Viewpoints

Ruben Navarrette: The CNBC debate’s teaching moment

SAN DIEGO – The great thing about journalism is that those who practice it are always in a position to learn something new.

For instance, I’m learning a lot about presidential debates. As someone who’s been doing this a long time, I always thought that the purpose of a debate was for the candidates to flesh out differences in their approaches to serious issues by slugging it out with one another.

It wasn’t until the embarrassingly bad CNBC Republican debate – and the fallout from it, including the decision by the Republican National Committee to cancel future NBC-sponsored debates – that I realized I was wrong. As far as the moderators and their defenders are concerned, the purpose of a debate seems to be for the media to slug it out with the candidates.

Imagine how different American history might have turned out if Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had in 1858 – during those seven debates, at three hours each – missed the opportunity to engage with one another because they were too busy fending off petty and argumentative questions from a newspaper writer who was determined to keep attention focused on himself.

That’s one of the keys to understanding how we got here. We have to ask: Who benefits from presidential debates these days? Of course, it should be the voters. But it’s really the networks, who get to showcase their high-priced talent and try to shape public policy, all while making a fortune by charging exorbitantly high advertising rates.

If you’re part of the fourth estate, and you’re thinking that you should have gone into politics instead of journalism because you’re convinced that you could do a better job of running this country than either the current president, or the fleet of candidates vying for a chance to be the next one, then you too could moderate a debate.

For an example of how to do the job badly, just review the performance of CNBC’s John Harwood, who whipped out the condescension early on by using his first question to mock Donald Trump for conducting “a comic-book version of a presidential campaign” and suggesting that the billionaire had as much of a chance of making his tax plan work as he would “flying away from that podium by flapping your arms.”

The questions were unfair and displayed a liberal media bias. The idea seemed to be to try to goad candidates into saying something outrageous. And the moderators seemed to want to ask questions and answer them too. When Republicans complained after the event was over, unsympathetic commentators responded that the candidates were “whining” about being asked tough questions.

On a recent episode of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” host Brian Stelter was tone-deaf to Republican complaints. It was as if they were speaking some foreign language that Stelter didn’t understand.

“Are the candidates just trying to avoid media scrutiny?” he asked. “And if so, what can the press do about it?”

Gee, I don’t know, Brian. Maybe spend more than a few minutes preparing to moderate a presidential debate and check our egos at the door?

Equally clueless was Brian Steel, CNBC’s senior vice president of communications, who released a statement saying he stood by the moderators.

“People who want to be president of the United States should be able to answer tough questions,” it read.

No doubt. But tough is one thing; insulting is another. It’s the job of the journalists to ask questions, not to argue with candidates until they cough up what the panel considers the right answer. The goal shouldn’t be to make the candidate look incompetent or extreme, but simply to give viewers at home a closer look at the candidate. Ah yes, the viewers. Remember them?

In 2007, I was one of the media questioners in a PBS debate between Democratic presidential candidates. If you didn’t know that, or if you knew but forgot, then I did a good job.

A debate moderator knows that he’s failed when he becomes the story. He is supposed to put a spotlight on the candidates, and then disappear and be forgotten. In moderating the debate between Democratic candidates, CNN’s Anderson Cooper pulled that off. Obviously the CNBC anchors did not.

The network’s Republican debate will not soon be forgotten. Nor should it be, until journalists are able to look in the mirror and fix what’s broken.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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