News Media Veterans Rip GOP Debate Demands As Bullying And “Unreasonable”

“Money Changes Everything ... Who Are These Debates Supposed To Serve?”

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Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus announced last week that the party had withdrawn from the NBC debate set for February 26, 2016.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.”