The summer meetings of national political parties are usually quiet affairs, but this week’s Republican National Committee meeting in Boston is full of controversy about who should moderate and run the 2016 GOP presidential-primary debates. A few RNC members are even talking about ditching conventional journalists as moderators and bringing in Sean Hannity or Mark Levin to do the deed. “I actually think that’s a very good idea,” RNC chairman Reince Priebus told Fox News’s Andrea Tantaros. “I mean, there’s a lot of good people out there that can actually understand the base of the Republican Party, the primary voters.” Another possibility is that new players — ranging from C-SPAN to Telemundo to the Christian Broadcasting Network — might be allowed to sponsor debates.
Priebus himself jump-started the debate earlier this month when he asked NBC and CNN to withdraw their planned multi-part film projects on the life of Hillary Clinton. Priebus said that giving the likely Democratic frontrunner for president such exposure so close to the election called the objectivity of the networks into question and motivated the RNC to reconsider whether these networks should even participate in organizing presidential debates.
It’s not controversial to note that presidential debates have long displayed real problems with fairness on the part of moderators and panelists. PBS anchor Jim Lehrer notes in a recent book, Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, that the panelists in one of the 1988 presidential debates between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis pressured CNN moderator Bernard Shaw to withdraw or alter what became his famous question to Dukakis: Would he favor the death penalty if his wife, Kitty, were raped and murdered? Now-MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell and ABC’s Ann Compton confirmed to Lehrer that they had put pressure on Shaw, who is still peeved over the incident. “I’ve never confronted any of the three panelists,” Shaw said. “But I was outraged at the time that a journalist would try to talk a fellow journalist out of asking a question. I think you can tell I am still doing a burn over it. I just wouldn’t think of doing that.”
Old-school journalists such as Shaw would no doubt have wondered at the shenanigans of the 2012 campaign. During the final debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, CNN moderator Candy Crowley stepped out of her role and took Obama’s side in a heated moment in the debate, attempting to correct Romney on a factual question about the Benghazi terrorist attack. She later had to admit that Romney had been more right than wrong in his answer.
In the primaries, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked all of the GOP candidates before the New Hampshire primary whether they thought states should ban contraception. At the time, there was no public-policy debate in any state on the issue. He continued to harp on contraception after the candidates addressed the issue. Newt Gingrich, for one, fought back, tellling the former top aide to President Bill Clinton after a question about gay marriage: “I just want to raise a point about the news-media bias. You don’t hear the opposite question asked. Should the Catholic Church be forced to close its adoption services in Massachusetts because it won’t accept gay couples, which is exactly what the state has done? . . . The bigotry question goes both ways, and there’s a lot more anti-Christian bigotry today than there is concerning the other side. And none of it gets covered by the news media.”
NBC’s Brian Williams also demonstrated how out of touch he was with public opinion during one debate at the Reagan Library, when he asked Governor Rick Perry about the criminals executed in the state of Texas: “Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?” After Perry explained that anyone convicted had by that point exhausted numerous appeals and deserved the “ultimate justice,” many in the audience clapped. Williams then asked Perry to explain the audience reaction. “What do you make of that dynamic that just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?” It was almost as if Williams, disgusted by the audience reaction, was unaware that Americans have consistently backed the death penalty for murder by a 2-to-1 ratio, with support among Republicans at 80 percent or higher.
None of this is to suggest that Republicans who want to install exclusively conservative commentators as debate moderators and panelists have got it right. Debates will not serve the party well if they become an echo chamber or if the moderators address only hot-button issues that spark the conservative base. But a political party has a right to do its best to project the kind of image it wishes, and if that involves greater “diversity” in debate formats and participants, all the better. Just as the media landscape has offered more choices to consumers with the advent of new players, so too would presidential debates appeal to more viewers if they moved beyond the formats and cast that seem to have been ordained over a half century ago, during the Nixon–Kennedy confrontations. Everything else in the media is changing, so why not the fusty and frozen format of debates?
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.