After the bloody mess made by holding nearly two dozen debates in the 2012 election cycle, RNC chair Reince Priebus made reforming the Republican debate process one of his top priorities for 2016. It hasn’t worked. Why? Because these events are not debates at all. They’re game shows.
In 2011-12, attention-hungry candidates jumped at the chance to hold more and more debates, thinking the spotlight would help their candidacies. Instead, all those debates gave the media extra opportunities to find gotcha sound bites that damaged the party’s chances of winning against Barack Obama. Priebus pledged to keep that from happening this time around, by taking control of the debates, limiting their number, and pushing campaigns out of the strategy loop.
That didn’t work out so well.
Wednesday’s debacle on CNBC has infuriated the GOP’s 2016 presidential candidates, and has the RNC backpedaling. But the wrong lessons are being learned — and the candidates seemed poised once again to open the door to another 2012-style free-for-all.
Most observers agree that the CNBC debate was a disaster from start to finish. Seasoned journalists without a partisan ax to grind expressed their amazement and disgust at the spectacle. “Biggest loser of this debate isn’t JEB,” Ron Fournier tweeted during the debate. “It’s MSM. We’ve earned this bashing.” Even former DNC chair (and current governor of Virginia) Terry McAuliffe called the CNBC debate “an absolute farce … a joke … an embarrassment to our country.”
And so Republican candidates gathered this weekend to find a way to change the trajectory of the debates — and ended up making the problem even worse. The Ben Carson campaign argued that the debates needed to be severed from their network “sponsors.” A number of other campaigns didn’t want changes made to the format at all. The result was a series of “tweaks,” as Byron York put it, to be implemented after the upcoming Fox Business Channel debate on Nov. 10, which was deemed too close to change.
Even that modest outcome didn’t last a day. By Monday afternoon, the tenuous confederation of Republican candidates blew apart as frontrunner Donald Trump repudiated the agreement. Instead of coordinating between campaigns and broadcasters, Trump declared that he’d negotiate his own terms with the “sponsors,” and that the other candidates could either follow along or not. That threatens to return the GOP back to the 2012 dynamic, where candidates jumped at the chance to appear on television and dragged the other FOMO-plagued candidates through a gauntlet of televised debates.
The candidate confederation failed because all of these campaigns are competing with each other. The reason the RNC stepped into this role was to prevent exactly what Trump and his team want to do, which is to have 14 free agents negotiating with broadcasters.
But the reason the RNC’s original reforms failed is this: The RNC attempted to reform the wrong part of the process. The issue isn’t really how many debates take place, but the nature of the debates themselves, and the risk any one of them poses to the GOP.
These events are not debates in any substantive sense. The game-show format and the number of candidates on stage make substantive debate all but impossible. These are sound bite and gaffe contests, not a forum for sharp, honest arguments about the future of our country and party.
Nothing of substantive value emerged from two hours of wasted air time in the CNBC debate; indeed, all we have learned in nearly 14 hours of debate is how well the candidates can launch zingers. That might be valuable if we were electing the next Borscht Belt headliner, but hardly useful for choosing the next leader of the free world.
This is a failure of imagination more than a deficit of competence. We need to truly rethink debates themselves, and not just squabble over a hopelessly broken process. The RNC needs to put an end to both network sponsorship and the game-show format. If 14 candidates make the grade for a debate, then use a format that allows all 14 to make arguments for their policy choices. Offer a set of identical questions on a policy area to every candidate individually and give them each 15 minutes to answer, providing equal time for every candidate. That would require three and a half hours. Sounds like a lot, right? Well, it’s still shorter than the undercard + main event of each of the three previous debates.
When the field comes down to a manageable number — say, six or fewer — then a two-hour debate has a chance to offer substantive discussions that can frame Republican and conservative policy in an attractive manner.
If networks don’t like that format, they can cover the forums from the sidelines. In fact, with the proliferation of broadband internet, the media partnership model should be an anachronism, not a tradition. Carson’s campaign is absolutely correct about the need to cut the network strings. Presidential forums will get plenty of coverage regardless of whether they get broadcast by an alphabet-named media outlet; filing rooms fill up with reporters from all media organizations for every debate. By taking ownership of the entire event, the RNC can select moderators who display objectivity in their reporting, or even better yet, choose media figures who know the Republican voters that candidates need to reach in the primaries. Priebus deserves credit for pushing the envelope already by involving media groups on the right (including my employer, Salem Media Group, as a partner in the CNN debates), but the reform needs to go all the way toward self-sufficiency.
The Republican Party learned a hard lesson last week about the game-show format and the ability of media figures to exploit it, especially in a crowded primary. Until they change the debate format itself and replace it with a format that rewards depth and substance, they will continue to get caught with their pants down — even if the RNC or the campaigns delude themselves into thinking they’re in control.
By: Ed Morrissey, The Week, November 4, 2015
“Failure To Fact Check”: The Real Problem With The CNBC Debate Was The Moderators’ Inability To Call Out The GOP’s Nonsense
Big applause lines: “lamestream media,” a la Sarah Palin, or “Democrats who have the ultimate super PAC, it’s called the mainstream media,” a la Rubio. When in doubt, bash the media.
And it didn’t take long before the Republican National Committee blasted out a press statement that because of the CNBC debate, it was ready to cancel the party’s upcoming NBC debate. Over the weekend, the various campaigns met to “set the rules” about future debates.
Now let me get this straight: the Republicans get 24 million viewers on Fox, 23 million viewers on CNN and 14 million viewers on CNBC – up against the second game of the World Series – and they are complaining? Trump bragged about how he and Ben Carson changed the rules of the CNBC debate by threatening to pull out. Maybe this group would like to determine not only who asks the questions but what the questions are?
But make no mistake, it plays to their base to bash journalists and it also serves to intimidate the media. Sad but true.
If there was a fault with CNBC it was that the moderators were not tough enough on this crowd of candidates. They raised questions that were answered falsely or not at all and did not hold the candidates’ feet to the fire. There simply weren’t enough follow up questions. Whether they were intimidated or did not have the full research in front of them is hard to say, but they should have pushed harder.
Some examples: Cruz would not answer the question about his opposition to the debt limit and instead used his time to attack moderator Carl Quintanilla. Finally, Cruz shot back: “You don’t want to hear the answer.” It reminded me of the great scene in “A Few Good Men” when Jack Nicholson loses it on the stand and shouts, “You can’t handle the truth!”
Cruz should be forced to compare his position on raising the debt limit to Ronald Reagan’s and to that of every other president who understood what it would do to the country if we were to default.
Becky Quick asked Donald Trump about his criticism of Mark Zuckerberg for urging an increase in visas and Trump shot back that it was false. She backed off, but in fact it was true. Trump’s claim got a “Pants on Fire” from Politifact.
Carly Fiorina made the outrageous statement that 92 percent of jobs lost during President Barack Obama’s first term were women’s jobs. Politifact rated that false, and noted that the number of women with jobs actually increased by 416,000.
Ben Carson said it was “total propaganda” to assert he was involved with the disgraced nutritional supplement company, Mannatech, and the anchors had the evidence but, again, did not push back. Politifact also rated Carson’s statements false.
Probably the most important debate should have been on the various tax plans from the candidates. The New York Times editorialized against them,citing the absurdity of the 10 percent and 15 percent flat tax proposals. The effect of the Republicans’ economic policy is the same old trickle down with the biggest tax benefits going to the wealthy who, lord knows, don’t need it. As the Times’ editorial made clear none of the Republicans “has a tax plan coherent enough to be the basis of a substantive discussion, let alone one that could meet the nation’s challenges.”
It is the job of the press and, let’s face it, the Democrats, to point out that this crew of emperors has no clothes.
With all their bashing of the media and the attempt to use it to mobilize their base, it became clear that the Republicans simply did not have the answers. Pollyanish predictions of astronomical economic growth was all they could offer.
The candidates complained afterwards that there wasn’t enough time to talk about substance. Baloney. They simply don’t want hard questions. The most destructive result of all the back and forth after the CNBC debate, complete with the Fox Business Channel attacking CNBC in paid ads, would be if the Republicans intimidate the press and control the format and the questions. After all, this isn’t Russia, the last time I looked.
By: Peter Fenn, U. S. News and World Report, November 2, 2015
“It Never Pays To Give Bullies What They Want”: Will The Press Recognize The Existential Threat And Fight Back, Or Buckle Under?
It should astonish even the jaded that Republicans are calling CNBC, that stodgy home of supply-side Wall Street cheerleading, an agent of the left.
Still apoplectic at being asked some basic questions at the debate, Republican candidates are doubling down on their freakout.
Ted Cruz is flat-out calling CNBC debate moderators “left-wing operatives” and demanding that right-wing radio hosts moderate their debates, instead.
Donald Trump, who openly lied during the debate about what is on his own website, called debate moderator John Harwood a “dope” and a “fool.”
All of this after Republican candidates spewed forth one of the most embarrassing explosion of lies ever witnessed during a television presidential debate.
The press is facing an existential threat. With Republicans increasingly unashamed to tell grandiose lies and respond to any press criticism with derogatory insults and whines about media bias as well as blackmail threats to cancel appearances if the questions are too tough, the press must decide how to respond on two fronts. First, it must decide how to present an objective face while acknowledging that both sides do not, in fact, behave equally badly. Second, it must determine whether it will continue to ask the tough questions that need answers regardless of the threats made by the GOP, or whether it will meekly submit to the demands for kid-glove treatment.
If the press chooses to assuage and give comfort to the GOP, it will lose what little credibility it has left. The Republican base will never accept mainstream journalists as fair arbiters–but the rest of us will lose what little respect we still have for them. If the press stands up to the bullies and calls out GOP tactics and untruths for what they are, they will gain in respect what they lose from conservative hatemongers in the perceived objectivity department.
The choice is clear: stand strong and call out the lies as they are, or fall further into the abyss as the Republican Party ramps up its threats and insults. It never pays to give a bully what they want, unless the bully has absolute power over you. The GOP does not hold that sort of power over the press. Indeed, the GOP has far more to fear from the press than the other way around.
By: David Atkins, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, November 1.2015
“This Is An Old Story”: Presidential Debates Often Stink. But It Has Nothing To Do With ‘Liberal Media Bias’
Republicans are divided about many things, but one thing they all agree on is that the news media are out to get them, and when they fail, it isn’t their own fault, it’s because of the dastardly liberal media. So it was that the biggest applause in last night’s debate came when Ted Cruz unloaded all the righteous indignation he could muster on the moderators of the debate.
“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” he thundered. “How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?” He added that it was the result of liberal bias, noting: “The contrast with the Democratic debate, where every fawning question from the media was, ‘Which of you is more handsome and why?’”
He wasn’t alone. “I know the Democrats have the ultimate SuperPac. It’s called the mainstream media,” said Marco Rubio. Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie added their own media critiques.
And they’re half right. There were plenty of problems with many of the questions the candidates got asked. But it has nothing to do with liberal bias.
This is an old story. Republicans began complaining about media bias back in the 1970s, and you can count on every losing presidential candidate to begin whining about it within a couple of weeks of their defeat. The idea that the media are biased against Republicans has been woven deeply into conservative ideology, to the point where they’ll trot out the assertion on every issue, whether there’s any evidence to support it or not.
Let’s take, for example, Cruz’s assertion that the Democrats got softball questions in their first debate. That wasn’t how I remembered it, so I went back and read the transcript. Here are some of those softballs. To Hillary Clinton: “Plenty of politicians evolve on issues, but even some Democrats believe you change your positions based on political expediency…Will you say anything to get elected?” And the follow-up: “Do you change your political identity based on who you’re talking to?”
To Bernie Sanders: “You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?” To Martin O’Malley: “Why should Americans trust you with the country when they see what’s going on in the city that you ran for more than seven years?” To Jim Webb: “Senator Webb, in 2006, you called affirmative action ‘state-sponsored racism.’ In 2010, you wrote an op/ed saying it discriminates against whites. Given that nearly half the Democratic Party is non-white, aren’t you out of step with where the Democratic Party is now?”
Those were the first questions each candidate got. The question to Clinton presumed she’s a phony, the question to Sanders presumed he’s an unelectable extremist, the question to O’Malley presumed he left Baltimore in tatters, and the question to Webb presumed he doesn’t belong in his party.
Like the CNBC debate, the first Democratic one had some good questions and some silly ones. But the defining characteristic of almost every debate in recent years is that the journalists doing the questioning go out of their way to try to create drama.
Sometimes they do it by saying “Let’s you and him fight,” encouraging the candidates to criticize each other. Sometimes they do it with the old Tim Russert technique of accusing candidates of hypocrisy and seeing whether they can worm their way out of it (which is no more enlightening now than it was when Russert was employing it). Sometimes they do it by asking candidates who are behind or falling in the polls why things are going so badly, which never yields anything more interesting than the opportunity to watch the candidate squirm a little. Sometimes they do it by asking trap questions of the “Have you stopped beating your wife?” variety, which have no good answers. Sometimes they do it with inane personal queries (“What’s your favorite Bible verse?”) that test nothing more than the candidate’s ability to say something forgettably banal.
In every case, the question involves more of a pose of confrontation than actual journalistic toughness, which would involve taking the candidates’ ideas seriously, forcing them to be specific where they’d rather be vague, and holding them accountable for not just their gaffes but the consequences of what they propose to do.
So how did we get here? I put the blame for this problem on the late Bernard Shaw. Televised presidential debates started in 1960, and while there were a couple of dramatic moments in debates prior to 1988, they arose in organic and unpredictable ways. But Shaw taught his successors that the questioner could manufacture a dramatic moment with the right question. Be clever enough about it, and your incisive query would be repeated on every news show and in every newspaper for days.
In 1988, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis had been a lifelong opponent of the death penalty, a topic of substantial discussion on the campaign trail. As the moderator of the second debate between Dukakis and George H.W. Bush, Shaw could have explored this topic in any number of ways. With the debate’s first question, he said, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”
When Dukakis answered by explaining for the umpteenth time why he opposed the death penalty, reporters declared it a huge “gaffe,” presumably on the rationale that in order to have answered the question properly, Dukakis should have said, “Well, if it was my wife, I’d completely change my position on the issue!”, or perhaps that he should have shouted, “I’d rip him limb from limb, I tell ya!” They never explained exactly what the proper answer should have been, but they declared Dukakis a heartless automaton for not showing enough emotion in answering Shaw’s idiotic question.
And Shaw himself was proud of his heroic effort. “I was just doing my job, asking that question,” he said years later. “I thought of Murrow taking on McCarthy. That was the essence of what I wanted to be: Fearless, not afraid of the scorching bite of public criticism.”
Ever since, the journalists who serve on these debate panels have tried to frame questions in ways they think will create those dramatic moments everyone will be talking about the next day. But it almost never works.
The CNBC debate featured some good questions, some terrible ones, and a bunch that were somewhere in between. The next debate will probably not be much different. One thing we know for sure is that no matter what, Republicans will complain that the media are biased against them, and their supporters will cheer.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, October 29, 2015
For anyone disappointed by the absence of troubling material from Hillary Clinton’s emails – not to mention the cratering of the House Select Committee on Benghazi — Michael Isikoff provided a moment of hope last Monday on Morning Joe. According to the Yahoo News investigative correspondent, one of the emails newly released by the Benghazi committee was “evidence of the commission of a federal crime by someone, not Hillary Clinton,” because it included the name of a CIA source in Libya.
Even more thrilling, to some people at least, was the identity of the supposedly incriminating message’s author: none other than Clinton’s often-demonized friend Sidney Blumenthal (who also happens to be a friend of mine).
“This is maybe the single most problematic email exchange we’ve seen with Hillary Clinton yet of all the emails that have been raised,” explained Isikoff. “What you have there is Blumenthal telling the secretary that somebody at the CIA gave the name of a sensitive human intelligence source to somebody who wasn’t at the CIA.”
Certainly this appeared to be a damaging story, if accurate – but its origin in Rep. Trey Gowdy’s discredited outfit should have raised immediate suspicion. Had any of the journalists covering Gowdy checked carefully, we might have learned earlier what we now know: The CIA had reviewed that same email at the behest of the State Department before it was released and “made no redactions to protect classified information.”
In other words, Blumenthal’s email naming a certain Libyan political figure – the late dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s former intelligence chief Moussa Koussa — did not disclose any classified information, let alone intelligence secrets.
So why did Isikoff – and other credulous journalists – consider that March 18, 2011 email so damaging to Clinton and Blumenthal? Evidently because Gowdy or his staff had redacted the name of the former Libyan official themselves — while adding the usual CIA phrase “redacted due to sources and methods” for dramatic emphasis. As released, the document seemed to show that the agency had blacked out the man’s name to protect a source. That was an intentional deception, reminiscent of the dirty trick that got David Bossie fired from the staff of the House Oversight Committee.
On Sunday, Rep. Elijah Cummings, the Benghazi committee’s ranking Democrat, sent a stinging letter to Gowdy, which noted that the Republican chairman had accused Clinton of receiving “classified information from Blumenthal—information she should have known was classified at the time she received it,” and that Clinton had then “forwarded that information to a colleague — debunking her claim that she never sent any classified information from her private email address.”
Wrote Cummings: “To further inflate your claim, you placed your own redactions over the name of the individual with the words, ‘redacted due to sources and methods.’ To be clear, these redactions were not made, and these words were not added, by any agency of the federal government responsible for enforcing classification guidelines… Contrary to your claims, the CIA yesterday informed both the Republican and Democratic staffs of the Select Committee that they do not consider the information you highlighted in your letter to be classified.”
So here is yet another absurd episode, humiliating both for Gowdy and the journalists who promoted this fraudulent story and highly reminiscent of the bogus “criminal referral” leak that made the front page of the New York Times last summer.
This latest episode is even more clownish than it seems at first glance, however. Far from being secret, the close connection between Moussa Koussa and US intelligence was detailed, at great length, more than eight years ago in former CIA director George Tenet’s memoir, At the Center of the Storm (HarperCollins 2007), which was reviewed by CIA censors before publication, of course.
Koussa’s CIA ties came up again in March 2011 during Libya’s bloody civil war, reported in an excellent story on NBC News’ website by senior investigative producer Robert Windrem, just weeks before Koussa defected to the West. (It is worth noting that Windrem’s story appeared while Isikoff still worked at NBC News.) And on March 17, 2011, one day before Blumenthal sent the Koussa email to Clinton, the New York Times published a story by Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane reporting on the Libyan intelligence chief’s post-9/11 cooperation with the CIA.
Nevertheless, in Gowdy’s effort to stir fake outrage over the Blumenthal email, he described the Koussa disclosure in apocalyptic terms: “This information, the name of a human source, is some of the most protected information in our intelligence community, the release of which could jeopardize not only national security but human lives.”
But when his committee released the full email to the press, Gowdy’s own staffers failed to redact Koussa’s name from the subject line – so it was Gowdy, not Blumenthal or Clinton, who released that “most protected information” to the press and public.
By the way, there is one more angle on Moussa Koussa that sheds a darkly comical light on Gowdy’s deep concern for his security. As Tenet explained in his book, the former Libyan intelligence chief is believed by Western intelligence services to have ordered the bombing of PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, killing 259 passengers and crew. So Koussa was probably a murderous terrorist, too.
But at least he isn’t Hillary Clinton or one of her friends.
By: Joe Conason, Editor in Chief, Editor’s Blog, Featured Post, The National Memo, October 19, 2015