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 TV moderator likened a GOP campaign to 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. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball analysis found 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.
Brian Steel, a spokesman for TV network 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 defacto kingmakers and kingbreakers in the campaigns, particularly debates.
The news media play a role in planning the events. They have a huge say in who gets to participate and get the exposure to tens of millions of viewers/voters – and who is stuck at an off prime time debate or 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, R-S.C., one of Congress’ leading experts on military affairs, who’s been relegated to the undercard debate 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 edgeir for one party than another.
In the first Republican debate Aug. 6, Donald Trump’s insults of Fox News moderator 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 moderated by three reporters from CNBC. zx
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 other questions that were less about economics, the stated purpose of the debate, and more about candidate weaknesses, polling status and other such matters, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-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 Qaeda 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.