CNBC’s Republican presidential debate last week was the little network’s moment in the sun, and it was promptly burned to a crisp. Despite pulling in record ratings for the financial channel, everyone from the candidates to the audience to the rest of the press lambasted the event as amateur hour at best and a slapstick disgrace at worst.
This Tuesday, its rival, Fox Business Network, has the opportunity to either put the last debate to shame, or faceplant right next to its competitor when it hosts the fourth GOP debate. The two networks are in fierce competition: Fox Business, which still trails in the ratings, is a much younger insurgent that cropped up in 2007 to break CNBC’s grip on the finance world. (In an added twist, Fox boss Roger Ailes led CNBC as president before starting Fox News in the mid-1990s.)
Tuesday's GOP showdown will be Fox Business' first-ever debate and likely the most-watched moment in its short history. It's a chance for Fox Business to finally get sampled by more than the roughly 100,000 viewers who watch regularly each day. And to further expand its reach, it is planning to stream the debate online. It's also temporarily "unbundling" next week, meaning the channel will be unlocked for cable subscribers across the country who aren't in one of the 82 million homes that receive Fox Business from their current providers.
To further add to the high-stakes network rivalry underlying Tuesday’s debate, one of the Fox Business moderators is, in fact, a recent transplant from CNBC: Maria Bartiromo, now the host of Fox Business’s “Maria in the Mornings.” She sat onstage with John Harwood four years ago during CNBC’s 2012 GOP debate, best-known for the moment when Gov. Rick Perry struggled to remember all three agencies of government he would obliterate as president.
Now, Bartiromo, a veteran financial journalist and the first person to ever report live from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, is playing for the other team after arriving at Fox last year. Along with her colleague Sandra Smith, who will be moderating the “undercard” debate of low-polling backbenchers, she sat down with International Business Times to talk about what went wrong for CNBC and how Fox plans to pull off a non-disaster.
“For me, I think it was a clear reminder of the reason we do these debates,” Bartiromo said. “The reason we do these debates is to help the viewer, the voter, better understand the candidates’ positions on things. And to better distinguish how one plan differs from the next plan.”
“To me, that was so clearly missed [by CNBC],” she added.
When asked what went wrong last time, Bartiromo just laughed.
Smith jumped in: “These debates really come down to asking the right questions and being prepared and being able to back up the question,” she said. It was a subtle dig at CNBC moderator Becky Quick, who last week came at Donald Trump with a pointed question about a quote on his website slamming Sen. Marco Rubio. But when Trump flatly (and falsely) denied the charge, Quick was caught off guard, unable to produce the text.
“Where did I read this and come up with this?” Quick asked.
“I don’t know. You people write this stuff,” Trump shot back, to encouraging cheers from the crowd.
Doubling Down On Facts
Bartiromo and Smith are obviously looking to avoid a moment like that at all costs. “When a candidate challenges you back, you better be able to look down and have the date, the time and the verbate of what that candidate has said in the past,” Smith said.
Bartiromo recalled her dustup with Newt Gingrich back during 2012’s CNBC debate, after the former speaker chafed at one of her questions on healthcare.
“I didn’t expect him to do that, but I was ready with the facts on Obamacare,” she said.
Most notably, the two didn’t seem worried about having to corral the shrinking but still rowdy crowd of boisterous -- and sometimes bizarre -- candidates onstage. The CNBC debate, while probably satisfying to watch for those over at Fox, was also a warning of what they might expect to deal with once the cameras are rolling inside News Corp.
“People have been asking us: ‘How do you prepare for that?’ And I think the only way to prepare for a debate is to make sure you know cold what their plans are, know the follow-ups to ask, so that’s how you prepare,” Bartiromo said. “I don’t think we can sit here and say, ‘Well, am I prepared for someone to go nuts on me?"
To prevent the candidates from talking over the moderators, or each other, Smith said that the debate would have very clear guidelines. When asked what that meant, Smith seemed perplexed.
“We have a buzzer,” she said.
“Yeah, we have a buzzer,” Bartiromo seconded.
But this is a field full of contenders that doesn’t necessarily respect the authority of the almighty buzzer. While it’s true CNBC did not make use of a time limit to cut candidates off, CNN and Fox’s buzzers didn’t prevent the likes of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee or Chris Christie from going minutes over their time, clamoring for their mics to rebuke one another, or trying to steamroll the moderators into submission.
What’re more, as the noisy crew of rivals whittles down, each debate takes on higher stakes. This time around, Trump is facing a new threat of dominance from unlikely poll-topper Ben Carson, Jeb Bush is fighting the perception of his campaign’s fatal decline, and Rand Paul is just on the cusp of being demoted to the “kiddie table” debate, which is what happened to Christie and Huckabee Thursday night. Those hanging by a thread will look to create a "moment" during the debate that gives their candidacy a chance, by breaking the rules, bending them or just ignoring questions altogether -- which places additional pressure on the moderators.
When asked if these candidates may not be totally appreciative of the buzzer code, Bartiromo conceded: “They may not be.”
The Fox moderators didn’t seem to worry about the audience getting out of hand, either: “I’m excited about seeing the tone of the audience,” Bartiromo said. “I hope they’re pumped up. Like, when they were booing [at CNBC’s debate], even that, it’s okay! Let us know what you think! You get a taste of the room.”
In the aftermath of the CNBC fiasco, the GOP candidates attempted to lay down rules to control the editorial direction of future debates. Ted Cruz went further than most, going around saying that any future moderators of a Republican debate should prove that they have voted in a Republican primary. (A public records search showed that Bartiromo and her co-host Neil Cavuto have been registered Republicans at one time or another.)
Bartiromo and Smith laughed off the idea that they would kowtow to the candidates.
“Not happening,” Bartiromo. “No, no. Of course not.”
“I love the one who said they want to check on graphics?” she said, laughing. “Right.” That was Jeb Bush, whose campaign complained that a CNBC graphic listed him as an adviser for Lehman Brothers rather than former governor of Florida. “Two words,” she added. “As if.”
“Look, we’re here to facilitate, we’re not looking to please the candidates and give them their own produced show, in any way,” Bartiromo said. “We’re a news organization.”