Ethics & Public Policy Center

CNBC Failed American Voters. Here’s How Future Debate Moderators Can Do Better.

Published in The Week on October 30, 2015


My Lord, Wednesday’s CNBC debate for the Republican presidential candidates was awful. Simply awful. Who do I see about getting those two hours of my life back?

Yes, some of the blame lies with those Republican politicians, with their typical preening and dodgy answers. But most of the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of CNBC.

I’m sure running a 10-candidate debate is hard. But still, 60 seconds per answer with 30 seconds for rebuttals is ridiculous. It’s all but begging for sound bites over substance. And far too many of the moderators’ questions were nothing more than political gotchas or mean-spirited attacks, like this one, in which John Harwood asked Donald Trump if he was a “comic book version” of a candidate. Can you blame Ted Cruz for absolutely demolishing the CNBC moderators?

It’s true that a lot of these candidates are thin on substance. But what incentive do they have to do better when they’re only going to be exposed to most voters through 60-second sound bites?

The moderators should at least try to have a serious debate. Why not — and I know this is crazy — not ask stupid questions? Why not ask good, substantive questions? And why not have experts from both parties ask the follow-ups? Or why not, instead of supposedly “neutral” journalists, have smart opinion journalists from each side ask the questions? Ezra Klein is a liberal, but he would be a far better debate moderator than the people we had Wednesday, because he knows his stuff.

Clearly, the CNBC debate was meant to produce YouTube clips of a food fight, and nothing more. That does a grave disservice to the American electorate.

It also reflects a number of other problems in our political media.

Part of the problem is that our media culture is sensationalistic. Part of the problem is that journalists don’t always know what they’re talking about. And part of the problem is the media’s liberal bias.

It’s real. Let’s all just admit it.

My colleague James Poulos is right to argue that simply charging the media with liberal bias is an all-too-convenient way to paper over the GOP’s structural disarray. But that doesn’t change the fact that much of what is dubbed the “mainstream” media is biased against conservatives.

Most journalists claim to be in journalism to pursue the truth, not to advocate for political causes. I know most of them to be sincere. And so when GOP politicians blast the media, journalists typically wave it off as another populist line that gets those strange conservative base voters riled up, with the implication that the attack must be based on a fiction, because journalists deal only in facts.

But it’s rarely that simple.

We saw far too many examples of this bias during Wednesday night’s debate.

The only conservative (or, sort-of conservative) they could find to ask questions was Rick Santelli, and to ask crankish questions about gold and the Fed, even though CNBC is actually one of the few networks out there with a bona fide smart conservative, Larry Kudlow, as an anchor.

I’m no fan of Donald Trump, to say the least, but what sense did it make to ask him if he is running a comic book campaign? What’s he going to answer? “Yes!”

I’m no fan of Ted Cruz either, for that matter, but he was certainly right that the pattern of gotcha-attacks phrased as questions (“Ben Carson, why did you do paid speeches from a supplements company, and by the way we’re totally never going to ask about trade even though we’re CNBC, this is a debate about the economy, and a huge trade deal that Hillary just flipped on is being passed.”) made a striking contrast with the fawning questions of the Democratic debate.

Perhaps the biggest issue came when CNBC’s John Harwood blatantly misrepresented Marco Rubio’s tax plan. It was also a dumb choice by CNBC; the Florida senator’s tax plan is actually the best in the field, and he’s smart enough to understand and go toe to toe on the specifics. (For the record, Harwood is still claiming he didn’t get it wrong, even though the head of the think tank whose report he cited said he was.)

Look, I’m a journalist, too. I obviously have my own conservative biases, and as an opinion columnist I have more leeway with them, and I own them.

Being a journalist is a noble profession. And you’re certainly allowed to be a liberal journalist. Just own it. I know many partisan journalists strive to do just that. But many others are extremely defensive about this issue, and too blinded to do anything about it. Their claims of objectivity strain credulity.

Maybe they should pause and ask themselves why journalists are one of the least trusted professions in America.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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