During the third GOP debate, candidates got feisty with the CNBC moderators. They took aim at the questions asked, at the "mainstream media" and at the moderators interrupting their answers. (Victoria M. Walker/The Washington Post)

Darned debate moderators. All night long, they sought to needle the Republican candidates, in some cases even insulting them! Republican hopeful and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie nailed it when he said, “They want us to kill each other.”

Precisely. And there’s no better example of the moderators looking to pit one Republican against another Republican than this one: “Mr. Trump, it has not escaped anybody’s notice that you say that the Mexican government, the Mexican government is sending criminals — rapists, drug dealers, across the border. Gov. Bush has called those remarks, quote, ‘extraordinarily ugly,’ I’d like you — you’re right next to him — tell us — talk to him directly and say how you respond to that…Why not use this…debate to share your proof with the American people?”

That example of malicious, divisive debate moderation comes from the Aug. 6 clash at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, which was hosted by Fox News and was greeted as a universal success. It’s not from last night’s Republican debate in Boulder, Colo., which was hosted by CNBC to nearly unanimous negative reviews. Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, called it an “encyclopedic example of liberal media bias” and ripped the CNBC moderators — John Harwood, Becky Quick and Carl Quintanilla — for allegedly believing that a “relentless series of personal attacks on the candidates would somehow drive their ratings and help Hillary Clinton.”

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus tweeted:

Consumers of democracy didn’t even need to wait until the debate concluded to get their fill of media criticism. The Republican candidates took care of that in real time. Sen. Ted Cruz will staked his claim to a spot in future debate highlight reels when he attacked CNBC moderators for their questions: “The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” said the outspoken candidate. “This is not a cage match. And, you look at the questions — ‘Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain?’ ‘Ben Carson, can you do math?’ ‘John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?’ ‘Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?’ ‘Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?'” The Texas senator went on to plead for consideration of the “substantive issues the people care about.”

If memory serves, Cruz cited no similar concerns at the Fox News debate, even though he himself was asked, “How can you win in 2016 when you’re such a divisive figure?” And even though Fox News took a question from a Facebook user asking, “I want to know if any of them have received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first.” And even though Fox News, in its JV debate, asked an entire series of questions on “electability,” including one for Carly Fiorina if she was justified in comparing herself to Margaret Thatcher. So there’s some precedent — a bad one — for asking, “Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?”

As for Cruz’s complaint about Carson and “math,” have a look at the question posed by Quick:

You have a flat tax plan of 10 percent flat taxes, and — I’ve looked at it — and this is something that is very appealing to a lot of voters, but I’ve had a really tough time trying to make the math work on this. If you were to took a 10 percent tax, with the numbers right now in total personal income, you’re gonna come in with bring in $1.5 trillion. That is less than half of what we bring in right now. And by the way, it’s gonna leave us in a $2 trillion hole.
So what analysis got you to the point where you think this will work?

Nasty? Prejudicial? Shameful? Now compare it to a question posed by Fox News host Megyn Kelly to Ohio Gov. John Kasich in Cleveland:

Gov. Kasich, You chose to expand Medicaid in your state, unlike several other governors on this stage tonight, and it is already over budget by some estimates costing taxpayers an additional $1.4 billion in just the first 18 months. You defended your Medicaid expansion by invoking God, saying to skeptics that when they arrive in heaven, Saint Peter isn’t going to ask them how small they’ve kept government, but what they have done for the poor. Why should Republican voters, who generally want to shrink government, believe that you won’t use your Saint Peter rationale to expand every government program?

The point is they’re both good questions, though one gets attacked as a reflection of bias; the other doesn’t.

Cruz had another critique of the CNBC performance. “The questions that are being asked shouldn’t be trying to get people to tear into each other,” he said in finishing off his anti-media riff and presaging Christie’s complaint — quoted above — about the same thing. Turns out there’s some precedent for this effort to get people to tear into each other.

*”Sen. Rubio, when Jeb Bush announced his candidacy for presidency, he said this: ‘There’s no passing off responsibility when you’re a governor, no blending into the legislative crowd.’ Could you please address Governor Bush across the stage here, and explain to him why you, someone who has never held executive office, are better prepared to be president than he is, a man who you say did a great job running your state of Florida for eight years.” — Fox News’s Chris Wallace to Sen. Marco Rubio, Aug. 6.

*”Gov. Kasich, I know you don’t like to talk about Donald Trump. But I do want to ask you about the merit of what he just said. When you say that the American government is stupid, that the Mexican government is sending criminals, that we’re being bamboozled, is that an adequate response to the question of illegal immigration?” — Fox News’s Chris Wallace to Gov. Kasich, Aug. 6.

*”Gov. Christie, you’ve said that Sen. [Rand] Paul’s opposition to the NSA’s collection of phone records has made the United States weaker and more vulnerable, even going so far as to say that he should be called before Congress to answer for it if we should be hit by another terrorist attack. Do you really believe you can assign blame to Sen. Paul just for opposing he bulk collection of people’s phone records in the event of a terrorist attack?” — Fox News’s Megyn Kelly to Gov. Christie, Aug. 6.

*”Sen. Cruz, your colleague, Sen. Paul, right there next to you, said a few months ago he agrees with you on a number of issues, but he says you do nothing to grow the party. He says you feed red meat to the base, but you don’t reach out to minorities. You have a toxic relationship with GOP leaders in Congress. You even called the Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell a liar recently. How can you win in 2016 when you’re such a divisive figure?”–Fox News’s Chris Wallace to Sen. Cruz, Aug. 6.

Fox News should be applauded for igniting rhetorical scraps among the Republican hopefuls; that was among the elements that made its Cleveland tilt the highlight of the political season thus far. The argument between Christie and Paul over the NSA’s programs, for instance, eloquently captured two sides of a killer national issue — and it even impressed CNN’s Jake Tapper, who moderated the subsequent Republican debate. Consistent with Fox News values, the debate was also brilliantly produced and its moderators never lost command of the material or the candidates. On that front, CNBC did indeed fall short. It didn’t appear ready for the country.

Even so, the frothing and overreaching knocks against the business-news channel speak to a reality of cable-news programming, one that New York Times columnist Frank Bruni ably captured back in August: “On Thursday night in Cleveland, the Fox News moderators did what only Fox News moderators could have done, because the representatives of any other network would have been accused of pro-Democratic partisanship.” Which is precisely what CNBC is now being accused of.