Media outlets have called out CNN for selecting conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt as a moderator of the December 15 Republican primary debate, noting that the inclusion of this “highly [...] partisan” conservative media figure is the result of Republican Party “carping.” The Republican National Committee (RNC) has pressured networks to include conservative media figures as debate moderators, a move received with criticism from former debate moderators and network executives.
CNN Announces That Hugh Hewitt Will Moderate The Last Republican Debate Of 2015
CNN: Hugh Hewitt Will Join Wolf Blitzer As Questioner In Last GOP Debate Of The Year. CNN announced on December 13 that conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt would be joining CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Dana Bash as moderators of the last GOP primary debate of 2015, held in Las Vegas, Nevada. [CNN, 12/13/15]
Media Outlets Highlight How Hewitt's Inclusion Reflects GOP Pressure On The Networks
NPR: CNN “Agree[d] To The RNC's Hardball Play” To “Get More Control Of The Debates” By Including Hugh Hewitt. On the December 15 edition of NPR's All Things Considered, host Audie Cornish explained that “The presence of Hugh Hewitt came out of a demand by the Republican Party to change the way the debates are conducted.” The segment featured Sean Spicer, a chief strategist for the RNC, who said, “The party needed to get more in control of the debates,” which included the demand for conservative moderators. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik called the demand “a policy without precedent” and reported that CNN “did agree to the RNC's hardball play”:
AUDIE CORNISH (HOST): At tomorrow's Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, nine candidates will face questions from CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Dana Bash and also from a popular conservative radio talk show host. The presence of Hugh Hewitt came out of a demand by the Republican Party to change the way debates are conducted.
SEAN SPICER: The party needed to get more in control of the debates.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Sean Spicer is the chief strategist of the Republican National Committee, the party's governing body.
SPICER: The media controls all aspects of the debate - when they were going to debate, how many there were, where they were. And really, what this came down to was the party recognizing that while the media has a huge role to play, that ultimately, people are seeking our nomination and that we should have the responsibility to make sure that that process is a little bit more orderly.
FOLKENFLIK: It is a policy without modern precedent, and the Democrats have made no such stipulations. No one from the liberal Mother Jones or The Nation magazines are on stage. Hewitt says he's not interested in softball questions toward Republicans, just informed ones. And he says the Democrats should consider copying the Republican approach.
FOLKENFLIK: The RNC's Spicer argues the Democrats and the press are already in tune. Take ABC's chief anchor George Stephanopoulos, a former top aide in the Clinton White House. He had to recuse himself from the debates after acknowledging recent six-figure donations to the Clinton Foundation despite Hillary Clinton's ties. And Spicer pointed to the 2007 primary GOP debate moderated by MSNBC's Chris Matthews, a proud liberal who worked for president Carter and late Democratic speaker Tip O'Neill.
SPICER: That, to me, is where you borderline political malpractice, saying that you have a far-left debate moderator supposedly questioning people seeking the Republican nomination. And the idea of allowing that was insane.
FOLKENFLIK: The networks do not accept that analysis, but they did agree to the RNC's hardball play. Those that did not accept a conservative panelist stood to lose a big night to draw viewers, sell ads and generate buzz. Notably, Fox News was exempt. Spicer says that in future cycles, he'd love to find ways to convince donors to pay the $2 million cost of staging each debate and that maybe the networks wouldn't get to produce the debates at all. [NPR, All Things Considered, 12/15/15]
Vox: Hewitt Is “A Proxy For The Republican Establishment” Among The Moderators. In a December 15 piece profiling the three CNN debate moderators, Vox described Hewitt as “highly -- and self-consciously -- partisan” and a “proxy for the Republican establishment working from inside the debate moderating team”:
Hugh Hewitt, a conservative talk radio host, is going to be on hand to lend some conservative authenticity to the proceedings.
He's also highly -- and self-consciously -- partisan in a way that's not always true of conservative talkers. His books include such titles as If It's Not Close, They Can't Win: Crushing the Democrats in Every Election and Why Your Life Depends on It and Painting the Map Red: The Fight to Create a Permanent Republican Majority. He wrote a book designed to make mainstream American Christians feel comfortable with voting for a Mormon president.
He's the kind of person, in other words, who's likely to be concerned with making sure the GOP picks an electable and reliable standard-bearer -- a proxy for the Republican establishment working from inside the debate moderating team. [Vox, 12/15/15]
Washington Post: Hugh Hewitt Moderating Debate Is The Result Of “Republican Carping.” In a December 15 post for The Washington Post's blog The Fix, Callum Borchers wrote that CNN included Hewitt on the moderator team after much “Republican carping,” pointing out that GOP candidates and the RNC “flipped out over CNBC moderators' handling” of the October GOP debate and pushed for more “conservative media personalities” this time around:
When Republicans flipped out over CNBC moderators' handling of the third presidential primary debate way back in October, a popular proposal was to replace the “attack journalists” (Ted Cruz's term) with conservative media personalities. Cruz suggested Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was less specific but called for moderators who “give a rip about the Republican Party.”
What did all the Republican carping produce? Nothing but another round of Hugh Hewitt, the conservative talk radio host who was a panelist during the second GOP debate. And Hewitt seems to understand that he is The Great Conservative Moderator Hope.
Hewitt, no doubt, will do his best to be the voice of conservatives on the stage in Las Vegas. But he likely won't be enough to satisfy Republican candidates and voters who were hoping for a dramatic shift in the tenor of debates. [The Washington Post, 12/15/15]
Former Moderators And Network Executives Slam GOP For Attempting To Control Debates
Former Debate Moderators, Network Executives: GOP Demands “Overreaching,” Debate Structure "Has Gone Off The Rails." Former debate moderators and media insiders have criticized the GOP's attempts to control debates, calling its demand for conservative moderators “overreaching” and questioning whether CNN's decision undermines the debate's “independence.” As reported by Media Matters:
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.” [Media Matters, 12/15/15]