50 Shades of Terrible: Here's What an Awful Debate Question Looks Like

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Would anyone ask two male candidates if they had subscriptions to Playboy?

This year's presidential and vice-presidential debates have seen their fair share -- more than their fair share -- of carping about the quality of moderation and the quality of questions. Jim Lehrer was too timid, most people agreed; Candy Crowley was too kind to President Obama, conservatives charged; the questions have either ignored crucial and important issues or failed to adequately challenge the candidates on frequently discussed ones.

But this moment at Wednesday's debate between candidates for U.S. Senate from New York takes the cake. Watch and cringe as Liz Benjamin asks Republican Wendy Long and Democratic incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand, "Have you read 50 Shades of Grey?" We should note that Benjamin looked uncomfortable asking, and Policy Mic reports it was part of a string of "lightning round" questions.

How bad is this question? First, can anyone imagine this being asked in a race with any male candidates? (For that matter, would anyone two male candidates if they had subscriptions to Playboy?) We're not talking about a laugh-line about underwear at an MTV candidate forum; it's an actual question, delivered in a real debate by an accomplished journalist. There are just 17 women in the Senate today; can you blame a prospective candidate who would rather sit it out than face this sort of questioning? (To be fair, 2009 Big Apple mayoral candidates Michael Bloomberg and Bill Thompson were grilled on whether they'd ever had a mani-pedi.)

And of course there's the utter uselessness of the question. Seriously: What purpose could the question serve other than embarrassing one or both women? It isn't as if there aren't serious policy questions facing New York and the nation. Yes, there's a logic behind This or That style questions, even frivolous ones, because they tell us something about the choice a candidate would make -- even the Team Edward vs. Team Jacob one that Elena Kagan was asked. But there's no choice here.

For the record, neither candidate has read the lite-bondage smash.

The debate won't change much -- Gillibrand has a nearly 40-point lead over Long in recent polls. Still: Do better, New York.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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