What questions should moderators ask at tonight's debate?

The Guardian

"Guys these are questions that are not relevant to what’s being discussed in America today," former Sen. Rick Santorum told reporters today who asked him about whether he really thought Satan was attacking America.

But deciding which questions voters want to hear is not the candidates' job: It belongs, usually, to the journalists asking them.

And at tonight's Republican primary debate in Mesa, Ariz., the question of what questions should be asked is a little louder, thanks in part to a Guardian package that analyzed all the questions asked in all 19 previous Republican primary debates.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and students from NYU's Studio 20 program conducted the analysis.

By far the biggest category: the economy, stupid (27 percent of all questions). Rosen says those questions are "clearly things that journalists asked about, the candidates wanted to talk about and voters wanted to hear about."

Negative ads, issues of who's a true conservative and foreign policy came up a lot. But: "We also found that there were big gaps, deserts where almost nothing got asked," Rosen says. The environment, super PACs, women rights, for example. And, surprisingly, small business (one question so far).

That last category aside, I asked Rosen how far he thought the press' and Republican primary voters' concerns diverged in those instances. Negative ads, for instance, are probably of great concern to likely Republican voters in primary states who were seeing lots of them (and probably receiving a good number of calls).

Rosen says audience members at the debate who got to ask questions "never asked about ads or campaign strategy, and they never asked Smith to comment about what Jones said about him." As to my point about Republican-voter priorities, Rosen says "From my point of view, televised debates should be moderated for the public at large, not for the slice of electorate that is voting at one time."

"I think some journalists and TV producers would disagree with me on that," he says.

The Guardian also published a kicky interactive graphic that lets you read all the debate questions on various subjects and compare them with what it calls the "citizens agenda" of questions readers feel should be asked instead.

Right now the readers' top concerns are health care, super PACs and science, three things I'd be surprised to hear get more airtime than Satan tonight.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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