RNC Nixes Partnership with NBC for Future Debate

A letter from RNC screenshot

image courtesy of GOP.com

RNC Nixes Partnership with NBC for
Future Debate

| published October 31, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor


Angry about how candidates were grilled by CNBC’s moderators during last week’s Republican debate in Boulder, Colorado, top RNC officials have withdrawn from partnering with NBC and NBC News properties and affiliates for future debates—specifically a debate scheduled for next February.

Party chairman Reince Priebus made the announcement after days of discussions with candidates and the top staff of several of the candidates’ campaign operations. Priebus communicated his concerns in a letter sent to the head of NBC News, Andrew Lack.

CNBC is a subsidiary of NBC Universal, a media conglomerate owned in turn by parent company Comcast. February’s GOP debate was to be simulcast on both NBC and Telemundo, a Spanish-language network.

RNC officials say that the GOP will retain its co-sponsorship, already agreed to, with conservative opinion magazine National Review, but would shop around for alternate broadcast options. NBC News characterized the development as unfortunate and disappointing, but said it would continue to negotiate in good faith with the Republican Party to find a resolution prior to February.

Last week’s debate was intended—according to discussions between officials with CNBC, the RNC, and candidates—to be a forum for the discussion of all things economic: jobs, employment, wages, taxes, government spending, trade issues, and the costs of health care and infrastructure. Though much of the latter half of that debate did in fact concentrate much discussion on those topics, the first segment seemed—in the view of most of the candidates and many in the audience—to be little more than deliberate attempt to provoke attacks by some candidates on the others in the room, and a forum for lobbing “gotcha’ questions” at the ten candidates.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, one of the candidates on stage that night, lashed out at the CNBC moderators, including CBNC anchor Carl Quintanilla, declaring that “this is not a cage match.”

The raucous and sometimes freewheeling debate spiraled off of its original template very quickly, with some candidates deliberately interrupting the proceedings to interject comments, several candidates using more on-air time than was allotted, and other candidates finding themselves unable to get a word in edgewise. The order of questioning was often arbitrary, and may have encouraged some candidates to jump in at inappropriate moments, using other’s valuable time.

Moderators also seemed to be deliberately pitting some candidates against others in an effort to spark hostile exchanges—including a now infamous back-and-forth between Floridians Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, an exchange over Rubio’s voting-attendance record which may have backfired badly on Bush. CNBC’s John Harwood asked Trump if his was a “comic-book version of a presidential campaign.” The first question thrown to Jeb Bush was about his poor polling numbers. Ohio Governor John Kasich was asked to repeat negative comments and insinuations about Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson. Carson was asked if he could do basic math. In all, the first five to seven questions seemed—at least to many viewers and certainly to the majority of those in the audience—staged for maximum negative effect. CNBC defends its questions and its moderators by saying that someone running for President ought to be able to take a few tough questions.

But after several negative and bloody exchanges brought on by CNBC questioners, some candidates began to fight back against the moderators, starting with Cruz. When Cruz was asked a question about the debt ceiling, government spending, and a potential government shutdown, he attempted to turn the tables on the reporters.

“How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?” Cruz demanded as the audience erupted in wild applause which lasted even over Quintanilla’s attempts to redirect. “The contrast with the Democratic debate,” Cruz said, “in which every fawning question was ‘which of you is more handsome and wise?’ That debate reflected a debate between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.”

“The questions asked in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Cruz said.

Cruz’s counterattack was arguably the response which drew the heaviest applause, and also scored the highest in several live focus groups monitoring the debate in other locations. Pollster Frank Luntz, who measured responses electronically with a large studio focus group, declared afterwards that Cruz’s lambasting of the CNBC moderators sent the scores through the roof. Luntz said that in nearly 20 years of measuring results in real-time, he has never seen a comment slam the ceiling as hard as Cruz’s excoriation of the media that night.

Other candidates also blasted the way questions were being handled, as well as the tone and style of the debate as managed by the CNBC team. The debate quickly turned into a battle of wills, at times, between the moderators and the candidates. After the conclusion of the debate, several campaign teams with several candidates complained to RNC officials present that the event had been managed poorly and handled inappropriately by CNBC.

Several of the candidates and their top staffs have convened a summit for Sunday to discuss the viability of future debates, along with possible guideline changes and rule changes.

In his letter to Andrew Lack, chairman of NBC News, Priebus outlined his concerns and frustrations about how the Wednesday debate was handled (to read the full text of the letter, click here).

“While debates are meant to include tough questions and contrast candidates’ vision and policies for the future of America, CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of “gotcha” questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates. What took place on Wednesday was not an attempt to give the American people a greater understanding of our candidates’ policies and ideas.”

Priebus also outlined a short list of things agreed to in advance of the debate—provision which the RNC chairman says CNBC did not deliver. Among them: failure to keep the debate discussion focused on jobs, taxes, technology, growth and infrastructure; opening questions directly-related to broad economic policies; assurances that CNBC would closely manage the time allotted for each candidate’s response or rebuttal. Priebus also noted that some questions were based on inaccurate information, such as a question by Becky Quick asking Donald Trump why he openly disagreed with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on immigration.

Though some liberal blogs and commentary said that the questions were fair—claiming that Republican candidates judged the inquiries unfair only because the questions disrupted the unsound economic positions of some of the candidates—some liberal and center-left news sources worried that many of the CNBC questions were framed in needless hostility and mean-spiritedness. Some liberal writers and commentators also worry aloud that by constructing so many of the questions in such an openly adversarial framework, the CNBC debate will lend greater credence to the long-held view of many U.S. conservatives that the majority of those in the mainstream media are congenitally hostile toward center-right views.

Stephen Colbert, host of CBS’s Late Night, also agreed that what could have been a highly substantive debate—regardless of one’s home on the political spectrum—turned into an ugly spectacle for everyone involved, and the backlash will surely be strong against the media in general because of the arrogance and antagonistic approach employed by CNBC’s team of moderators. By framing many of the early questions as thinly-disguised insults, CNBC triggered a ferocious counter-attack by several candidates on the stage.

Cruz’s comparison of the CNBC debate to the one hosted by CNN and featuring the Democratic candidates won the night for Republican loyalists and the conservative faithful, but CNN is owned by Turner Broadcasting and Time Warner, not NBC Universal. CNN moderators’ treatment of the top five Democratic candidates was in keeping with arrangements made between CNN, the Democratic National Committee, and the campaign staffs of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and others.

Meanwhile, the RNC’s plan to scrap any future relationship with NBC or subsidiaries of NBC Universal has gained much attention in the mainstream press. What is not clear is whether the boycott will produce any measurable result, since that planned debate on NBC and Telemundo was scheduled for February. The RNC says it plans to open talks with other broadcasters regarding the presentation of that debate. It plans to keep National Review as one of the sponsors.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Republican Debate: Raucous Anti-Media Rumble; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; October 29, 2015.

A Debate Over the Debate: Did Clinton Win?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; October 15, 2015.