After Wednesday night’s debate debacle, CNBC was not the only one taking an avalanche of criticism. RNC chair Reince Priebus, who planned to reform the debate process after the 2012 election, came under considerable fire for allowing CNBC to run roughshod over the candidates. Priebus responded this afternoon by cutting ties with NBC for a February debate in Houston, sending a letter castigating NBC News chair Andrew Lack for acting in “bad faith”:
I write to inform you that pending further discussion between the Republican National Committee (RNC) and our presidential campaigns, we are suspending the partnership with NBC News for the Republican primary debate at the University of Houston on February 26, 2016. The RNC’s sole role in the primary debate process is to ensure that our candidates are given a full and fair opportunity to lay out their vision for America’s future. We simply cannot continue with NBC without full consultation with our campaigns.
The CNBC network is one of your media properties, and its handling of the debate was conducted in bad faith. We understand that NBC does not exercise full editorial control over CNBC’s journalistic approach. However, the network is an arm of your organization, and we need to ensure there is not a repeat performance.
CNBC billed the debate as one that would focus on “the key issues that matter to all voters—job growth, taxes, technology, retirement and the health of our national economy.” That was not the case. Before the debate, the candidates were promised an opening question on economic or financial matters. That was not the case. Candidates were promised that speaking time would be carefully monitored to ensure fairness. That was not the case. Questions were inaccurate or downright offensive. The first question directed to one of our candidates asked if he was running a comic book version of a presidential campaign, hardly in the spirit of how the debate was billed.
While debates are meant to include tough questions and contrast candidates’ visions and policies for the future of America, CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of “gotcha” questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates. What took place Wednesday night was not an attempt to give the American people a greater understanding of our candidates’ policies and ideas.
Priebus goes on to tell Lack that the GOP will still hold the debate — but without NBC. National Review had already partnered with NBC on that event, but Priebus pledged to keep NR as a partner without NBC.
Rebecca Berg of Real Clear Politics considers this a little harsh:
So, any time a debate is poorly executed, a network risks future debates being de-sanctioned by RNC? Seems harsh. https://t.co/RCr4wOp1BA
— Rebecca Berg (@rebeccagberg) October 30, 2015
Actually, it seems like the only way to ensure that networks don’t play games. What else would get the message across? Given the claims made by Priebus about the agreements on which CNBC got the debate, it’s pretty clear that they acted with impunity and thumbed their collective nose at the RNC. There is no reason for the RNC to do business with NBC if that’s the case.
Our pal and former colleague Noah Rothman agrees:
Imagine a Dem debate in which moderator asks panel when life begins and dubs pro-life movement as "our cause." Yes, this is justified.
— Noah Rothman (@NoahCRothman) October 30, 2015
Absolutely justified, and long overdue. As I wrote yesterday, it may be time for the RNC (and the DNC, although the need is far less) to do their own broadcasting of debates. C-SPAN would be a potential partner and probably willing to do it, but even if not, they could simply broadcast it as a streaming show over the Internet. Netflix has its own original programming using the same technology, and broadband access is commonly available across the US. Moreover, the media would still cover the debates no matter what. Media filing rooms fill up with correspondents from all outlets, not just the one broadcasting the debate, and that won’t change in a presidential cycle. The RNC could invite mainstream-media journalists with demonstrated fairness to participate, or could focus more on New Media outlets with whom Priebus has already started pairing — such as NRO, or Salem Media Group (which owns Hot Air, of course).
Or perhaps booting NBC from further debates will get the point across with less expense. Priebus just fired a shot across the bow of all media outlets, not just NBC. And it was long overdue.
Update: One reason Priebus needed to act dramatically was because the campaigns are ready to cut the RNC out of the loop:
Republican presidential campaigns are planning to gather in Washington, D.C., on Sunday evening to plot how to alter their party’s messy debate process — and how to remove power from the hands of the Republican National Committee.
Not invited to the meeting: Anyone from the RNC, which many candidates have openly criticized in the hours since Wednesday’s CNBC debate in Boulder, Colorado — a chaotic, disorganized affair that was widely panned by political observers.
On Thursday, many of the campaigns told POLITICO that the RNC, which has taken a greater role in the 2016 debate process than in previous election cycles, had failed to take their concerns into account. It was time, top aides to at least half a dozen of the candidates agreed, to begin discussing among themselves how the next debates should be structured and not leave it up to the RNC and television networks.
Priebus’ letter argues that the RNC did take their concerns into account, but that CNBC reneged on their promises about how they would handle the debate. Priebus wants to stay ahead of this controversy and demonstrate that he can respond when his candidates are poorly treated. We’ll see if this alleviates concerns among the candidates — and whether it prompts some outside-the-MSM-box thinking.
Update: We just received a terse statement from NBC News in response to Priebus’ letter:
“This is a disappointing development. However, along with our debate broadcast partners at Telemundo we will work in good faith to resolve this matter with the Republican Party.”
Maybe if they had worked in good faith from the beginning, this wouldn’t have been necessary.
Update: Two points of clarification. I changed NBC to NBC News in the original headline for better precision. Also, I mentioned Netflix as an example of how common (and commercial) live-streaming has become, rather than as a suggestion for a partnership.