The applause has apparently gone to the heads of Republican presidential candidates. Last Wednesday at the CNBC GOP presidential debate in Boulder, Colo., the candidates, particularly Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), drew huge roars of approval for their tips against the debate moderators. Virtually everyone in the media — aside from CNBC, of course — endorsed those criticisms, and the media-bashing party had gained critical mass.

Along it coasted into Sunday evening, when a bunch of Republican campaigns met in Virginia to discuss their gripes with the debates — a get-together actuated by the CNBC event. On the agenda was the possibility of pushing the Republican National Committee (RNC) out of its job as a go-between for the campaigns and the various networks — Fox News, CNN, CNBC, Fox Business, among others — that host the debates. In the immediate aftermath of the CNBC experience, the campaigns wondered aloud whether the party organ had properly represented their interests. As a measure to assure the campaigns that it was serious about complaints, the RNC named a new liaison — RNC Chief Operating Officer Sean Cairncross — to handle this tricky territory.

Whatever Cairncross’s appointment accomplished, it didn’t accomplish deterring the Republican campaigns from embarrassing themselves in a very public way. There’s even a document to accentuate the embarrassment, as Post reporters David Weigel and Robert Costa have reported. Ben Ginsberg, the attorney who is mediating the whole thing, has released a “draft” of a letter that expresses many of the concerns brought forth by the campaigns.


The letter is essentially a questionnaire to be sent to the network hosts. It asks for assurances on a number of fronts, the better to enable candidates to determine whether they want to attend. Here’s a key part:

[T]he campaigns wish to have in all future debates a minimum 30-second opening statement and a minimum 30-second closing statement for each participant; candidate pre-approval of any graphics and bios you plan to include in your broadcast about each candidate, and that there be no “lightning rounds” because of their frivolousness or “gotcha” nature, or in some cases both.

There’s also a number of curiously worded questions under the frame of coercion:

 Will you commit that you will not:
o Ask the candidates to raise their hands to answer a question
o Ask yes/no questions without time to provide a substantive answer
o Have a “lightning round”
o Allow candidate-to-candidate questioning
o Allow props or pledges by the candidates
o Have reaction shots of members of the audience or moderators during debates
o Show an empty podium after a break (describe how far away the bathrooms are)
o Use behind shots of the candidates showing their notes
o Leave microphones on during breaks
o Allow members of the audience to wear political messages (shirts, buttons, signs, etc.). Who enforces?
 What is the size of the audience? Who is receiving tickets in addition to the candidates? Who’s in charge of distributing those tickets and filling the seats?
 What instructions will you provide to the audience about cheering during the debate?
 What are the plans for the lead-in to the debate (Pre-shot video? Announcer to moderator? Director to Moderator?) and how long is it?
 Are you running promo ads before the debate about your moderator(s)?
 What type of microphones (lavs or podium)?
 Can you pledge that the temperature in the hall be kept below 67 degrees?

Rather than a series of questions, this all sounds like the business plan for “The RNC Channel, Bringing You Debates the Way the Candidates Want Them.” Or at the very least, the document should include the title, “A Debate Format for the Ruling Class.”

No, there’s nothing in here that violates the First Amendment, which prohibits laws infringing on the freedom of the press, among other things. Republican candidates can honestly say that they’re merely asking questions of the media, just the way the media asks questions of them. Yet the questions reflect no understanding of where the prerogatives of candidates end, and where those of the news media begin. More simply, they show a cluelessness about what television networks do.


Television networks decide what information to put in their onscreen graphics; if they’re wrong or unfair, they get blasted. Television networks decide what shots to include in their broadcasts; if they’re intrusive or uncouth, they get blasted. Television networks decide whether they want to instruct candidates to give their answers by raising their hands or moving their lips; if they look silly in so instructing, they get blasted.

A separate paragraph must address the nonsense about the “lightning round.” The candidates apparently don’t want these quick-strike Q&A formats on account of their “frivolousness or ‘gotcha’ nature, or in some cases both.” As a viewer, the Erik Wemple Blog likes “lightning rounds,” because of their “frivolousness or ‘gotcha’ nature, or in some cases both.” In a prolonged debate, there’s good cause to mix up the pacing of the production, just as there is in a production of Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3 (“Avec orgue”). And yes, there are questions that require only brief answers.

The Post is reporting that no campaign has yet signed off on this document. Good.