Veteran media observers and political journalists are criticizing the Republican Party's recent pullout of an upcoming NBC primary debate and its push to dictate terms of the event, with one journalist calling it an effort to "bully the press."
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus announced last week that the party had withdrawn from the NBC debate set for February 26, 2016. He said the debate would still occur, but not on the network, adding it was in response to the recent CNBC debate that was allegedly "conducted in bad faith."
In recent days, some Republican presidential campaigns have begun circulating a letter of demands to the television networks for future debates, which include control over the "parity and integrity" of questions, graphics, and time allowed for opening and closing statements. Donald Trump is reportedly planning to negotiate on his own with network executives.
For media critics and veteran political reporters, such a move by the GOP is unacceptable and will lead to debates that are not true journalism or helpful to voters.
"It's not a way to run a debate," said Ken Auletta, media writer for The New Yorker. "It's a way to present a candidate's talking points. A debate is meant to draw out what the candidates think about a range of issues, including where they differ. That's what journalists are meant to do. And while the questions and mock-superior tone of debate reporters is lamentably worthy of criticism, unworthy is the effort by candidates to intimidate journalists to lob softball questions or to ask, as some candidates have, if the reporters have ever voted in a Republican primary."
Marvin Kalb, former host of Meet the Press and a panelist for the 1984 general election debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale, agreed.
"It's political bravado," he said. "If the RNC wants to commit suicide they are free to do so. They need the networks, but they want them on their terms. The networks have the opportunity to stand tall on principle and stick to what they do best."
Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University and a former CNN White House correspondent, called such party demands "completely unreasonable."
"The negotiations should be done in such a way that citizens are put first, not candidates and not networks," he said.
He also said the RNC making such moves to retaliate for CNBC's debate is unfair: "It's wrong what the RNC is doing, it's responding to the pressure it's under from its base. They know NBC and MSNBC are independent from CNBC. If we want to be grown up about this we'll recognize that having 10 candidates at a time and a partisan audience further complicate the challenge to having a coherent rational conversation or debate."
David Zurawik, TV critic at The Baltimore Sun, said the debates have become such a ratings grab for networks that the revenue may make it hard for them to say no to candidate demands.
"This is a big deal, we are at a crucial point right now and maybe it's because Donald Trump is part of the mix and the audiences are exponentially larger and these debates are making so much money for these cable channels," he said. "Money changes everything. They are going to demand all kinds of stuff and if they get their way we will have nothing but campaign ads up at these podiums. Who are these debates supposed to serve? They are supposed to serve the public and I don't think they are if they go down this road."
Tim McGuire, a journalism chair at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, said the RNC's actions are bully tactics.
"Certainly the GOP is trying to bully the press but that's been going on since there were pols and reporters. The issue of approved questions is quite another matter," he said. "If candidates insist on approving questions, the press should not cover the debates -- at all."
Ed Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, mirrored that view: "Obviously, it's a tremendous affront to the notion that the media are there to be independent arbiters and asking the questions that the people would ask, they are representatives of the voters."
He said if the candidates can dictate terms, "it loses all pretense of being a discussion that is determined by disinterested questions asked by knowledgeable moderators. It loses all of the spontaneity and all of the qualities of what is supposed to be illuminated. It's gone."
For Tom Fiedler, dean of the College of Communication at Boston University and former political editor at The Miami Herald, such actions will turn it into a "party showcase."
"If the GOP chooses the format and the moderators, this event will cease to be a 'debate,'" he said, later adding, "in that case, the networks should treat such a program in the same way that they treat infomercials -- as sponsored programming suitable only for broadcast in the dead of night."
Republicans now have a list of demands.
Still reeling from what Republican Party chief Reince Priebus called "gotcha" questions last week in the CNBC primary debate that were "petty and mean-spirited in tone," campaign operatives huddled over the weekend to address the Great Debate crisis of 2015.
Indeed, by suspending a Feb. 26 debate scheduled to be hosted by NBC News and the NBC-owned, Spanish-language network Telemundo, Republicans signaled that the latest bout of media catcalls from the right -- catcalls that have been part of working the refs for decades -- have attained almost mythical status.
Republicans, in mid-game, are now trying to dictate the terms of the debates. Donald Trump is even negotiating directly with television executives in an effort to alter the content and format. The unprecedented blitz sends a clear message that if moderators aren't nice to candidates and if there are any objections over "tone," future debates might get yanked.
"What happened in this debate wasn't an attack by the press on the candidates. It was an attack by the candidates on the press," wrote William Saletan at Slate. "Presented with facts and figures that didn't fit their story, the leading Republican candidates accused the moderators of malice and deceit."
But will Republicans get away with it? Early signs look promising for the GOP, less promising for journalism.
Look at how NBC responded to the Republican National Committee's suspension notice: "This is a disappointing development. However, along with our debate broadcast partners at Telemundo we will work in good faith to resolve this matter with the Republican Party."
Doesn't "work in good faith to resolve this matter" sound a bit like NBC conceding there was something wrong with the CNBC debate and that the network's determined to fix it?
Or look at it this way, does "work in good faith to resolve this matter" sound like a news organization staunchly standing up for its editorial team facing bogus charges of bias? Or does it sound like a network desperate to make nice with the GOP?
Obviously news organizations are wading into treacherous territory if they're willing to let politicians dictate the tone and content after the debate season is already underway; if they're willing to "play nicely" with political parties. As Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss tweeted, "If networks had integrity they would refuse to host or air any debate in which candidates dictated terms. Period."
But this year it's not just about standing up to Republican bullies, it's also about money. Lots and lots of money.
Debates used to be mostly prestige events that news outlets pointed to with pride as symbols of their power and influence. Today, they've ballooned into huge moneymakers for the host cable channels thanks to record-breaking viewership. CNBC normally sells primetime, 30-second ads for $5,000. During last week's debate, CNBC was fetching 50 times that for the same ad time.
Also note that CNBC remains the chief rival of the Fox Business Network, which is hosting the next Republican debate. It seems clear that Fox News had additional motivation to trash CNBC's performance, while touting Fox Business.
Here's the transcript from a commercial that ran on Fox last week:
VOICEOVER: CNBC never asked the real questions, never covered the real issues. That's why on November 10, the real debate about our economy and our future is only on Fox Business Network.
With that allure of debate millions likely comes additional pressure to make sure Republicans are happy; to make sure they don't pick up their ball and go home. One simple solution is to eliminate the commercials all together and air the debates on proudly non-partisan C-SPAN.
Perhaps another solution is to allow Republicans to venture deeper into their information bubble and have debates moderated only by conservatives; only by people who have voted in Republican primaries, as Ted Cruz demanded. (i.e. Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, etc.)
I see at least two drawbacks from that blueprint. First, there's little evidence those type of partisan moderators, who are deeply invested in the failure of Democrats, would provide much insight. During the earlier GOP debate hosted by CNN, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt was invited to ask questions and, as Joan Walsh at The Nation noted, prefaced one of his queries by declaring, "I think all of you are more qualified than former secretary of state Clinton."
Secondly, if Republicans opt for the bubble approach, what are they going to do when it comes time for general election debates? Aren't we going to see the same whiny charade all over again, complete with more hollow allegations of liberal media bias, when non-conservative moderators pose questions that Republicans don't like or can't answer truthfully in October 2016?
From the Washington Post's Catherine Rampell:
Donald Trump denied ever taking a dig at Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, even though the dig in question was on Trump's Web site.
Chris Christie claimed Social Security money was "stolen" and that the system will be "insolvent" in seven to eight years, even though both claims are wrong. Fiorina recycled a statistic about women's job losses that Mitt Romney used in 2012 and subsequently abandoned when it, too, was proved wrong.
And so on.
Over and over Republicans prevaricated while CNBC moderators mostly tried to wade through the misinformation and obfuscations. But after this historic GOP hissy fit, will debate moderators risk their reputations, and possibly their careers, by holding candidates accountable?
On the October 30 edition of Fox News' The Kelly File, host Megyn Kelly promoted Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio's debunked claim from the October 28 presidential debate on CNBC that Hillary Clinton "got exposed as a liar" during her recent day-long testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi. Rubio's remark was given "Two Pinnochios" by The Washington Post's FactChecker, and the senator was unable to defend his claim when pressed during interviews with CBS and CNN. That has not stopped Fox News from repeatedly championing Rubio's false claim. Kelly furthered her network's defense, wondering why Rubio is not "entitled to his opinion that she lied," despite the fact that it is not true. From The Kelly File:
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From the October 30 edition of CNN's CNN Newsroom with Brooke Baldwin:
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During the October 28 Republican presidential debate hosted by CNBC, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) contested moderator John Harwood's statement that Rubio's tax reform plan disproportionately favors the rich over the middle class. Conservative news outlets rushed to defend Rubio, despite the fact that Harwood was correct.
Following the October 28 CNBC Republican presidential debate, Fox News repeatedly championed the performance of Sen. Marco Rubio and his claim that Hillary Clinton "got exposed as a liar" during her Benghazi testimony for supposedly misleading the public about the cause of the Benghazi attacks. That allegation has been repeatedly debunked by journalists at numerous media outlets for disregarding the fact that intelligence was rapidly evolving in the immediate aftermath of the attacks and ignoring the possibility that "the attacks could be both an example of terrorism and influenced by outrage over the video."
From the October 29 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
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During the October 28 CNBC Republican presidential debate, several candidates proposed tax and economic policies that were later described as "fantasy," "oddly imaginary," and even "insane" by media outlets because their implementation would inflate existing budget deficits and add trillions of dollars to the national debt.
Media outlets called out Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina's "utterly wrong," "wildly misleading," and long discredited claim at the October 28 CNBC presidential debate that women held 92 percent of the jobs lost during President Obama's first term, pointing out that that statistic is recycled from Mitt Romney's presidential campaign and newer data completely contradicts Fiorina's claim: women actually gained jobs by the end of Obama's first term.
From the October 28 CNBC Republican presidential debate:
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Media figures explain why financial cable channel CNBC's October 28 GOP presidential debate, which will focus on economic issues, is one of the most important debates for the Latino vote this election cycle.
In anticipation of CNBC's presentation of the third GOP debate, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina attacked the economic policy priorities of Hillary Clinton, President Obama, and the Democratic Party in a recent op-ed for The Wall Street Journal that was filled with inaccurate and misleading information. It was more of the same of what she did during the second GOP debate hosted by CNN, when the network's moderators let her use the stage to make baseless allegations about Planned Parenthood, which provides vital, affordable health care to millions of Americans. Will CNBC moderators let her be just as careless with economic policy facts?
From the October 28 edition of CNBC's Fast Money Halftime Report:
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The first Republican presidential debate hosted by a business-themed television network presents an opportunity for debate moderators to closely examine the economic policy positions and records of the GOP field.
On October 28, CNBC will host the third GOP primary debate, which will be split into two parts. The top 10 polling GOP contenders -- Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Rand Paul -- will participate in a two-hour primetime debate, while four other GOP candidates -- Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, and Rick Santorum -- will participate in a debate a few hours earlier. Both debates will be moderated by CNBC anchors Carl Quintanilla and Becky Quick, and CNBC Chief Washington Correspondent John Harwood.
According to an October 21 CNBC press release, the debate "will focus on the key issues that matter to all voters -- job growth, taxes, technology, retirement and the health of our national economy."
Below are four suggestions for how CNBC's moderators can press the GOP field about the intersections between the economy and: money in politics, climate change, tax cuts for the wealthy, and immigration reform.
The growing crisis of barely-regulated money in politics in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision was brought into stark relief by a recent New York Times report which found that "[j]ust 158 families have provided nearly half the early money for efforts to capture the White House." According to a Media Matters analysis, since March 23, a total of 52 segments on CNBC discussed issues related to money in politics, but campaign finance reform was mentioned just once. CNBC should ask candidates about our country's broken campaign finance system not just because 78 percent of Americans polled favor overturning Citizens United, but also because unlimited campaign contributions help shape negative economic policy outcomes. According to a May 2014 issue brief by the Center for American Progress, campaign contributions and lobbying can significantly increase "rent-seeking," which economists agree "causes a net societal loss that harms the economy." And if CNBC moderators need another reason to ask the candidates about money in politics, they should just look around: the GOP debate will be held at the University of Colorado's Coors Events Center, a venue so-named because of a sizeable contribution made by the Adolph Coors Foundation, an organization involved in funneling dark money to conservative causes.
Here is what recent research suggests: Climate change-fueled wildfires are already straining the budgets of Western states, climate change could reduce the United States' per capita GDP by 36 percent by 2100, and more than $1 trillion worth of property and structures are presently at risk from climate change-fueled sea level rise. The severe economic risks associated with climate change should be more than enough reason for CNBC moderators to question the GOP field about this urgent issue, which could drastically impact businesses of all sizes. Climate change recently became part of the 2016 campaign in a significant way when battleground incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) announced her support for the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, citing the interests of the New Hampshire business community. Ayotte joined a group of major corporations and financial decision makers, including 81 signatories to the American Business Act on Climate Change Pledge, mega food companies such as General Mills, Kellogg Company, Mars, Inc., and Nestle USA, leading banking institutions including Bank of America, Citi, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo, and many other major corporations. Asking the GOP field about the economic consequences of climate change would also be an opportunity for the network to improve its coverage of the issue. According to a Media Matters analysis of the first nine months of 2013, more than half of CNBC's coverage of the issue included climate science denial.
Throughout the 2016 presidential primary campaign, GOP candidates have routinely pitched their tax plans as "populist," despite the fact that each and every proposal disproportionately benefits the wealthy. And media have fallen for the claim time and time again. When Donald Trump announced his plan on September 28, Politico claimed in a headline that the billionaire businessman planned to "hike taxes on the wealthy" -- even though the plan calls for cutting the top marginal tax rate, cutting the corporate income tax rate, and eliminating the estate tax. The media outlet had relied solely on Trump's false characterization of his plan to write that headline. In an October 14 article in The New York Times, debate co-moderator Harwood criticized several candidates for describing themselves in populist terms but "sh[ying] away from economic populism," while crafting tax policies that "deliver disproportionate gains to the most affluent." During the debate, Harwood should continue to hold the candidates to this same standard, pushing them to accurately explain what their tax reform plans do and who they benefit.
Falsehoods about immigration routinely begin as conservative media claims before becoming talking points used by GOP presidential candidates. CNBC should be on the lookout for several common false claims about immigration and the economy, and be prepared to factcheck fabricated statistics on the issue. Conservative media often claim that deporting undocumented immigrants would help the economy by saving taxpayers money. In one variation of that claim published by Breitbart News, each deported household would save taxpayers $700,000. In fact, the opposite is true -- the cost of deporting longstanding undocumented immigrants in the United States would cost more than $114 billion, and according to a report from Center for American Progress, the "cost to the overall economy would likely be far more." Other claims to look out for include: false connections between immigration and African-American unemployment rates; the erroneous claim that immigration decreases American wages and increases unemployment; and the baseless argument that immigrant children are straining American school systems and driving up taxes.
As CNBC prepares to host the third Republican presidential debate on October 28 -- which will focus on the economy and is being billed as "Your Money, Your Vote" -- moderators Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick, and John Harwood should be prepared to contest and correct several right-wing myths about the economic costs of immigration that are all but certain to come up.