The Republican National Committee has stiffed MSNBC on the presidential debates. Is that a problem?
It is if you think political parties shouldn’t be able to pick and choose which journalists get to question their White House contenders.
Reince Priebus has limited the schedule to nine debates in an effort to get the whole reality-show thing under control and nudge the party into settling on a nominee more quickly. That makes it harder for underfunded or fringe candidates to break out with a few boffo performances, as in 2012, when two dozen debates started to make people's eyes glaze over.
And the news organizations were carefully selected as well. Fox News is getting three debates (one of them on Fox Business) and CNN two. One debate each was awarded to CBS, ABC and NBC (in conjunction with Telemundo), and one to CNBC.
Now you might say MSNBC doesn’t deserve a shot because its liberal commentators constantly bash the GOP. But imagine the uproar if the Democratic National Committee declared it doesn’t like Fox News and was excluding it from any Hillary debates (that is, assuming there’s a competitive primary)?
In fact, something like that happened in 2007, when the DNC said a debate planned by Fox and the Congressional Black Caucus was not among those “sanctioned,” and the event had to be canceled after candidates started backing out.
I just don’t like political parties dictating which media organizations can and cannot play. The Republicans, who clearly have a problem with Hispanic voters, also snubbed Univision.
Priebus had previously threatened to exclude CNN and NBC after they planned films about Hillary Clinton. I wasn’t thrilled about those Hillary projects, but I liked the idea of political punishment even less. (The dispute became moot when both projects fizzled.)
So do, say, CBS and ABC have to worry about what their journalists and commentators say, lest they lose a promised debate?
I admit it’s harder to defend MSNBC on this score than it would have been a half-dozen years ago. The network no longer has a news division, with conventions and election nights — and tonight’s State of the Union — anchored by Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow, and heavily populated by other liberal commentators. In 2008, the channel at least felt it had to bring in David Gregory for the big political nights.
Fox, by contrast, mainly used Chris Wallace, Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly to handle the 2012 debates, not its opinion hosts.
If the future of presidential primary debates lies solely with the parties picking networks perceived as friendly, American voters will be the losers.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.