CNN Debate’s Question Assignments Raise Concerns Of Tokenism

CREDIT: AP Photo/John Locher

Anderson Cooper with the candidates at Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate

Unlike last month’s CNN Republican presidential debate, which featured questions from two straight white men and a straight white woman, Tuesday’s Democratic debate on the network featured considerably more diversity in its moderators and viewer-questioners. But some viewers, Vox, and RedState founder Erick Erickson suggested that the question assignments seemed to go to “token” members of the groups most associated with the question.

Openly gay principal moderator Anderson Cooper asked Hillary Clinton about her record on marriage equality. Juan Carlos Lopez of CNN en Español asked the candidates about immigration reform and health care for undocumented immigrants. Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash asked a question about family leave. CNN Tonight anchor Don Lemon, himself black, introduced a young black male to ask about whether Black Lives Matter. And a young woman was brought on to ask a question about climate change.

ThinkProgress spoke with several progressive activists who applauded the inclusion of these topics in Tuesday night’s debate, but expressed concern that the topics might appear to be parochial concerns only for these particular groups based on the way CNN assigned them. CNN did not immediately respond to a ThinkProgress request for comment.

Juan Escalante, an immigration reform advocate with America’s Voice, said CNN “has some work to do” when it comes to the network’s execution of questioning the candidates. “I think the way the questions were handled yesterday definitely read a little odd to me, particularly the ones that surrounded Black Lives Matter and essentially immigration. My reaction to the whole thing is that they seem to have been playing to stereotypes for one reason or another.” He noted that the content of the questions was fine, but wished the debate organizers had been “a little more sensitive and responsible” in determining who would ask them.

Mario Carillo, spokesman for the immigration reform group United We Dream, was even more critical. “I couldn’t help but laugh,” he said via email. “When Don Lemon was brought on to ask a question on Black Lives Matter, I half-jokingly tweeted that I’m sure Juan Carlos Lopez would be brought on to talk about immigration.”

Carillo added that while “there is nothing wrong with Juan Carlos leading the discussion on immigration,” CNN’s sole Latino journalist present “was surely capable of discussing more than just immigration and drugs.” In all, he said, “Anderson Cooper did a great job but the scene of a white male front man surrounded by special interest tokens stepping in and out of the spotlight only when ‘their’ issues are called on is exactly what is wrong with American media today.”

Aaron Huertas, science communications officer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, praised CNN for including questions about climate change at this debate and previous presidential debates. “Young people do have more at stake when it comes to the type of planet they’re going to inherit and their voices are often unfairly marginalized in the debate, so I would not criticize CNN for giving a relatively younger person the opportunity to ask about climate change,” he said via email, noting that “climate change is also far more than just a young person’s issue and I wouldn’t want people to think that climate damage is some futuristic threat.”

But Leehi Yona, a climate change activist with SustainUs and a youth delegate to COP21 (the United Nations Conference on Climate Change), was less sanguine. Noting that she has written extensively about the tokenizing of youths, argued that having a young woman ask the primary climate change question was “pretty much the textbook definition” of tokenism. “CNN was trying to highlight the communities that are directly affected by subject of those questions,” she observed, “but having certain groups asking those questions [effectively] sidelined those issues as only being relevant to a small group of the American population, which is not true.”

By leaving “women’s rights, climate change, and civil rights,” to only women, youth, and racial minorities,” Yona said, the network gave the impression that each is “not something general American society thinks is a problem.”