Former Debate Moderators And Network Executives Rip The RNC's “Overreaching” Debate Demands

As the Republican presidential candidates gather to debate tonight in Las Vegas, the Republican National Committee's (RNC) requirement that each debate include a conservative outlet is drawing fire from former debate panelists and veteran network news executives.

The RNC has been pushing networks to partner with conservative media outlets for the debates in order “to make sure the concerns of grassroots Republicans are addressed.”

Tonight's debate is no exception, with CNN including Salem Radio commentator Hugh Hewitt among the panelists. Hewitt, who served as an official in the Reagan administration, was a panelist for CNN's September debate, and is scheduled to be part of the third CNN debate in March.

In addition, NBC had partnered with National Review and ABC with the conservative IJ Review. Fox News, whose conservative credentials are well established, does not have a partner and reportedly “fought the RNC's partner requirement and ultimately prevailed.”

CNBC aired its October debate without a conservative partner. Following the debate, the RNC objected to CNBC's moderation so strongly that it suspended its NBC debate while promising that National Review will remain a part of a future debate.

The RNC's unusual requirement is drawing criticism from several veteran journalists who have served on debate panels in the past, with most calling it improper and saying it waters down the effectiveness of tough questioning.

“I think this whole idea of trying to adjust debates and judging them according to ideology lead to nothing but trouble,” said Elizabeth Drew, a 1976 presidential debate panelist and moderator of a 1984 Democratic primary debate. “Presumably, journalists are supposedly non-political and the Republicans dine out a lot on attacking the 'liberal media.' But that doesn't mean that that's what happens. What they are asking for is sympathetic questioners.”

Drew, also a staff writer at The New Yorker from 1973 to 1992, said the debate loses its independence when such demands are met.

“It never used to be this way,” she said. “I think the problem is putting so much of the power with the parties ... They're looking for safer and softer questions than they might otherwise get. The structure has gone off the rails.”

Marvin Kalb, a 1984 presidential debate panelist and former Meet the Press host, agreed: “It should not be an issue for the Democratic debates, nor for the Republican debates. The selection of questioners must remain a decision for the networks.”

Max Frankel, a 1976 presidential debate panelist and former New York Times executive editor, said he would have refused to be involved if the RNC made such a request at his debate.  

“My politics is none of their business,” he said. “And if I had to identify myself by my politics I would tell them to go to hell and not to participate.”

He later added, “more times than not they need the network more than the network needs them. For the moment they need the debates because the presence of Trump is bringing the cable networks a bigger audience than they have ... It's all a mess because several of these cable networks have their own agendas.”

Richard Valeriani, a panelist for the 1976 general election presidential debate and a 28-year NBC News correspondent, called the RNC demand “overreaching.”

“The debates should be open,” he said. “For the parties to set requirements is not good for the system. It impugns the integrity of the media. Saying we can't do our jobs.”

He added, “You have sort of a controlled environment, which is not what the free press is about ... One of the values of a debate is to challenge a candidate's ability to think on his or her feet as any president will have to do.”

Asked how this compares to his debate, he said: “The parties had nothing to do with it, this is quite unusual to try to dictate who the networks should provide. The next will be to dictate the questions we should ask.”

CBS News' February 13 debate does not have a conservative media partner as Face the Nation host John Dickerson will be the lone moderator. CBS News declined to comment on how it managed to broker a deal for a debate without that requirement. The conservative Fox Business Network does not have a partner for its January 14 debate.

CNN, NBC, and ABC also declined to comment on the RNC requirement or why none of the Democratic debates are including a progressive media outlet among the panelists. (NBC News will partner with the Congressional Black Caucus Institute for its January 17 debate.)               

A source at the Democratic National Committee close to its debate negotiations said no such requirement was ever brought up during its planning with the networks.

Several former network news presidents said the RNC demand is unusual and not something they would have agreed to.

“If I were still at the network and we were putting on the debate, we would refuse,” said Bill Small, NBC News president from 1979 to 1982 and a former CBS News Washington bureau chief. “The debate questioners ought to be the choice of the networks. Would you want to see a political party pick your interviewer if you were doing your newscast? If they want to have network news people they have to recognize that the networks will choose.”

He later added, “I've never heard of it before, almost always during my experience, a debate was set up, the networks chose not only who they wanted but who would moderate it. I can't conceive of a news organization saying we'll carry it. It reflects badly on the Republicans and on the networks.”

Jonathan Klein, CNN president from 2004 to 2010 and former executive vice president of 60 Minutes, said the parties have long tried to dictate terms, but said this is more than in the past.

“In most ways, it's a good thing for news organizations to be fiercely independent of any outside forces,” he said. “What a news organization has to decide is if it is important to maintain that it is in fact objective in its questioning and is an equal opportunity griller. Can we just ask tough questions that are not softballs and are not unfair to the candidates? Generally speaking, we never liked to allow the political organizations on either side too much say in the format or the approach.”

Lawrence Grossman, NBC News president from 1984 to 1988, said giving the RNC such power “distorts” the debates.   

“The question remains who is in charge of the debates?” he said. “The people who schedule it or the people who participate in it? They should probably not say who asks the questions. They can decide not to participate if they don't like the conditions.”