The next debate: Media’s role in candidate face-offs

Debate moderators John Harwood, left, Becky Quick, center, and Carl Quintanilla take the stage during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, in Boulder, Colo.
Debate moderators John Harwood, left, Becky Quick, center, and Carl Quintanilla take the stage during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, in Boulder, Colo. AP

Are the news media reporting the campaign, or making and breaking the campaign?

That is a key question coming out of the third Republican presidential debate, a prime-time face-off in which one moderator from CNBC, which televised the debate, likened a GOP campaign to a comic book and several candidates and analysts protested that the journalists are becoming too much of a player in the story.

Campaign officials were annoyed with too many questions probing candidates’ quirks and personalities. An analysis from Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a respected website of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, found that the moderators “engaged in too much confrontation with the candidates.” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said he was “ashamed” at how the network handled the event.

The media became a punching bag during the third GOP debate. Were the candidates held to a double standard compared to the Democrats and is the media becoming too much of a player in the the campaign story?

“The whole format was just craziness,” Ben Carson said Thursday, vowing to push for changes before the next Republican debate, Nov. 10 in Milwaukee on the Fox Business Channel. He said he’d reach out to other candidates for help.

For Carson himself, he said wants “the opportunity to lay out policies . . . and then be questioned about it.” He said he’s also seeking “moderators who are actually interested in getting the facts and not gotcha questions.”

Brian Steel, a spokesman for CNBC, said the questioning was fair. “People who want to be president of the United States should be able to answer tough questions,” he said.

The furor underscores the tension over the role of the news media as de facto kingmakers and king-breakers in the campaigns, particularly at the televised debates.

The news media play a role in planning the debate events. They have a huge say in who gets to participate and be exposed to tens of millions of viewers/voters – and who is stuck at an off-prime-time debate called the “kids table,” or barred entry at all. And the TV moderators of the pivotal debates can play an outsized role.

The media help determine who participates based on the media’s polls, triggering howls from candidates who fail to qualify for the main event.

“I think it sucks,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of Congress’ leading experts on military affairs, who’s been relegated to the undercard debates because his poll numbers have lagged.

In August, the McClatchy-Marist Poll temporarily suspended polling on primary candidates because of concern that public polls were being misused to decide who’s in or out of debates. The Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which conducts the national survey, said the debate criteria assume too much precision in polls in drawing a line between candidates just a fraction apart and assume that the national polls are comparable.

Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute, also was uncomfortable being a participant in making news. “It’s a problem when it’s shaping who gets to sit at the table,” he said.

Problems also surface when politicians pick fights with the media asking the questions.

Sometimes it’s simply chafing under tough questioning. Sometimes it’s protesting whether the questions are tougher or edgier for one party than another.

In the first Republican debate, on Aug. 6 in Cleveland, Donald Trump’s insults of Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly sparked an uproar, and their battle seemed to be as discussed on social media as any other debate topic.

All this media involvement only reinforces Republicans’ view that the mainstream media won’t treat them fairly.

That was particularly true after Wednesday night’s debate.

When CNBC’s John Harwood asked Trump if the real estate mogul was waging a “comic book version of a presidential campaign,” he elicited rare sympathy for the brash candidate. Trump called it a “not very nicely asked question.”

After some questions were less about economics, the stated purpose of the debate, and more about candidate weaknesses, polling status and other such matters, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was fed up. “This is not a cage match,” he said.

The CNBC questioners wouldn’t relent. Moderator Carl Quintanilla asked whether the federal government should regard fantasy football as gambling.

Chris Christie, the outspoken governor of New Jersey, spoke out loudly. “We have $19 trillion in debt. We have people out of work. We have ISIS and al Qaida attacking us. And we’re talking about fantasy football? Can we stop?”

“Think of the Republicans at home watching. This was probably driving them crazy,” said former Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire, now a co-chairman of John Kasich’s presidential campaign.

“I wish I had gotten questions on, you know, got to answer questions on things that are on the mind of people, you know, entitlement challenges, the debt. I got fantasy football,” complained Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida.

Some did think the debate, with its emphasis on economics, had come off well. “This was in many ways the first adult conversation we’ve had this campaign,” said Maya MacGuineas, head of the Campaign to Fix the Debt, which studies budget issues.

Priebus, though, had had enough. “The performance by the CNBC moderators was extremely disappointing and did a disservice to their network, our candidates and voters,” he said.

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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