As the candidates revolt, can the networks protect their debate franchise?

In the wake of the CNBC debacle, journalism itself is under attack.

The Republican presidential candidates have a right to be monumentally ticked off. And no one much likes the media these days. The Colorado catastrophe lit a very long fuse of frustration within the GOP, which believes the networks are using the debates to derail them.

Now, after a private Sunday dinner in Alexandria with Republican uber-lawyer Ben Ginsberg, most of the campaigns are joining forces to demand that the networks change their approach to the debates—or else.

It’s not easy to defend the networks after CNBC’s condescending and borderline hostile moderators made such a hash of things, but I will try.

No self-respecting network can give in to some of the utterly unrealistic demands being bandied about by the campaigns—demands that suggest they don’t want fairness but coddling.

It’s fine to negotiate over such matters as opening statements, allotted time for responses and more time for the also-ran candidates. But we’re hearing that some campaigns want to vet the moderators, approve the on-screen graphics, limit the scope of questions or decree that all candidates be asked the same questions. Sorry, but those are editorial decisions to be made by journalists.

Ben Carson doesn’t seem to like the debates, which don’t play to his strengths. First he proposed streaming them online instead of making them into television shows. And his rep at the dinner proposed dropping the undercard and having all 14 candidates on stage for one debate—which would obviously limit the questioning for each contender.

That’s the problem facing the campaigns: they have conflicting agendas. Carly Fiorina loves debates and didn’t bother to send anyone to the meeting. Jeb Bush’s campaign manager, according to the Washington Post, said that Telemundo, NBC’s partner in the now-suspended February debate, should not be dropped because the party needs to reach Hispanics voters. But Donald Trump’s campaign manager said his guy would walk if Telemundo was restored.

Some of this is working the refs, sure. But it has taken on a far larger meaning.

Ted Cruz, who changed the tenor in Boulder by ripping CNBC, has suggested that Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin moderate a Republican debate. While that would be entertaining, do we really want the candidates questioned by commentators who are basically on their side?

We will see the equivalent this Friday when MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, an unabashed liberal who loves to rip the GOP, moderates a Democratic “forum” that was added to the schedule.

About the only point of agreement right now is that the Fox Business debate comes up so soon, on Nov. 10, that any changes will take place after that faceoff in Milwaukee.

The danger for the candidates is that they will be seen as overreaching, as wary of facing challenging questions. Dealing with media scrutiny, even gotcha questions, is part of how politicians demonstrate they’re prepared for the presidency.

But there is a danger here for the media as well. Unless they can demonstrate that they can keep these debates from spiraling out of control, and that their questions will be perceived as tough but fair, they will forfeit the public trust needed to preserve their role.