Last Friday, the RNC approved a resolution to block CNN and NBC from handling any 2016 GOP Presidential Primary debates. The resolution was brought up after both CNN and NBC (or NBC’s affiliate, NBC Entertainment) announced plans to air a mini-series on the life of Hillary Clinton. A little back-story is in order to get any new readers up to speed.
A few weeks ago NBC and CNN announced that they were planning on airing a mini-series about the life of Hillary Clinton. Republicans, sensing bias immediately raised an objection. However, both CNN and NBC ignored the objections and made clear they were pushing ahead with the series. As a result, last week RNC Chairman Reince Preibus issued an ultimatum to the networks; either show the mini-series or moderate GOP Presidential Primary debates. Not both. The networks made their choice and on Friday, Preibus and the RNC Committee delivered on their threat.
Republican doubts about the integrity of the media have never been in doubt. Who can forget Newt Gingrich famously taking the moderators to task in the first debate in South Carolina for asking loaded question after loaded question. But this without a doubt showed that for all the effort (not much) CNN and NBC put into appearing non-biased they are about as biased as they come. The history of biased moderators and sponsors of debates is deep and rich (GOP media bias did not occur in a vacuum).
We can start all the way back in 1988 when CNN anchor Bernard Shaw, moderating the second of two Presidential debates, later admitted he was pressured not to ask Michael Dukakis the famous question about rape and the death penalty. More recently, the evidence of bias is systematic is striking. During 2012 ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos (a former staffer in the Clinton White House), before the New Hampshire primary, asked all the candidates whether they thought states should ban contraception. Hold on a second, contraception was not even an issue yet because HHA had not released the rules relating to it under Healthcare Reform. Most candidates dodged the question (as they should have) and it did not make Stephanopoulos happy. Gingrich later said in the debate, “I just want to raise a point about the news-media bias. You don’t hear the opposite question asked. Should the Catholic Church be forced to close its adoption services in Massachusetts because it won’t accept gay couples, which is exactly what the state has done? . . . The bigotry question goes both ways, and there’s a lot more anti-Christian bigotry today than there is concerning the other side. And none of it gets covered by the news media.”
Of course if this was all the idiocy of debate moderators in 2012 the GOP might be happy. But it continued. NBC anchor Brian Williams, asked Rick Perry during a debate at the Reagan Library whether the Governor was kept up at night because of all the criminals that were executed in Texas. Perry astutely pointed out that by the time they were near execution they had exhausted years of appeals, at state expense, and that they were answering for their crimes. Audience members cheered. Williams, aghast, then asked Perry what he thought of the audience reaction? Nevermind that public opinion polls nationwide show strong support for the death penalty. For goodness sake, liberal California still has it on the books.
The ultimate insult to Republicans however came in the second general election debate. CNN moderator Candy Crowley, asking Mitt Romney and Barack Obama about Bengahzi, challenged Romney on his answer on the question. By the time the little scenario was over even Romney looked flustered. Note to future moderators, you do not take sides in a debate, you moderate. Later on, after the debate and furor created over her actions, Crowley later admitted that Romney had been more right than not in his answer. No, really?
All this could be viewed in two ways. The first would be to shrug it off and see it as the same Grand Ole’ Party again alleging media bias to make its base happy. Or one could look closer and see that the GOP has reasons for its actions other than just media bias. The GOP may want to branch out in who it allows to moderate its debates. Allowing the Christian Broadcasting Network, Black Entertainment Channel (I have a hard time saying it with a straight face) or Telemundo to moderate a GOP debate would allow the party to reach audiences that traditionally have not been targeted. Considering the GOP is not going to have over 20 debates again (some which were a joke), allowing these outlets to moderate would help shape the candidates in crucial ways to important voting blocs.
There has been talk in some GOP circles of having conservative commentators moderate the debates. But while this might allow the base to salivate at the candidates slamming the Left on hot-button issues it would do nothing for the party in addressing the issues middle of the road voters, the young and minorities largely care about.
That said, a political party has the right to protect its primary process as they see fit. Letting their candidates be backed into corners on questions they have no way to answer without incriminating themselves is one such way. Another way is the approach the RNC just took, ban blatantly biased media outlets from the debates. Besides, what is the harm in allowing more diversity and formats in Presidential debates? The Internet, social media, and changing media landscape has created new ways for voters to view and form their opinions about the candidates. It might be good for the whole country, not just the party, to change its debate format so more non-traditional individuals can gauge the candidates through new mediums (ie. Google question debates). Sorry, CNN and NBC, the GOP has every right to give you the boot. But on the bright side if you play your cards right you might get given the keys to a debate/s in 2048.
Addendum: It is of course possible CNN and NBC could back off from making the show. Some NBC advisers have expressed doubts about the series ever being made, especially with Fox announcing they would not participate in the show. If either CNN or NBC backs out, it is unlikely the other would push on alone.