Turns out I’m not the only one who thought the CNBC debate moderators turned in a cringe-worthy performance.
Just about everyone said it sucked.
Salon: “CNBC just set the standard for catastrophic debate performances.”
Slate: “A debate that the network hoped could revive its mojo only revealed how over the hill it truly is.”
Yahoo: “This will go down as the debate that unified the Republican field… in its common contempt for the CNBC moderators.”
The business network drew its largest audience ever, 14 million viewers, and many of them undoubtedly came away with a negative view of CNBC’s fairness.
But there are some larger lessons here about television, campaign coverage and the inevitable tensions between journalists and politicians.
I believe in tough and provocative questions. Sometimes they are going to be unpopular, especially before a partisan audience.
I know the Fox News moderators generated some strong resentment for the Cleveland debate, particularly from those who love Donald Trump. But in my view even the most provocative questions were based on substance: Bret Baier asking Trump if he’d agree not to run as an independent, Megyn Kelly quoting his past demeaning remarks about women.
By contrast, the CNBC crew was more personal, seemingly arguing with the candidates as if it was just another edition of “Squawk Box.” When John Harwood asked Trump if he were running a “comic book” campaign, when he said Trump had a better chance of “flying away” from the podium than making his tax plan work, those came off as insults.
And where’s the policy substance in Harwood asking Mike Huckabee whether Trump has the “moral authority” to lead the country? Huckabee wouldn’t play, and Trump deemed the question “nasty.”
When Carl Quintanilla kept pressing Ben Carson about his ties to a medical company and wouldn’t accept his answers, the audience erupted in boos.
No wonder Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie unloaded on the questioners.
This was a high-stakes showdown. Preparation matters. When the moderators bungled questions, they looked amateurish. Harwood insisted to Rubio that he hadn’t corrected his citation of a study, when he’d done just that two weeks earlier. Becky Quick seemed confused, and actually apologized, when Trump challenged a statement she attributed to him about immigration, even though she was right. Quick struggled to correct the record 20 minutes later.
But this Colorado catastrophe didn’t just hurt CNBC. It reinforced the view that all journalists are snarky and arrogant, and that they have no interest in being fair to Republicans.
Since CNBC generally focuses on the stock market, not politics, maybe the channel was just ill-equipped for such a high-stakes challenge. Adding to the awkwardness was a pervasive sense that the proceedings were out of control. When Rand Paul asked why some candidates were allowed to break in while others were scolded for doing so, Quick said dismissively: “It’s at the moderator’s discretion.”
There is an art to asking aggressive questions without seeming unfair and overbearing. It’s an art that all of us bungle at times. But for CNBC those mistakes and missteps lasted throughout the night.
And by the way, everyone in the media is talking about CNBC’s performance except CNBC. Rather than grapple openly with the criticism, the network put out a terse statement saying that presidential candidates ought to be able to answer tough questions.
You know you’ve lost the night when in a closing statement, Trump brags that he and Carson successfully pressured CNBC to cutting the debate from three hours to two “so we can get the hell out of here”—and it gets a big cheer.
Harwood insisted that the debate was always going to be two hours. "Absolutely not true," said Trump. What is true is the press reported for days that Trump was threatening to boycott the thing if CNBC stuck with plans to add a lucrative third hour, and the network didn't dispute these stories.
Given the way things turned out, CNBC is lucky there wasn't a third hour to prolong the agony.