Election 2012: Is the media obligated to give fair time during debates?

November 14, 2011


We are now many months into the 2012 Republican primaries, and the televised debates have played a major role in helping the public decide who to support.  There have been 11 debates thus far, and 5 remain before the first caucus in Iowa in January.  The most recent debate occurred this past Saturday on CBS, which focused solely on foreign policy issues.

8 candidates participated in the debate: Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Jon Huntsman.

In most of the debates thus far, each candidate is given a minute of speaking time per question, and then 30 seconds for a follow up question or a rebuttal.  One would assume that in an hour long debate with 8 candidates, once you factor in time for commercials (15 min) and the moderators asking the questions (10 min), each candidate would get around 4-4 1/2 minutes of speaking time each.  This was not the case in the last debate, however, as some candidates got much more time to speak than others.  Getting the least amount of time were Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, and Congressman Ron Paul, whose campaign manager recently released a statement claiming Paul got only 90 seconds of speaking time.

Bachmann’s campaign has also claimed of unfairness, and even has released an e-mail they obtained by John Dickerson, a CBS political news analyst, in which he admits Bachmann would not be asked many questions in that night’s debate.


This discrepancy in speaking time for each candidate has not been limited to this one debate, either.  In a study by the University of Minnesota, speaking times for three earlier debates were analyzed:


As seen, Mitt Romney received the bulk of the speaking time, getting around twice as much as Huntsman, Cain, Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul.

Why would the media deliberately ask more questions to certain candidates than others?  One theory is that they give more time to those who are higher in the polls, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.  Congressman Ron Paul has polled at times as high as third place in some polls, yet he receives the least amount of speaking time.  Shown above, he receives even less speaking time than Jon Huntsman, who often finishes last in the same polls.

Even if the candidates did get amounts of speaking time proportionate to their polling numbers, that method would be inherently flawed and self-fulfilling.  If certain candidates barely get any time to speak, then the voters cannot hear their ideas and thus it becomes harder for them to rise in the polls.

The media has a responsibility to fairly conduct these debates, or else the voters are denied opportunities to decide which candidate they want to vote for.  In a sense, the media is influencing the people who to vote for if they show preference to one candidate over another by giving them more questions and face time.  To remedy this situation, I propose the moderators ask each candidate every question, instead of handpicking certain questions to give to certain candidates as they do now.  This way, each person gets the exact same amount of time to speak, and the voters get to hear different perspectives on the same question.

The main principle here is equality.  Every candidate on that stage should be presumed to be equal, and thus get the same amount of questions and speaking time.  This equality, however, in my opinion, can only come from the news stations themselves, and not any laws.  John Stuart Mill’s application of freedom of speech applies in this situation.  Those whom are running the debates express may express themselves by doing whatever they feel, even if that includes not allocating equal speaking time.  John Locke would also most likely disagree with a law regulating the debates, and would view that as an overreach of government.

The best way to combat this comes from the citizens as well as the candidates themselves.  If enough people demand change, they can pressure the news networks into providing fair coverage.  The candidates could also refuse to appear in any debate that did not ensure equal questions for all.

If the news stations are going to take the responsibility of conducting these debates for the benefit of the American voters, then they need to be impartial in their moderating and let each candidate speak for an equal amount of time, and stop showing favoritism to certain candidates while ignoring others.



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7 Comments on “Election 2012: Is the media obligated to give fair time during debates?”

  1. elmatts25 Says:

    I agree that in presidential debates, candidates should be given equal time to speak and be asked the same amount of question. I learned in Communications 101 that media restrictions and limitations have been put in place for political campaigns. The reason being the attempt to assure a more fair, less money reliant approach to political media campaigns. I can’t say that I agree one hundred with the limitations but I do not know all of the details and reasons behind them.
    In this case, I think it is unfair that certain candidates were given less time to respond and were asked less questions. The Republican presidential debate is an official media broadcast, and serves more benefit than political commercials. It is no secret that media in general has a ginormous influence on the American public. Therefore, if news stations edit presidential debates, in anyway, they are influencing the opinions of the American public.
    The presidential race is the single most important democratic event in America. Citizens should have equal opportunity to be educated and for their proper opinions without influence from the media. It is especially important in this case because the media would not be swaying viewers to vote Republican or Democrat but instead making viewers partial to certain Republican candidates. One’s political party affiliation is not something that can be easily persuaded to change. However, citizens might be easily persuaded for which candidate to vote for, or for which they currently prefer.
    I believe that the news should be impartial, especially when it comes to presidential debates and should in no way show favoritism for one candidate over another.

    • yonglee92 Says:

      I also agree that each candidate should have a fair and equal amount of time allocated to them so that they may respond accordingly and appropriately. Otherwise we risk the chance that we do not receive a fair representation of each candidate and are left with an inaccurate opinion of who the best candidate may be. In turn, this inaccuracy would extend to an imprecise evaluation of the candidates and could potentially affect the polls in a devastating way.

      According to John Harwood of the New York Times, regarding the CNBC presidential debate, “We had promised the candidates fairness rather than equal time, but those who felt neglected weren’t happy. Mr. Santorum, with 5 minutes and 28 seconds of airtime, was on the screen roughly half the time that Mr. Romney was.”

      However, it could be argued that the amount of speaking time given may also be considered a double-edged sword. In other words, certain candidates could potentially suffer from what they say due to the idiocy or incompetence that they may reveal of themselves.

      An example of this would be when Rick Perry stumbled on his speech concerning budget cuts and made a huge error on his part. In the debate he said, “It’s three agencies of government when I get there that are gone…Commerce, Education and the, uh, what’s the third one there, let’s see…”
      After failing to name the third, he later ended on a dumbfounded “oops” as if it was a simple mistake that could be easily dismissed.

      Therefore the media had actually given him more exposure that resulted in a negative effect on his image and candidacy. In this case, they revealed that he did not possess a complete and total understanding of a major part in his campaign.

      Yet the fact that this is a presidential debate should not be a factor in determining whether or not media should be obligated to give each candidate a fair and equal amount of time during debates. While these debates in particular are very important since they affect the presidential election, the media should be obligated to give fair time to any debate that they choose to cover.

      John Harwood

  2. #jasonschwartz Says:

    I think that there is an even worse and more broad underlieing issue here, and that issue is the funding of presidential campains. A few years ago, Barak Obama made it a goal to recieve the highest amount of campain funding for this next election in the history of all campain funding. This is inherently unfair because the candidates with mroe funding for comercials have a much better chance at swaying the public their way rather than towards any other ways. Also, when candidates seek funding they often make promises to a few wealthy peopl erather than to the country as a whole. As a result of this I think that washington should create one presidential campain fund that separates the wealth of the campain funding throughout all the ranks of all the people trying to get elected. This would severely improve the fairness in elections as well as erase all private promises made by candidates.

  3. ldahbour Says:

    The role of the media in the primary season disgusts me to a level I cannot express in words. The drive to accelerate the competitiveness is unsettling. The media has two faces, in my opinion. One face is the ‘what’s good for TV face’. As it’s name depicts, this side of the media focuses on the entertainment of news rather than its veracity. They want that big yellow headline on the bottom of the screen that reads BREAKING NEWS. And let’s not lie, that headline, good or bad, gets us excited; it attracts us to the news station. However, while it is good to keep us informed and attracted to current events, to compromise veracity for entertainment is line that should never be crossed. I think this is partly why we see such bias in presidential debates. So much false steam is generated building up to the debate that the real issues lose focus and become negligible. Instead of hearing about Ron Paul’s thoughts on foreign policy we are forced to hear about Rick Perry’s forgetful sound bites or Cain’s sex scandals. While I believe that these things can contribute to the opinion of a prospective voter, they should not be the center of a foreign policy debate.

    The other face of the news media is the ‘We are the friend of people face’. On air, news anchors always say how they are “working for you” and “digging for the truth”. While this is true in the sense that they expose facts that would have not been revealed spontaneously, they true to dictate what our concerns should be. I honestly don’t care if Cain is having trouble with his former employees, yes it is good to know, I guess, but it is not a headline that will be an opinion changing one when I vote next year. Media networks make it seem like they put on the ‘what’s good for TV face’ so they can be an advocate of the people. If I want to watch something good on TV, I’ll turn on FX or Comedy Central, not CNN. I turn on CNN because I would like to be informed about substantive issues that are relative to my society. Depriving me of that information only makes me hate the media more. Let Ron Paul get his minutes so I can know how he will handle the Israeli -Palestinian Conflict or Iran or Asian trade.

  4. dhp27 Says:

    I think it is completely shameful for the media to play such a large role in our debates. These elections should be fair and balanced. If one candidate is garnering more air time, then ultimately they are going to gain more attention and thus maybe more votes. Candidates who don’t get as much of a chance to really gain an audience and thus a fair chance in the elections. In a real life presidential election, the opinions of the politicians running should matter most and not what the media has to say. For Ron Paul to only get 89 seconds of air time is unfair. Depriving us voters of all the candidates views, really leaves us more uneducated and unaware of who we should vote for. The only fair way to run this is to let me hear what Ron Paul says so that I am fully aware if I am going to vote for him or not.

  5. phillipschermer Says:

    One of the founding principles of this country was, and remains, equality of opportunity. Be it the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to an equal education, the right to pursue whatever religion you see fit, this country has always believed in equality of opportunity. That’s what makes these presidential debates so unsettling. Both the candidates’ and the general public’s rights are being violated. The candidates who are being “ignored” are losing their right to equality of opportunity as it relates to making their pitch to the American people. And, even more importantly, the American people are being denied their right to be fully informed by having equality in access to their presidential candidates. How can the public feel confident that they are making the most informed decision (and thus, the best for the country) if they cannot gather all of the information necessary on the candidates. This rejection of the public’s right to equality of access to the candidates threatens the public’s voting ability. The people perpetuating such a system should think twice before they continue to deny the public’s right.

  6. nluongo Says:

    I believe that in presidential debates everyone should have an equal amount of time to respond to each question. Otherwise, it is very difficult to compare the merit of different candidates if some answer one question and some answer another. The way the system is now, the person running the debate has incredible influence on which candidates get the most face time with the audience and which ones are left to the side. The best system would be one in which each candidate is given an equal amount of time to voice their opinions on the current subject.

    I also believe that money should be made to have less of an impact in elections. I would say that the amount of money a candidate has is the single biggest factor in who will win the election and it should be based on the merits of one’s ideas, no the size of one’s wallet. The opportunity to be elected is not equal currently because you have no chance of winning if you don’t have money or rich sponsors.

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