News / USA

    Obama, Romney Face Off in First Debate

    Kent KleinJim Malone
    President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, faced off Wednesday in their first debate of the election campaign. The debate focused on the top issue of the campaign, the state of the U.S. economy.
     
    For 90 minutes, the president and the former governor of the state of Massachusetts clashed over how best to strengthen the country's sluggish economy.
     
    Romney aggressively attacked the Democratic president's economic policies, and they disagreed sharply about tax cuts. "Virtually everything he just said about my tax plan is inaccurate.  So if the tax plan he described were a tax plan I was asked to support, I would say 'Absolutely not.'  I am not looking for a $5 trillion tax cut," he said. 
     
    Obama countered that the challenger's ideas for changing the tax system would not work. "The fact is, if you are lowering the rates the way you described, Governor, then it is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high-income individuals to avoid either raising the deficit or burdening the middle class," he said. 

    • Kim Li, a junior at Denver University, watches the first 2012 U.S. presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on an outdoor screen at Denver University in Denver, Colorado, October 3, 2012.
    • Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, listens to President Barack Obama during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver.
    • President Barack Obama smiles at moderator Jim Lehrer during the first presidential debate with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the University of Denver.
    • Moderator Jim Lehrer speaks to the audience at the start of the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in Denver.
    • Mitt Romney smiles at President Barack Obama during the first presidential debate.
    • President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney participate in the first presidential debate at the University of Denver in Denver.
    • Jessica Johnston (holding sign) watches the first 2012 presidential debate on an outdoor screen at Denver University in Denver, Colorado.
    • Dawn, left, and Randy Cornell, watch the presidential debate at the United Steelworkers Local 4856 Union Hall in Henderson, Nevada.
    • With a broadcast of the presidential debate reflected in a mirror above the bar, customers at the Havana Social Club in Seattle watch President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney debate.
    • Harriet Garrett reacts while watching the first Presidential debate between Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and President Barack Obama at a restaurant in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia.
    • President Barack Obama (R) listens as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks during the debate in Denver.
    • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver.
    • Mitt Romney and his wife Ann wave to the crowd following the debate.
    They also sparred over whether the president's health care program, sometimes called "Obamacare," would help or hurt the U.S. economy.  The Republican challenger said Obama should have concentrated instead on creating jobs.
     
    "I just do not know how the president could have come into office, facing 23 million people out of work, rising unemployment, an economic crisis at the kitchen table, and spent his energy and passion for two years fighting for Obamacare, instead of fighting for jobs for the American people," said Romney. 
     
    The president responded that when he took office, problems in the nation's health care system were just as urgent as the jobless rate.
     
    The First 2012 Presidential Debate

    Topics:

    • The Economy
    • Health Care
    • The Role of Government
    • Governing

    Format:

    • Six, 15-minute segments
    • Each segment opens with a question by the moderator
    • Candidates have two minutes each to respond, rest of segment used for discussion
    Source: Commission on Presidential Debates
    "It was not just that small businesses were seeing costs skyrocket and they could not get affordable coverage even if they wanted to provide it to their employees.  It was not just that this was the biggest driver of our federal deficit, our overall health care costs.  But it was families who worried about going bankrupt if they got sick," he said. 
     
    The widely-anticipated debate, in Denver, Colorado, took place 34 days before the election.
     
    Most recent public opinion polls show Obama with a slight lead nationwide and in the swing states that analysts expect to decide the election.
     
    Joseph Lowndes, a professor of political science at the University of Oregon, says the first debate is usually the most important, especially for the challenger.  While he believes both candidates performed well, he says Romney did not score a decisive victory.
     
    "No challenger who has trailed as much as Romney has, going into this debate, has ever won.  So I think, you know, it is not likely to be enough of a bump to actually change the game in any significant ways," he said. 
     
    The 2012 Presidential Debate Schedule

    • October 3: Moderator asks questions on domestic policy
    • October 16: Town hall meeting in which undecided voters ask questions on domestic, foreign issues
    • October 22: Moderator asks questions on foreign policy
    Frank Gilliam, the dean of the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), also says the governor did well, but not well enough to give him a lead in the polls.
     
    "Romney scored a body blow, perhaps, but nothing to put the president in danger, certainly not a knockout," he said. 
     
    This was the first of three debates between the two contenders.  President Obama and Governor Romney will square off next on October 16, on both domestic and foreign policy issues.  The final debate, exclusively on foreign policy, is set for October 22.
     
    Vice President Joe Biden and his Republican challenger, Congressman Paul Ryan, will debate on October 11.
     
    The president and Romney have rarely met, and have almost no personal relationship.  Before Wednesday's debate, they had not seen each other in person in almost five years. 
     
     
    Below is VOA's minute by minute look at the debate, as it happened. 

    1230 UTC
    1240 UTC
    1250 UTC

    Moderator Jim Lehrer welcomes audience to debate hall and explains rules: "Absolute silence." Lehrer says this event is important because it's about those millions and millions of people watching to make one of the most important decisions a citizen of this country makes. Lehrer says, as a precaution, he's going to ask Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Romney to enforce the rules of silence on their respective sides.

    0100 UTC

    Lehrer says "let's have a terrific evening for all of you and for our country." After welcoming the audience and nationwide viewers, he says tonight's 90 minutes will be about domestic issues. Lehrer says the questions will include three on the economy and one each on health care, the role of government and governing. He says both candidates will also have two minute closing statements

    0104 UTC

    Romney and Obama greet each other and shake hands, wave to the audience. Frist question is about jobs and President Obama answers first. 

    0106 UTC
    0107 UTC

    Obama acknowledges his wedding anniversary, saying he wants to wish Michelle a happy anniversary. Obama says the U.S. economy has begun to fight its way back, but that we all know there is still a lot of work to do. He says the question is not where we've been, but where we're going. Obama says it's ultimately up to the voters on which path we'll take.

    0109 UTC

    Romney jokes that he's sure this is the most romantic place Obama can imagine being on his anniversary. Romney says it's going to take a different path than the one we've been on to create jobs. Romney says he's concerned the path the nation is on has been unsuccessful. He says he'll restore the vitality that gets America working again.

    0112 UTC

    Lehrer asks Obama to respond to Romney's statement on the trickle-down approach. Obama says programs to boost education are showing results. Obama says he and Romney agree that the nation's corporate tax code is too high and says he wants to lower it. Obama says he and Romney agree that the nation has to boost its energy production. Obama calls for looking at the energy sources of the future and looking at those investments.

    0115 UTC

    Lehrer prompts Romney to ask Obama a direct question. Romney challenges Obama's claim that his economic plan includes a $5 trillion tax cut. Romney says the people who are having a hard time under Obama's policies are middle income Americans. Romney looks directly at Obama as he says middle income Americans are being "crushed." Romney said he agrees that education is key. Romney says he agrees the country needs to bring the tax rates down both for corporations and individuals. Romney says energy is critical, but increase in natural gas and oil is not due to president's policies, but in spite of them. 

    0118 UTC

    Obama says four years ago, he said he would cut taxes for middle class families. He says that's exactly what he did, because he believes the nation does best when the middle class is doing well. Obama says studies show the only way to enforce Romney's economic plan without adding to the deficit would be to put the burden on the middle class. He said he does not believe that is a recipe for economic growth.

    0120 UTC

    Romney says he will not add to the deficit with his tax plan. Romney says he wants to bring tax rates down, so small businesses will be able to hire more people.

    0122 UTC

    Obama says if you are lowering the rates as Romney suggests, there is no way to avoid raising the deficit or burdening the middle class. Obama says he lowered taxes for small businesses 18 times and wants to continue the tax cuts in place for small businesses and families. Obama says the country should go back to the tax rates it had when Bill Clinton was president. He says by doing that, the nation can reduce the deficit, encourage job growth and allow for investments in things like education.

    0124 UTC

    Lehrer points out that this discussion has gone over its allotted 15 minutes.
     
    Romney continues to hit back at Obama's policies, saying he does not want to cost the nation jobs. Romney says there's nothing better to get the budget balanced than have more people working. Obama says math, common sense and our history shows Romney's plan is not a recipe for growth.

    0125 UTC
    0126 UTC

    Romney says he is not in favor of a $5 trillion tax cut or any tax cut that adds to the deficit. Romney says his priority is putting people back to work in America. 

    Lehrer asks second question: what are the differences between the two candidates as to how they would go about tackling the deficit?

    0129 UTC

    Romney says the amount of debt we're adding is "simply not moral." Romney says there are 3 ways you can cut a deficit: raise taxes, cut spending or grow the economy. He says the president would prefer raising taxes, but that he wants to lower spending and encourage economic growth at the same time. Romney says Obamacare is on his list of programs to get rid of. Romney says the president said he would cut the deficit in half, but that instead, he doubled it. 

    0131 UTC

    Obama says he had more than a trillion dollar deficit greeting him when he walked into the Oval Office. Obama says everyone knows the nation needs to do more and that he has put forward a deficit reduction plan. Obama says it needs to be done in a balanced way with some revenue and some spending cuts.

    0132 UTC

    Romney challenges Obama by saying he has said before that he would cut the deficit, but that the nation still shows trillion dollar deficits every year. Romney says Obama's tax plan will kill hundreds of thousands of jobs. 

    0134 UTC

    Obama says in order to reduce the deficit, there has to be revenue in addition to cuts, but that Romney has ruled out revenue. Romney says the idea of taxing people more and putting people out of work will never balance the budget. Romney says he wants to put the nation on the path to growth with more money coming in because people are working.

    0138 UTC

    Obama says he has identified areas where the nation can make a change that will help the economy, including eliminating tax breaks for oil companies and corporate jets. 
    Obama calls for not giving tax breaks to companies who are shipping jobs overseas. Obama repeats his call for a "balanced approach." He says budgets reflect choices, and that ultimately the nation is going to have to make some decisions. He says the magnitude of Romney's proposed tax cuts would result in "severe hardship" for people.

    0141 UTC

    Romney criticizes Obama's stance on eliminating tax breaks for oil companies, saying Obama has provided 50 years worth of tax breaks to green energy. 

    0143 UTC

    Some on Twitter are having a bit of fun discussing the flag lapel pins worn by both candidates



    0144 UTC

    Romney says the right approach is one which relies on the brilliance of the American people and states, not the federal government.

    Obama says social security is going to have to be tweaked, but the basic structure is sound. He talks about the case of his grandmother, who he says could be independent because of Social Security and Medicare. He says his approach is to determine how the nation can strengthen the system over the long term.

    Obama says the way for the nation to deal with Medicare is to lower health care costs. He says the nation does not need a major structural change to make sure Social Security is there for the future. Romney says neither he nor Obama are proposing changes for retirees or near-retirees for Social Security or Medicare.

    0147 UTC

    Romney says he was wrong that Obama isn't proposing changes for current retirees on Medicare. He says he can't understand how Obama can cut more than $700 billion from Medicare to balance costs of Obamacare. 

    Obama charges that Romney would turn Medicare into a voucher program, and says he does not support that. Obama says he does not think vouchers are the right way to go, and that's not just his opinion.

    Obama says he has become fond of the term Obamacare, and that if his health care plan is repealed, the primary beneficiaries are insurance companies who will gain billions of dollars back when they aren't making seniors any healthier.
     
    0149 UTC

    Some on Twitter are critical of the way Jim Lehrer is moderating the debate

    0150 UTC

    Romney says he would allow seniors to choose the current Medicare plan or a private plan of their choice. He says he'd rather not have the government telling him what kind of health care to get. Romney discusses idea of getting competition into the Medicare world, so people can get better plans at lower costs.

    0151 UTC

    Obama counters that a move to a voucher system is putting seniors at the mercy of insurance companies. He said AARP has said Romney's plan would weaken Medicare substantially. Romney talks over Lehrer to continue discussing Medicare. Both Romney and Obama agree that voters have a clear choice between the two of them on Medicare.

    0152 UTC
    0153 UTC

    Romney responds to Lehrer question on government regulation by saying regulation is essential, but that it can become out of date. He said some of the regulations under Obama have had unintended consequences that are harmful to the economy. Romney mentions The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act as an example.

    0156 UTC

    Obama says his administration stepped in with the toughest reforms on Wall Street since the 1930s, telling banks they cannot engage in behaviors putting Main Street at risk. Obama questions Romney's desire to repeal Dodd Frank, looking directly into camera to ask, does anybody think there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street? If you do, he says, Romney is your candidate. 

    Romney says banks are now reluctant to give loans and that Dodd Frank has hurt the housing market. He says he will make sure the government doesn't hurt the functioning of the marketplace and businesses.

    0158 UTC
     
    Lehrer begins the next segment by asking Romney why he wants Obama's health care act repealed. 

    Romney says the cost of health care is prohibitive. He says Obamacare is adding to the cost of insurance for families and that expensive things hurt families. Romney says he doesn't like the idea that the plan puts in place an unelected board that's going to tell people what kind of health care they can have. Romney says he doesn't understand how Obama could have spent his energy and passion on Obamacare instead of creating jobs.
     
    0201 UTC

    Lehrer asks Obama for his argument against repeal of the health care plan.

    Obama says his administration worked on health care alongside working on jobs. He said the plan does not mean a government takeover, but it does mean insurance companies "can't jerk" Americans around. Obama says the irony is the nation has seen this model work really well in Massachusetts, highlighting what he says was an identical model Romney put in place as governor.

    0204 UTC

    Romney says he likes the way they did it in Massachusetts, but charges that Obama pushed through his plan entirely on a partisan basis. He says legislators from both parties in Massachusetts worked on their plan together. Romney says Republicans put out a bipartisan plan that was swept aside. He said something this big and important has to be done on a bipartisan basis and the nation has to have a president who can reach across the aisle.

    0206 UTC

    Obama says the nation is already beginning to see progress from his health care plan.

    Obama says the problem is Romney has not described what the nation would replace his health care plan with, except to say he'll leave it to the states. Obama says by repealing Obamacare, 50 million people would lose health care insurance.

    0209 UTC

    Romney says pre-existing conditions are covered under his own plan and that young people can stay on their family plans. Romney says the government is not effective in bringing down the cost of almost anything. Romney says free people and free enterprise are more effective in bringing down costs than the government will ever be. Romney says in order to bring the cost of health care down, the nation does not need a board telling people what kind of treatment they can have, but needs to give doctors and providers an incentive. 

    0212 UTC

    Obama says the board cannot tell people what kind of treatment they can have, and that that's against the law. Obama says Romney's plan just duplicates what is already the law. He says there is a reason why Romney set up the plan he did in Massachusetts. He said what it does say is that insurers have to take everybody. Obama said the reason he set up the system he did in Mass is there isn't a better way of addressing the pre-existing conditions problem. Obama says the American people have to ask themselves is the reason Romney is keeping all his plans for replacing Obama's policies secret because they're too good?
     
    0214 UTC

    Obama criticizes Romney for not outlining concrete plans, saying the American people have to ask themselves is the reason Romney is keeping all his plans for replacing Obama's policies secret because they're too good?  

    Romney says he does have a plan that deals with people with pre-existing conditions and that what he did in Massachusetts is a model for what the nation can do state-by-state.

    0216 UTC


    Lehrer raises next question on the role of government. He asks if they believe there is a fundamental difference between them on how they view the rule of the federal government

    Obama answers first, saying he believes the federal government has the capacity to help open up opportunity and create frameworks where the American people can succeed. Obama cites Abraham Lincoln's view that there are some things we do better together.

    He says the idea that if all Americans are getting opportunities, we'll be better off, doesn't restrict freedom, it enhances it. Obama discusses his Race to the Top program for American schools, and says he thinks investments in areas such as teachers will make a difference.

    0220 UTC

    Is the debate too focused on policy details? Some say yes. But others are quite happy.

    0221 UTC

    Romney says he loves great schools and the key to great schools is great teachers, so he rejects the idea that he doesn't believe the nation needs more teachers. Romney says the government has the responsibility to protect the lives and liberty of the people, including the military. He said he does not believe in cutting the nation's military. He said he believes the government must maintain commitment to religious tolerance and freedom.
     
    Romney said he believes in maintaining for individuals the right to pursue their dreams. He says he is seeing right now a trickle down government approach where the government thinks it can do a better job than the American people. He says the nation knows the path it is taking is not working and says it is time for a new path. 

    0223 UTC
     
    Obama says the federal government has a significant role to play in improving U.S. public education. Obama says this is where budgets matter, because budgets reflect choices. He says because Romney says he wants to cut taxes, the nation will have to initiate cuts in education to pay for it.

    Obama says when it comes to making college affordable, one of the things he did as president was to cut out the middle man and provide millions more students assistance and keep interest rates on student loans low.

    0225 UTC

    Romney says the $90 billion that Obama put into green energy could have created jobs for teachers. Romney says he doesn't want to cut the nation's commitment to education, but make it more effective and efficient. He points out that Massachusetts schools are number one in the nation, because he says he cares about education.

    Lehrer announces 3 minutes before closing statements.

    0228 UTC
     
    Lehrer asks about partisan gridlock and what each candidate would do about that.
    Romney says he figured out in Massachusetts that he had to get along and work across the aisle.

    Romney said on day one as president, he would sit down with Democrats and Republican leaders. He said the two parties have to work on a collaborative basis. 

    Romney says the reason he's in this race because there are people who are really hurting in this country and there are developments around the world, such as in the Middle East, that are of real concern.

    Obama says Romney will have a busy first day because he's also going to repeal Obamacare which will not be very popular among Democrats. He cites progress he has made even with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

    He acknowledges there have been fights between him and Republicans on issues such as health insurance, but said that was a fight they needed to have. He indicated it is important to be able to say no.

    0230 UTC

    Closing Statements. President Obama goes first.

    Obama says four years ago, the nation was going through a major crisis, but his faith and confidence is undiminished because of the American people. Obama says four years ago he said he is not a perfect man and wouldn't be a perfect president, but that he would fight every day on behalf of the American people. He says he done that and will continue to do so if he is elected to a second term. 

    Romney says the election is bigger than he and Obama. He said there are two very different paths that the two candidates presented. Romney says if the president is re-elected, you'll continue to see a middle class squeeze and chronic unemployment. He says his health care plan would allow each state to craft its own programs.
     
    Romney says if Obama is reelected, there will be dramatic cuts to the military, but that he will not cut the military, will keep America strong and get people working again.

    Obama and Romney shake hands at the end of the debate.

    0244 UTC

    Many on Twitter and in the media are saying Romney has had the better night, or at least did better than expected. 


    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.

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    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: bunheng from: Cambodia
    October 04, 2012 10:47 AM
    yeah, i liked both of them on the debate. They did very great job. However, it seemed like Romny raised more good ideas, yet with less clear plans just like Mr. President said. To be neutral, i like and still support Mr.President for he is always very firm and clear about where the America is going, esp for the Middle Class.

    by: heshukui from: China
    October 04, 2012 8:07 AM
    This is a debate!Don't too amplification!The future of the United States four years need to Obama such charming in the heart of the wise!I think Mr Romney's tie is beautiful!

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