Last year, the Republican National Committee embarked on a highly publicized campaign to “take control” of the presidential nominating process. The hyperactive ferret rodeo that was the 2012 GOP primary left the RNC with concerns about the damage being done to the party’s image and the creeping influence of outside spending groups, so the party committee moved to reassert its influence and clamp down on the primary debates. “The number of debates has become ridiculous,” the RNC’s 2013 Growth and Opportunity Project report concluded, “and they’re taking candidates away from other important campaign activities.”
So the RNC passed a series of rules limiting the number of debates and punishing candidates who appeared in non-sanctioned forums. And they pushed out a series of press releases and news stories conveying the message that control had been seized back from the malign influence that had corrupted the 2012 primaries: the liberal media. “The RNC is ensuring grassroots conservatives have ownership over the primary debates in 2016,” the committee boasted last May. “Our candidates deserve a fair hearing. Our voters deserve a real debate. And the liberal media doesn’t deserve to be in the driver’s seat.”
Well, that was all a load of nonsense. The RNC has once again completely lost control of the debates and the primary, and they’re back to blaming the liberal media they claimed to have vanquished last year. Following last week’s CNBC debate, RNC chair Reince Priebus – inundated with complaints from the candidates about the “tone” and “bias” of the moderators – fired off a letter to NBC saying he was suspending the RNC’s involvement in any future NBC debates because of the “petty and mean-spirited” questions that were “designed to embarrass our candidates.”
The candidates themselves took matter into their own hands and convened a meeting over the weekend to decide how the debates should be handled. Per the Washington Post, they produced a draft letter laying out some terms and conditions and media sponsors of future debates must respond to before the candidates agree to participate in a given debate. The networks will have to disclose who they plan to have as moderators, say how long they plan to make the debate, and promise to keep the temperature in the forum below 67 degrees. They’ll also have to pledge to swear off certain types of questions – hand-raisers, yes-or-no questions, and candidate-to-candidate queries – while also abiding to certain restrictions on how they shoot the event (no reaction shots from audience, no shots taken from behind the candidates).
This is an absurd list of demands drawn up by whiny, petulant children. And the collective response from the television networks presented with this letter should be the rough equivalent of this:
To be clear about what’s going on here: the candidates have precisely zero intention of fostering “substantive” discussion at the debates. The CNBC debate was a travesty largely because the moderators completely lost control of the forum and allowed the candidates to reframe their substantive questions as inappropriate expressions of “liberal bias.” They allowed themselves to be cowed by the bullying of self-interested actors whose chief concerns are protecting their own images and controlling the flow of information. The RNC’s letter to NBC and this list of demands from the candidates are just an escalation of what was already a pretty flagrant attempt at intimidation.
There is no good reason why any media outlet should consent to aid the candidates in executing their public relations strategy. And there is absolutely no justification for ceding any degree of editorial control to the candidates – even if it’s over something as annoying and reviled as “show of hands” questions, you’re still letting a politician dictate how you do journalism, which sets a horrible precedent. Such requests should be squelched as violently as possible. Moderators asking bad questions is a problem, but the solution is not to empower the campaigns to determine which questions are permissible.
If the candidates threaten to boycott, fine, let them. It’s doubtful that many would follow through on that threat given the exposure they’d be sacrificing and the mockery they’d be opening themselves up to. If they do boycott, invite the JV debate participants to take their place. Leave an empty lectern on stage with the name on it. Explain that they declined to attend because they were uncomfortable with certain types of questions that might be asked. The candidates already view the media as the enemy, so the media should be highly reluctant to give them any quarter.
That’s what should happen, at least. Media outlets have proved themselves highly susceptible to charges of “liberal bias” in the past, and I’m sure that there are hand-wringers within the network whose paramount concern is how a debate that doesn’t feature Donald Trump and/or Ben Carson would affect advertising rates. So I’m not entirely confident that the networks will fully understand that these demands are not being issued from a position of strength, and shouldn’t even be considered, let alone negotiated.