The attacks by Donald Trump and his followers on the Fox News debate have raised a really important question:
What, exactly, is the role of moderators in a presidential debate?
Or to take a broader view: What is the role of journalists, period?
Many in the mainstream media, including such luminaries as Katie Couric, Andrea Mitchell and Jeff Greenfield, have praised the tough questioning by Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace. Perhaps most striking was this piece by liberal New York Times columnist Frank Bruni:
“They took each of the 10 Republicans onstage to task. They held each of them to account. They made each address the most prominent blemishes on his record, the most profound apprehensions that voters feel about him, the greatest vulnerability that he has.
“It was riveting. It was admirable. It compels me to write a cluster of words I never imagined writing: hooray for Fox News.”
But many conservative commentators, led by Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, have criticized Fox over the debate. What’s telling is that some portion of the Fox audience, at least according to Twitter and Facebook, is also unhappy.
Now some of these are fierce Trump partisans who are ticked when anyone challenges him on anything. Others were disappointed with the overall tone of the Cleveland event.
“The only reason Fox had high ratings was because of TRUMP and he’s the very one they tried to tear down. Thanks for Trump for your ratings, it sure wasn’t the so-called journalists,” one person said.
Another wrote that “those questions were inappropriate and vicious by Fox.”
These were offset by many others who praised the moderators’ performance, but let’s look at what some found “vicious.”
Trump was asked whether he would pledge to support the GOP nominee (after raising the potential for an independent bid in numerous interviews); about his own derogatory words about women; why he once supported single-payer health care; his evidence that Mexico is sending rapists into the United States; the Iran nuclear deal, and why he once supported abortion rights.
Jeb Bush was asked what he would say to families of those who died in “your brother’s war.” Scott Walker was asked about flip-flopping on immigration. Ben Carson was asked about his political inexperience. Marco Rubio was asked if abortion should be allowed in cases of rape and incest. And on and on.
These were aggressive questions, no doubt about it. They were painstakingly framed to elicit substantive answers from the candidates.
How would some of these detractors have reacted if the same sort of debate questions had been asked of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley? (We won’t get to find out, as the DNC has not awarded Fox one of its six debates.)
In other words, are the critics upset because they think the Fox anchors tried to put the Republican candidates on the defensive?
Of course, critics sometimes shout the loudest, and social media give them a big megaphone. But the 24 million Americans who watched--those are World Series numbers, even if many tuned in for the Trump Show--saw the candidates having to hit major-league pitching, not giving a scripted speech or appearing in a paid commercial.
It’s fine to criticize the moderators of any debate, and it’s fine to criticize Fox. But some of these cries of “I’ll never watch Fox again” seem disproportionate for a debate that was highly praised by most journalists.
Anchors are supposed to be tough in interviews and at debates, and not just to produce “good television.”
Provocative debate questions are nothing new. In 1988, CNN’s Bernard Shaw began by asking Michael Dukakis whether he would support the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered. Dukakis’ impassive response sealed his fate.
In 2012, CNN’s John King began by asking Newt Gingrich about an ex-wife’s account that he was having an affair and asked her for an open marriage. Gingrich thundered against “the destructive, vicious nature of much of the news media.”
The great interviewers like Tim Russert, who was a Democratic operative before joining NBC, know full well about pressing the pols. Russert said in 2007 that the founder of “Meet the Press,” Lawrence Spivak, once told him that “that the job of the host is to learn as much as you can about your guest’s positions and take the other side.”
Having watched Megyn, Bret and Chris spend hours preparing for the debate, I know they took great pains to be fair. In fashioning a question about a story that Fox had just broken, Baier made sure to say the candidates on stage might not be aware of it so there would be no implication that they were just uninformed.
The team was led by Bill Sammon, the Washington managing editor, and there were no dictates from on high. Unfortunately, some liberal outlets insist on arguing that Fox was pursuing some kind of crusade.
The left-wing Talking Points Memo, for instance, accused Fox of a “Trump-bashing agenda”:
“Fox News’ purpose in the main 10-candidate event was made plain with the first question: an in-your-face spotlight on Donald Trump’s refusal to promise not to run as an independent candidate. And the relentless pounding of Trump—on his bankruptcies, his past support for single-payer health care and abortion rights, his ‘specific evidence’ for claiming Mexico has dispatched criminals to the U.S. (slurs about immigrants by other candidates didn’t come up) and even his sexist tweets-—continued right on through to Frank Luntz’s post-debate focus group, designed to show how much damage Trump had sustained.”
Did Luntz control what his focus-group members would say? And is there a suggestion that Trump shouldn’t have been asked about his past liberal positions, or whether he’d rule out a third-party run?
Buzzfeed put it this way:
“The sharp change in tone marks a drastic shift for Fox, which has intentionally boosted Trump’s bid for weeks.”
Not true. It’s a big place. Some commentators have been sympathetic to Trump, while others—such as Charles Krauthammer and Jonah Goldberg, both of whom have felt the Trumpian wrath—have been slamming him.
Buzzfeed admits that “Fox News isn’t the only outlet that has succumbed to Trump-mania. The entire media has fallen under the spell.” Then why single out Fox?
The question of how much coverage to give Donald Trump is an important one. And television journalists shouldn’t get a pass for the way they handle candidates. We're all fair game.
But I can tell you from first-hand observation that Fox’s Cleveland team had one goal: to pin down all 10 presidential contenders on that stage.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.