The Success of the GOP Debate Coup Says More About Journalism than the RNC
Staffers hailing from the campaigns of the 15 Republican candidates that have been showcased during the national debates reached a rare moment of consensus this weekend. And it wasn't about their fantasy football line-ups.
First, the various campaigns agreed to exclude the Republican National Committee from future debate negotiations. Second, they agreed that broadcast networks are going to need to agree to certain terms in order to secure a spot on the GOP debate schedule.
On the surface, the terms dictated by the GOP campaigners aren't draconian. According to NPR, with regard to the format the campaigns want "opening and closing statements for each candidate, editorial control over biographical information displayed in graphics on screen and equal numbers of questions for each candidate."
Where the GOP's power struggle gets more than a little dicey, however, is the point at which the campaigns appear to be usurping power from the media to dictate the subject matter, forum and tenor of the debates.
Barry Bennett, Ben Carson's campaign manager, said that if the networks don't agree to the ground rules set by the various campaigns, each candidate reserves the right to not participate. In no uncertain terms, Bennett suggested the ratings bump promised by certain candidates (e.g. Carson and Trump) entitles them to call the shots.
On the one hand the campaigns are asking for equal treatment of the candidates regardless of the strength of their respective polling numbers. On the other hand, the same candidates appear to be holding the networks hostage to the whims of a few top contenders.
While it would be naïve to ignore the fact that such orchestration is a part of the political process and has always taken place behind the scenes under the RNC (and DNC for that matter), the further encroachment on editorial control of the debates sets a dangerous precedent. Such concessions on the part of the media for the democratic process as a whole could be disastrous, benefiting the political establishment at the expense of the American public.
So far, we've already seen the cancelation of the NBC/Telemundo/National Review debate on Feb. 26, a result of the RNC boycotting all NBC properties. This was to be the only debate on the GOP's schedule that included a Spanish-language media outlet. With Hispanic Americans comprising more than 17 percent of the population, it would appear to be at the GOP's own peril to omit such a significant group of voters.
It's unclear what the campaigns will attempt to negotiate when it comes to debate format. Will proposed questions require advanced sign-off from all of the campaigns? Will the junior varsity/varsity debate set-up be overturned by the underdogs?
For its part, FOX Business Network has already balked at the demands made by the campaigns in advance of its Nov. 10 scheduled debate. Ideally we'll continue to see some degree of transparency from the networks in terms of what the campaigns are requiring of them to warrant their participation. And, hopefully whoever emerges from this process on the Republican side of the aisle fully comprehends that he/she would serve at the pleasure of the American people, not the opposite.