Fox's miserable debate night: How Trump & Cruz ran wild while the network looked out of its depth

The debate moderators couldn't have looked more amateurish if they tried. The result: A deeply unsettling spectacle

Published January 15, 2016 6:00AM (EST)

  (AP/Chuck Burton)
(AP/Chuck Burton)

On Wednesday, New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman, who is as plugged-in to what goes on at Fox as anyone, wrote that the network is experiencing something of a crisis of confidence lately, thanks to a power struggle between CEO Roger Ailes and owner Rupert Murdoch. Fox, Sherman reported, "isn’t functioning like the disciplined campaign it’s historically been. 'There's no directive on anything,' one anchor [said]. 'There used to be directives on everything, and now there's not, which is kind of nice.'"

Anybody watching Thursday night's Republican presidential debate, which aired on Fox Business, could see evidence of this right in front of them. Moderators Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo delivered a baggy, tonally bizarre and deeply inconsistent forum. The debate presented viewers with a number of intriguing spectacles—chief among them the increasingly realistic prospect of the GOP actually nominating Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, who both dominated the evening to a bloodcurdling extent. But it also showed Fox falling down on the job, something it actually does rather rarely if you judge it on its own terms.

Fox takes its role as a key GOP player very seriously–contrast its remorseless eviction of Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina fromThursday's joust with CNN's caving to Paul back in December, for instance—and, because it is deeply invested in the outcome of the primary process, it can usually be counted on to keep the candidates on their toes and put on a cohesive show, even if left-leaning audiences might not like the ways it does that. (Trump's feud with Megyn Kelly didn't come out of nowhere.)

Not on Thursday, though.

The first section didn't feature any debating at all; instead, the candidates just got to deliver applause lines for 90 seconds each, while Cavuto and Bartiromo asked the kinds of leading, friendly questions anyone would love to get. The leading question theme continued throughout the night, giving the debate an edge that was hard-right even for Fox. Bartiromo asked John Kasich what it "said" about the Democratic Party that a man like Bernie Sanders was popular. Cavuto asked Chris Christie to affirm the widely-debunked notion of a "Ferguson effect" on policing. Bartiromo asked Ben Carson if Hillary Clinton should be blamed for Bill Clinton's womanizing—a question seemingly ripped straight from Rush Limbaugh's dreams.

When they weren't assisting the candidates so ably, Cavuto and Bartiromo led them, and the audience, on a virtual roller coaster ride. The stump speech section was followed by the already-infamous series of arguments between Trump and Cruz over birtherism and "New York values," which pushed every other candidate completely to the side and, for good measure, took up about ten minutes of time on strange detours. Not that Trump or Cruz were complaining; each got possibly the best moment they've ever had in the entire campaign out of the slugfest.

Just when it was easy to wonder why all of this was happening on a business network, Cavuto and Bartiromo veered into a wooly, torturous section on China, taxes and entitlements. (Others can judge the merits of these exchanges; the minutiae of the value-added tax is not one of my strong suits.) By this point, any pretense that the moderators had a handle on time limits, or the clock in general, had gone out the window. The candidates all went on interminable, free-association monologues, seemingly at times of their own choosing. As the minutes ticked by, Cavuto and Bartiromo seemed more and more tentative. Not surprisingly, the debate went over by about a half hour.

Fox will no doubt be satisfied with the overall product, given the Trump-Cruz battle and the sure-to-be astronomical ratings, but it has possibly never looked more unsure of itself, and more amateurish, than it did on Thursday night. It has a chance to redeem itself on January 28th. Then, the Fox News team of Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace will handle things. If they can't get it right, then there really is something going badly off-course inside Fox.

Watch a recap of the debate below:
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By Jack Mirkinson

Jack Mirkinson is a writer living in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @jackmirkinson.

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