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?