any other, one based on gaining as much traffic as possible. For-profit corporate news organizations like NBC, CNN and ABC — who have hosted all debates thus far — center on low-cost stories with high returns. Having a well-known politician say something unpopular is a simple way to publish news that will garner attention. Such an example is the sheer volume of coverage of Trump’s tweets; this is a low-effort, low-cost way of generating viewership. This promotes baiting politicians during debates to generate a sound bite that can be taken out of context and replayed for days. This sort of reporting requires no manpower and no heavy duty investigation, but it does require a degree of journalistic irresponsibility. The power of framing has an immense impact on our democratic process, and the integrity of that process needs to have priority over profit.

This is not to say that concerns regarding policies cannot be voiced, nor that the moderators have to avoid a line of questioning that leads the debate in that direction. The issue is not being skeptical, but in the matter of approach. To ask for clarification on how the total costs will go down in Warren and Sanders’ proposals is, of course, an area where meaningful discourse can emerge. The problem arises when the focus is on political buzzwords meant to generate negative reactions, and making those buzzwords the framework through which the moderators operate. Using misconceptions about taxes as ammunition to maintain viewership after the debate ends is not the journalism we rely on to preserve our democracy — it’s a symptom of click-culture capitalism polluting our political dialogue, and it should not have a place in electoral politics.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

Email Scott Oatkin at [email protected]

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