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Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debated 9 times — and moderators never asked about poverty

Bernie Sanders at a debate in February. No moderator asked about poverty in nine presidential debates, a new report finds.
Bernie Sanders at a debate in February. No moderator asked about poverty in nine presidential debates, a new report finds.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The moderators of the Democratic presidential debates did not ask a single question about poverty in any of the nine contests held over seven months, according to a new report released Friday.

The candidates themselves brought up poverty a total of 17 times, but the topic wasn't raised once by any of the debate hosts, says media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).

Here's FAIR's Adam Johnson:

A FAIR analysis of all nine democratic debates over the past seven months shows that not one question was asked about poverty. By contrast, 30 questions were asked about ISIS or terrorism (almost half of them concentrated in the December 19 debate, which took place days after the San Bernardino shootings) and 11 questions were asked Russia. Ten questions were asked about socialism or communism, all of which were directed at Bernie Sanders.

The candidates themselves have brought up poverty, either in their prepared remarks or in response to more abstract questions about the economy. Sanders brought up poverty in all but two debates, broaching the topic 12 times, or approximately 1.3 times per debate. Clinton brought up the issue five times in total, or a little more than once every other debate.

Of course, running the debates is no simple task; there are loads of critically important topics to cover and not nearly enough time. That's opened up the networks to endless sniping and second-guessing from both media critics and the candidates themselves.

The moderators were hit by Media Matters, for instance, for only asking about climate change 1.5 percent of the time in both parties' 20 presidential debates. In April, Hillary Clinton dinged the networks for not asking a single question about abortion during the first eight debates, and Sanders has frequently criticized the "corporate media" for its focus on campaign trivia.

In 2008, the Atlantic's James Fallows suffered through 47 Democratic debates and highlighted a Democratic strategist's report that broke down into real questions, "gotcha questions," and "puff questions," like, "What is your favorite Bible verse?"

dem debate (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

But FAIR argues that the lack of questions about poverty is a particularly glaring oversight, given that the Democratic primary has been largely defined by discussions of wealth inequality and economic stagnation — and given that extreme poverty has increased over the past several years, at least according to some accounts.

"The poorest of the poor are also worse off today than they were in 1969," writes Christopher Jencks in the New York Review of Books. "Inequality has risen even among the poor."

We don't have exact numbers on how many questions were asked overall in the nine Democratic debates, but Media Matters tallied 1,477 questions in 20 debates across both parties.

If there's any silver lining, it's that the networks will soon have another golden opportunity to raise the issue: Only a few million people on average watch the primary debates, but the general election showdowns can draw an audience of up to 60 million viewers, according to the New York Times.


We know how to end poverty. So why don't we?