“At Least Six Million Questions”?

Behind the presidential debate’s numbers confusion

The New York Times’s political blog, The Caucus, is cleaning up after itself after a Monday night post claimed that “at least six million questions” were received for Tuesday night’s presidential debate.

The number raised many eyebrows—ours included—given that Tom Brokaw, the debate’s moderator, made a point of saying during the debate that “tens out of thousands [of questions were] submitted online.”

That the submissions were, indeed, in the “tens out of thousands” was confirmed by both Jenny Tartikoff, an NBC Universal representative, and Lee Brenner, the political director at MySpace.com, the social networking site that hosted the debate’s online question submissions through its MyDebates.org page. The actual number of questions submitted, each said, was approximately 25,000.

So where did the six million number come from? Katharine Q. Seelye, Times political reporter and author of the post in question, told CJR’s Armin Rosen that it originated with NBC Washington bureau chief Mark Whitaker, and was passed along to the Commission on Presidential Debates co-chairman, Frank Fahrenkopf. The figure referred, Seelye said, to questions submitted to NBC, rather than to the Commission itself. (Seelye would later add, on an update to her blog post, that the six million number “referred to the total number of e-mails, comments, calls and messages sent to NBC in advance of the debate.”)

So the six million number may be accurate, but it is also, in this context, misleading: Though an NBC personality moderated the debate, of course, the event itself was held independent of any television network. Questions submitted to NBC about the debate have basically nothing to do with the questions actually asked at the debate itself.

The relative dearth of questions submitted for airing at the debate—compared to the “six million” assertion, anyway—likely has to do with the high degree of specificity involved in the question-submission process. MyDebates.org, through its educational partnership with the CPD, was the only outlet through which people could submit questions to Brokaw. Submitters were required to provide a name and zip code in order to enter a question to prevent spammers or bots from “asking” a question.

And Brokaw, it seems—though his infamous “Zen-like” query would seem to suggest otherwise—really did have his pick of some 25,000 questions to ask the candidates on Tuesday night. A production assistant from the CPD (who, talking only on background, wished to be unnamed) told CJR yesterday that the Commission was not involved in the receiving, reviewing, or distribution of Internet questions. The questions were simply gathered on MyDebates.org, and then forwarded to the debate’s moderator.

MySpace’s Brenner confirmed that. “As far as I know, [the questions] were only from us and sent directly to Brokaw,” he said.

In light of all this, sometime between yesterday evening and this morning, an update was appended to Seelye’s post:

Clarification: The six million number in this post referred to the total number of e-mails, comments, calls and messages sent to NBC in advance of the debate. It was not the number of questions officially submitted for the debate. The number of questions formally submitted to MyDebates.org, a joint project of the Commission on Presidential Debates and MySpace, was about 25,000.

It would have been nice to see that before that six million number circled the Internet, though.

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Megan McGinley and Armin Rosen are interns at CJR.