"Odd" is the nice word for it.
For all the talk about inequality and inclusion from the Democratic presidential candidates, for all the major national news this year about the ways that American life remains shaped by race, for all the reporting that's been done on the rapidly changing demographics of the United States, the network airing the first Democratic presidential primary debate Tuesday thought it wise to allow an experienced Latino reporter to ask a small series of questions about immigration, and a black reporter to introduce a single inquiry from Facebook about Black Lives Matter. And that's all we heard from them until nearly two hours into the debate.
Yes, we are aware that Don Lemon introduced a second question from Facebook about climate change at 10:36 p.m. Yes, we are aware that CNN en Espanol's Juan Carlos Lopez asked Clinton a direct question about her noncommittal stance on legalizing marijuana at 10:45 p.m., and followed up on that question. And yes, we know that Lemon even asked a third question about Obama and the issue of compromise with Congress, on behalf of a viewer in Manassas, Va.
See what we did there? We even noted the time. But the question here is: Did CNN?
This is 2015. This is a country in which 37.4 percent of the population identifies as black, Latino, Native American or Asian. You can check the numbers for yourself here. White Americans not only make up a shrinking share of the population and the electorate, but are not longer the most reliable participants in presidential elections.
This is also a country in which no person of color has moderated a presidential debate since 1992 — and that was the moment when Carole Simpson became the first black woman to ever do so. Since then, Gwen Ifill has moderated a vice presidential debate. The situation has gotten so bad that in 2012, Univision hosted its own candidate forums in which candidates were asked about a wide variety of issues by Latino journalists. Those reporters brought their understanding of Latino life in America to the questions they posed and how they framed them. But understand this. There was much more than immigration covered.
Now, the primary debates are coordinated by the parties and the networks. The debates during the general election are controlled by the presidential debate commission. Both have some real explaining to do. So far, we've heard from the debate commission that they blame the television networks for failing to recruit and develop a sufficient talent pool of minority journalists with the skills and experience to moderate a debate. That claim is, again, pretty darn debatable considering only Tuesday night's examples.
That is not, of course, to say that there was no place or role for Cooper or a lead moderator. It is to say that there was something very wrong with the incredibly limited ones proscribed for Lopez and Lemon.
The point here is that it's high time for CNN and every other institution that wants to be taken seriously to cease believing that this sort of arrangement is okay, that no one will notice or — worse still — that their minority-reporter showcase moments are anything close to admirable. This is what many Americans of all races understand to be tokenism and really tacky debate structuring, pure and simple.
CNN is free to showcase Cooper as much as it likes. That's the network's prerogative. But the arrangement Tuesday night was particularly telling. What we heard from Lemon until 10:36 and Lopez until 10:45 were not just questions mysteriously connected to CNN's apparently pretty limited notion of either non-white viewers, journalists or both, but a pair of questions about immigration and the Black Lives matter movement that each and every one of the candidates had to anticipate.
And, not surprisingly, both questions produced some of the most canned responses in the entire debate and revealed very little, if any, distance at all between the Democratic candidates. So, for the viewer — correction, the voter — there was very little, if anything, gained.
And to be clear here: Everything — particularly the questions and who will pose them — during a debate is planned.
Now, it does get tricky to defend Lemon's journalistic standing. He has, of late, dedicated much of his airtime to building the commentary and controversy-courting sides of his resume. His bosses seem to like this. There have been moments when it seems that Lemon is determined to pick up where comedian and self-appointed scold of black America Bill Cosby left off. And sometimes, what Lemon has said on air almost defies description.
But Lemon has no doubt been reporting for years , covers a wide range of topics every day on his show, "CNN Tonight with Don Lemon," (a show much like Cooper's "Anderson Cooper 360"), and heads to at least nearly as many national breaking-news scenes as Cooper.
But where Lopez is concerned, CNN's decision-making is really almost impossible to justify. If you can read Spanish or put your faith in Google Translate, take a close look at CNN's own bio page for Lopez. If not, do look at The Fix's brief profile of the man and his work. He is a truly and really experienced journalist who has covered a range of serious political and social matters, including natural disasters and breaking news for CNN domestically and internationally, since the 1990s.
CNN reduced these two experienced reporters to window dressing until nearly two hours after the debate began. And despite the network's promises to put on a substantive and revealing debate, mostly skimmed the surface and prompted an awful lot of answers that anyone who has been following the election, at all, could have predicted from each of the candidates.
I can also say this with near-certainty: For many journalists of color, there is a recognition if not a sense of responsibility to ensure that immigration reform and police misconduct are topics covered well, covered often and covered with rigor. But there is also ample interest in and ability to cover other topics. There are, even, many journalists of color who can and do — gasp — ask questions about budgets and tax policy, education practices, and economic conditions every day. And, just like any reporter who does his or her homework, sometimes these reporters can pose questions that include some sense of the way that race and ethnicity can also shape all of the above. This is where really interesting answers about inequality and mass incarceration, zero-tolerance policing and education funding might begin.
We've all heard each of these candidates say they are concerned about climate change and Syria and that they now understand the degree to which Black Lives Matter and are at risk. And this wasn't a Republican debate in which half the viewers have tuned in to see who Trump is going to insult next.
Just think, for a brief moment, what earnest and revealing discussion might have been had about increased government financing for college education if said question also acknowledged that cost and the longer work hours that black and Latino students put in on average while attending school are also known factors in their lower graduation rates.
Of course, Cooper could ask that question. But so too could Lemon or Lopez. Instead, Cooper opted not to and it seems Lemon and Lopez had no opportunity.
There's also ample evidence that black and Latino voters are concerned about a range of topics. (See pages 11-27 of CNN's own September poll, or, this one conducted the same month) So any attempt to explain Tuesday night's arrangement by placing blame on the interests and attention spans of voters of color is a nonstarter.
Yes, these voters and these viewers are also deeply concerned about immigration and police misconduct, for obvious reasons. But why couldn't we get just a few more questions directly from Lemon and Lopez about education, about the economy, about tax policy, about Clinton's reference to a new New Deal; about the Islamic State, about many of the other things that concern all Americans, including Americans who are not white?
Here is the memo that CNN's producers might have missed about America, circa 2015: Race and ethnicity matter, sometimes in ways that are truly disturbing. But what non-white America thinks about a whole range of issues and the ability of all journalists to frame questions which are cognizant of the way race works in America matters too.
These are questions that presidential candidates need to be asked. And, quite frankly, America could benefit from watching a wider variety of people asking a bigger range of questions, period.