Identity journalism pollutes the Democratic debate stage

Something I’m calling “identity journalism” has taken over the Democratic primary debates in 2019. Watching the third in a series of who-knows-how-many “debates” among the many contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, I became aware of something disturbing: The debate moderators—on-air anchors and reporters from ABC News—sorted themselves out into ethnicities and based many of their questions on those identities. Here’s how it played out:

The four moderators were ABC​ News’​ George Stephanopoulos, David Muir, Linsey Davis and Univision’s Jorge Ramos. As the debate [and I use that term very loosely] progressed, Linsey Davis—the African-American moderator—asked the “black questions” about racial inequality, the rise of white supremacy, and institutional racism in America. Jorge Ramos, the Latino moderator, asked the “Hispanic” questions about the candidates’ views on immigration and on Trump’s actions at the U.S.-Mexico border. Stephanopoulous and Muir asked questions that were more “universal,”—the subtext of which is that white is the default, the standard, the non-ethnic.

I don’t know if they talked this strategy over when planning the debate, but it makes me uncomfortable to realize that, apparently, only the black moderator can ask the racial questions, only the Latino moderator can ask the immigration questions, and only the white moderators can ask the “non-ethnic” questions. It’s journalistic stereotyping, and it makes me queasy to watch it.

There’s a similar stratification among candidates and the questions they’re expected to address. Kamala Harris and Corey Booker, almost inevitably through the debates so far, get the racial inequality questions first. They’re people of color so, of course, in the minds of the moderators, they’re the experts on these issues. I’d venture to say that Elizabeth Warren has not been asked very many questions about racial relations, but I’d have to review all of the transcripts to confirm that assertion.

Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro get the immigration questions. Pete Buttigieg gets the “LGBTQ” questions—and gets a special dispensation to answer “racial” questions because of unrest in South Bend, Indiana, where he is mayor. Sanders, Warren, Biden and Klobuchar get the “white people” questions about healthcare, foreign affairs and taxes, and are left on the sidelines of the “ethnic” issues. I’d like to hear more from them about their views on immigration, gun violence and racial issues, and I’d like to hear more from the others about their views on the more “generic” issues. That may happen, but only, I’m afraid when the field has narrowed considerably.

I want to note, also, that the candidates themselves have aided and abetted this stereotyping by staking out territories that distinguish them from the unwieldy pack of nearly two dozen people who initially sought the Democratic nomination. Kirsten Gillibrand billed herself as the feminist candidate. Tulsi Gabbard was the more conservative military veteran candidate. Tim Ryan identified himself as the working person’s champion. Jay Inslee, John Hickenlooper and Steve Bullock positioned themselves as the get-it-done governors.

But as the field has begun to shrink, not only are candidates disappearing, so is attention to their self-proclaimed territories fading. With no governor on the debate stage, moderators don’t ask questions about the nuts-and-bolts of governing. In the absence of Kirsten Gillibrand, moderators at the third debate didn’t ask a single question about reproductive rights or Me-Too issues. Unions? Workers? The middle class? No Tim Ryan, so no working-guy questions. And if you’d like to hear candidates’ views on what to do about poverty in America’s “booming economy,” fuhgettaboutit: There’s not a “poor person’s candidate” in sight, so who’s going to bother to ask about that?

We are in desperate times. We need real political debate—not the made-for-tv, 60-second answer, try-to-spark-a-feud, issue-stereotyped game show that we are currently seeing.