Only an institution as insulated from the public it supposedly serves and allergic to self-criticism as the press could possibly view the fallout that continues to settle after the freeway pileup that was the CNBC debate as unwarranted.
In the wake of that display, the Republican National Committee found itself with a mutiny on its hands. The committee, which had intervened in the process following the unhealthy proliferation of media-sponsored contests in the 2012 cycle, became the focus of the incandescent rage of the 2016 field of Republican presidential candidates following this latest fiasco. Some had reportedly threatened to cut the RNC out of the process entirely and renegotiate debate terms directly with the networks. Chairman Reince Priebus had no choice but to do something to prevent further sedition, and his response was as swift as it was deflecting.
On Friday, the RNC released a statement informing NBC News that the February debate they were supposed to host would be suspended until after changes to the format could be recommended and adopted. At a meeting on Sunday night attended by representatives for both the committee and a variety of GOP campaigns, a host of new demands were made of future media sponsors. They agreed that all candidates must be allowed 30-second opening and closing statements, to ensure that moderators provide all candidates with an equal number of questions, and to allow candidates to approve the graphics displayed for viewers during the debates.
Those are just a small sample of the candidates’ demands, and they are by far the most innocuous. The RNC now finds itself navigating a minefield of competing personalities and sharp-elbowed operatives all working at cross-purposes. The campaigns of underperforming candidates want to see more, longer debates that allow them to stand on the same stage as top-tier candidates. Donald Trump’s campaign wants to reduce the number of participants, limit the length of future debates to two hours, and reportedly threatened to boycott the February NBC debate even if fences are mended due to the Spanish-language network Telemundo’s role as a co-sponsor. This is a mess for the committee, but reporters who find themselves in the GOP field’s crosshairs shouldn’t be indulging in schadenfreude. They’ve brought this suboptimal condition about, and the GOP seems perfectly willing to direct all due outrage toward them.
The response from a few entrenched media figures to the RNC’s revolt over future debates has been unbecoming, defensive, and hyperbolic. “If media outlets give candidates veto power over moderators then our democracy is truly broken,” ABC News analyst Matthew Dowd lamented. “Imagine what any candidate whining about the debates would do to freedom of speech if they were elected president,” The Daily Beast reporter Olivia Nuzzi prophesied. “Sure, candidates don’t have to let news orgs run debates,” New York Times reporter Nick Confessore observed. “And news orgs don’t have to give them hundreds of millions of dollars in free TV.” This wounded response to a uniform Republican attack on the profession of political reporting is understandable, but it is far from justified. Not only is the RNC’s reaction earned, a power imbalance that favors both the candidates and the committee obliges them to push back forcefully.
Let’s be honest: the candidates need the networks, but the networks need the candidates more. Yes, alternative broadcast outlets have multiplied in the last decade, and the old cable and network news venues no longer enjoy a monopoly on influence. The RNC or individual candidates could very well pursue new debate venues or entertain unsanctioned debates, and then invite impartial media networks to cover them. But what if those networks decline that opportunity or do so selectively? And what about the many millions of viewers who would not watch a GOP debate and familiarize themselves with the candidates were they not easily accessible on the cable dial? The GOP benefits from having unfiltered access to these networks’ audiences. If the candidates were to walk, however, no one would suffer more than revenue-hungry networks. Why do you think we’re still broadcasting “undercard” debates featuring candidates polling at less than one percent? It’s not because they are particularly illuminating affairs – they draw eyeballs. At the beginning of the year, median prime-time viewership across all three major cable news networks was down 8 percent. For the networks, revenues grew modestly for CBS and ABC while NBCUniversal’s returns declined. The GOP is holding most of the cards. With an irksome cheering section over his shoulder demanding that he play the hand he was dealt, Priebus can hardly afford to fold.
Those media figures that have circled the wagons around their embattled colleagues at CNBC are doing their profession a disservice. They are defending the indefensible. There was most certainly a level of bias on display at this debate, one of the only debates that did not feature a conservative media partner, which only the willfully blind could ignore. If you can imagine a Democratic debate moderator asking the panel of candidates when life begins and describing the pro-life movement as “our cause,” as CNBC host Becky Quick did during a question about equal pay for women after disseminating the long-ago debunked notion that women make 77 percent what a man makes for the same job, you should be writing novels. After misstating the impact of Marco Rubio’s tax reform proposal for working families and citing a Tax Foundation analysis to support his contention, John Harwood was corrected in real time by that very foundation’s president. Rather than admit his error, Harwood spent the rest of the week indulging in a petulant display touting his own victimization at the hands of the right’s blinkered ideologues. After noting that Ben Carson had served on Costco’s board of directors despite the fact that the firm offered employer-sponsored benefits to same-sex couples, Carlos Quintanilla exposed the depths of his ignorance about the social conservatives’ opposition to same-sex marriage. The CNBC anchor might as well have asked Carson why he was so inconsistent in his casual bigotry.
It wasn’t merely bias but also sloppy reporting that prompted this revolt. When Quick noted that Trump had previously insisted that Rubio was Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s “personal senator” because he supported H-1B visas, he flat-out denied he ever said such a thing and prompted Quick to apologize for her error. Political reporters knew that Trump not only said this on the stump on more than one occasion, but it was prominently displayed on his website. Only after a commercial break did Quick account for her error. If the moderators had chosen to stick to economic policy as they had advertised they would, they might have avoided such mistakes.
This reckoning has been a long time in the making, and the GOP is in as good a position as they might ever be to impose some self-consciousness on the legacy political press. It is an institution that has more than earned the right’s censure. “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office,” Newt Gingrich declared nearly four years ago. “I know the Democrats have the ultimate SuperPac,” Macro Rubio insisted last week. “It’s called the mainstream media.” You can draw an unbroken line from one effective debate quip to the other. For years, the political press has been dismissing these admonitions as cheap showmanship, bloody tunics that Republicans hurl into adoring crowds for base personal gain. It’s high time the reporting class was forced to stare into that unforgiving mirror. It’s not them; it’s you.