Clearly the right-side faithful would like to blame the dark forces of the mainstream media, who, they suspect, have loaded the questions to make their candidates look unPresidential, or even silly. The largest ovation of the night, by far, went to a meta-attack on the CNBC moderators. But while insipid inquiries about superheroes and fantasy sports betting do no particular credit to the fifth estate, most conspiracy theories only reveal the fragile mental health of their adherents. ‘UnPresidential’ well defines this crop of candidates, well before the stage lights go up.
I do fault the media for three things, generally. The first is its breathless coverage of campaign minutiae, still more than a year in advance of the election. There is plenty of evidence that most folks simply have not yet made up their minds, yet we see poll after poll presented, and dissected as if any of it matters. It doesn’t. We also see self-important pundits fawning over bon-mots and zingers, as if this process is really a season of Survivor: Stand-up Comedy edition. It’s not. I do not care who’s quickest with a joke, as it has sweet-nothing to do with who’d make the best Commander-in-Chief.
As follows from that point, the networks are mostly interested in ratings – an old complaint that is no less current than when first expressed. News divisions are profit centers, and they are judged by market forces horribly divorced from the civic duties our Founders laid-out for them in the First Amendment. Controversy sells newspapers and lights up TV screens, a phrase that might double as Mr. Trump’s campaign slogan. With such a nonsensical goal, is anyone surprised that the questions include a great deal of nonsense?
Indeed, that’s a big reason why the fevered conspiracy theorists are wrong – the cynical networks don’t care who wins – they care who watches.
Finally, I’ll crib from Amy Davidson that the worst fault of the CNBC moderators was their failure to actually moderate the proceedings. They allowed the candidates to wander far off-topic and way over time – and they allowed the interviewees to make them the issue. They lost control of the process, so that now in two of the three GOP gatherings, the press has been the story (the heat in the room dominated the second edition). By contrast, Anderson Cooper did a reasonable job in the first Dem debate – asking skeptical questions and pushing past deflections and pat answers for actual substance.
So, what to make of the GOP complaints and their Sunday pow-wow among the campaigns to address them? They have advocated for several changes, including longer opening/closing statements, and the use of only pre-approved graphics during the telecast. These are clearly designed to move the debates away from any semblance of a debate, and in the direction of free air-time for campaign commercials. The pre-approval of graphics is particularly manipulative, and troubling. The networks should obviously refuse to become the propaganda organs of the campaigns (well, except for the one that lives for that role).
I’ll make a passing wave at the logistical difficulties of conducting a real ‘debate’ among ten or eleven egos eager for air-time and sound bite-age that might resurrect campaign prospects. That’s an inherent part of the problem, made much worse by the fact that candidates can stay afloat in the process with the patronage of only one-or-two billionaire benefactors.
But the real problem here is the very lack of substance in the Republican field. Unless they can manage and control the narrative, within the friendly confines of the right-wing echo chamber, they look lost and insubstantial. One of the few telling moments last week was pole-sitter Ben Carson’s struggle to recall the lines he’d memorized about ‘his’ tax proposal. In that instant, it became clear that he is more like a desperate undergraduate cramming for the civics exam than he is a celebrated surgeon commanding the O.R.
It only happened because he was forced off-script, but it revealed that he obviously had no clue how his own plan worked. That must have sent a shudder down the spines of the other campaign staffs, who want to avoid such a terrible moment for their own implausible candidates. Hence, the rage against the media machine; it’s out of self-defense by a featherweight bunch, imperiled at being revealed. The unhappiness is an unintended consequence of the current system that the GOP created.
They’d like to plug the messengers or at least abuse their horses, but this is the gang who can’t shoot straight -- they are certain to miss.