The general verdict on CNBC’s first -- and now, perhaps, only -- Republican presidential debate Wednesday night was that it was a rolling calamity. In the face of awkward and sometimes incoherent questions by CNBC moderators, the GOP candidates were more than happy to pose as martyrs -- victims once again of the mainstream media’s ratings-mongering and idealistic persecution of conservatives.
"The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media," Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said. He even seemed to suggest it was offensive that none of the moderators were tipping their hands as sympathetic Republicans: “Nobody watching at home believes that the moderators have any intention of voting in a Republican primary,” he said.
Soon Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie started to pick up what Cruz was putting down, lodging their own complaints against the “silly” questions and “nasty,” overbearing moderators.
Some observers say it’s a bulletproof tactic. “No candidate, particularly on the Republican side, ever loses votes for beating up on the media,” Jane Hall, professor of communications at American University, told International Business Times.
It’s an old strategy, dating back to Spiro Agnew’s attack on the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” and it’s as effective as ever. Conservative figureheads, writers and opinion makers were more than happy to rail against the usually peripheral CNBC in the aftermath: Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, called it “one gotcha question, one personal low blow after another.” Tea party poo-bah Brent Bozell called it “an encyclopedic example of liberal media bias.” The Drudge Report’s splash day Thursday morning called the network the “SHAME OF THE NATION.”
Commentators, too, lamented a botched opening that was delayed and meandering, questions from the moderators that were half-baked and sometimes pointless and an utter lack of control over the gaggle of contenders. Card-carrying members of “media Twitter” were shouting at their TV screens all throughout the night and CNN, with some apparent relish, ran segments analyzing the pile-on well into Thursday.
CNBC handed almost every candidate a Spiro Agnew moment, and each can be expected to cash in.
Historically, it’s a formula that can boost a flailing campaign, if only for a little while: The year was 2012, the candidate Newt Gingrich. His prey was CNN’s John King, who decided to ask about the former speaker’s multiple failed marriages, including the time he cheated on his second wife, who had cancer, with his eventual third wife.
“I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office, and I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like this.”
“I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans,” Gingrich growled. He went on to ride a fresh wave of support in South Carolina after his spat with King.
Substitute “Hillary Clinton” for “Barack Obama” and it’s nearly indistinguishable from the cries of Huckabee, Cruz and Christie onstage Wednesday night.
As a matter of fact, the Democratic front-runner enjoyed her own rebuttal to the media during CNN’s first Democratic debate last week when her challenger Bernie Sanders, like the rival Republican contenders, came to his opponent’s aid and demanded the network and the media at large stop asking about Clinton’s ceaselessly covered private email server.
"The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!” Sanders said, evoking the masses at will, in the same way Cruz did against CNBC. The clip was put on loop for several days while Hillary and Sanders enjoyed polling gains after the debate as their opponents like O’Malley and Webb fizzled out.
Giving Up The Media For Lent
Still, railing against the media is no silver bullet. Once a darling of the press, Chris Christie has been assailing the fourth estate ever since his administration sunk, along with his poll numbers, into the quicksand of the so-called Bridgegate last year.
“When you do things like I've done in New Jersey -- take on special interests,” he said, “they just want to kill you.” During CPAC this summer, he threw the crowd a time-tested line that he had given up the New York Times for Lent. No one seemed to care. Scott Walker, too, beat that drum and penned an op-ed in USA Today in February on the media’s “double standard.” In September, he bowed out after flat-lining in the polls.
Though the tactic is tried and true, Hall sees a new twist to it in this election, thanks to the larger-than-life presence of Donald Trump. The mogul’s over-the-top attacks on his rivals, she said, have led to a new breed of questioning in which everyone goes around the stage and addresses the big orange elephant in the room.
“If I were one of these candidates, I think I would be pretty tired of explaining what I thought of Donald Trump or what he thought of me,” Hall said.
That’s certainly how Huckabee sounded when he refused to criticize the “Apprentice” star to CNBC, flashing his “Trump tie” in solidarity, or when Cruz shamed moderator John Harwood for calling Trump a “comic book villain.”
Hall added that there’s always a line between an audience’s thirst for fireworks and their tolerance for testy interviewers. “I think people want to see conflict; but if a journalist presses too hard on someone in a debate, it can backfire on a journalist,” she said. “There’s a certain point at which something feels too personal to a viewer.”
CNBC apparently crossed that point with Carson, while questioning his ties to a medical supplement that conservative outlet National Review called “troubling.” After Carson dismissed his apparent connection to the product, moderator Carl Quintanilla pressed him further on his judgment. He crashed headfirst in a wall of boos from the crowd.
Carson smiled, lifted his hands up and murmured: “They know.”