According to the New York Times, in particular to its television critic James Poniewozik, the winners in Wednesday night’s CNBC candidate debate were the GOP candidates and Fox News.
One recalls that Frank Bruni praised the Fox moderators for doing an excellent job at the first Republican presidential debate. To me this seemed like a fair assessment. Some questioned whether Times writers would be as fair about their natural allies, especially when their natural allies messed up. Keep in mind, the lead questioner on Wednesday was Times contributor John Harwood.
Poniewozik opens by comparing CNBC unfavorably with Fox News. That in itself is worth noting:
Back in August, in the first Republican debate of the cycle, Fox News’s moderators asked tough questions — much too tough, notably, for Donald J. Trump’s liking — and held firm on the debate rules. CNBC seemed to be trying this approach, but without the quickness and discipline to pull it off.
The moderators seemed to want to provoke a food fight among the candidates. Instead, they set themselves up and lost. They should have known that some of the candidates were former federal prosecutors. Ted Cruz was a champion debater and a prosecutor. Chris Christie was a federal prosecutor. You know that such people are very good in arguing on their feet. They were far brighter than their journalist adversaries. Yet, liberal journalists believe that they belong to an intellectual elite and believe that all Republicans are, by definition, dumb. For them the experience, coupled with the bad reviews, must have been very galling indeed.
The debate quickly became candidates vs. CNBC. The network lost in a rout.
The moderators often seemed simultaneously aggressive and underprepared: a fatal combination. Becky Quick asked Mr. Trump about having once called Marco Rubio “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator” — referring to the founder of Facebook. But when Mr. Trump denied it, Ms. Quick failed to recall that the quotation came from his own website. Instead, she said “My apologies,” despite having gotten the words right.
Ms. Quick mentioned the source later, but the moment had passed and the impression that Mr. Trump had won the exchange had been made. When you leave your homework in your locker like that, the audience will not be offering makeup credit later.
As for John Harwood’s professionalism, Poniewozik derides it:
And co-moderator John Harwood (who also contributes to The New York Times) often delivered his questions as if he were a candidate whose handlers had prepped him with zingers. (To Mr. Trump: “Is this a comic-book version of a presidential campaign?”)
You might believe that the Times was upset because the CNBC debate made the Republicans look better than liberal journalists. But then again, it has been known to defend the impossible before, so we are inclined to give it, through its television critic, praise for a fair and balanced appraisal.
The Times was hardly alone in comparing CNBC unfavorably with Fox News. Lloyd Grove reports the views of former CNN Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno:
“I think the first Fox debate was excellent,” former CNN Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno, director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, told The Daily Beast. “But when Fox did the first debate, it was a getting-to-know-you debate” for which every question—even the ones from Megyn Kelly about which Donald Trump bitterly complained—was a fresh subject to the candidates and the audience.
By contrast, Sesno said, the CNBC debate was touted in advance as focusing on the candidates’ competing ideas for strengthening the economy, creating jobs, fixing federal entitlement programs, and other pocketbook issues.
Instead, Sesno argued, the debate tended to focus on the moderators’ provocative, personal, and, by some lights, insulting questions—and the candidates’ reprisals.
“I think it was a great wasted opportunity,” Sesno said. “CNBC had an opportunity to own a space that was unique, and they advertised it as such. They’re the economy and markets channel, and they had an opportunity really to drive a focus around a genuine debate over economic policy … And it didn’t happen.”
Sesno continued: “The questions were utterly predictable. There were very few follow-ups. There was little effort to generate an actual debate… Instead, there was this rehash of totally legitimate questions about rack record, the viability of candidacy—but all questions that have been asked before. The opening question—‘What are your personal weaknesses?’—was a very clever effort…but it had a thoroughly predictable result, and some candidates ignored it completely. In a sense, it was wasted time…and a grownup debate about the economic direction of our country didn’t happen.”
And Frank Rich offered a similar assessment in New York Magazine. He called it a “disorganized amateur night.” He implies, to his chagrin, that the CNBC moderators seemed to be setting up Fox Business to host an enlightening debate a week from Tuesday:
The lustiest cheers of the evening, some of them generated by Cruz, were for the candidates’ attacks on “the media” in general and the debate moderators in particular. CNBC surely did everything it could to prove the candidates’ case. Without explanation, the debate was preceded by nearly 15 minutes of banter by ill-informed and bombastic commentators, including the Trump ally (and aspiring Senatorial candidate) Larry Kudlow. Among the questioners at the debate itself were Jim Cramer, a poster boy for the reckless excess and conflicts of interest that found their apotheosis in the Wall Street crash of 2008, and Rick Santelli, whose 2009 on-air rant about American “losers” inspired the tea-party movement. The whole event felt like a disorganized amateur night, and one can only imagine Roger Ailes howling with delight at every wrong turn.