“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” he thundered. “How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?” He added that it was the result of liberal bias, noting: “The contrast with the Democratic debate, where every fawning question from the media was, ‘Which of you is more handsome and why?'”
He wasn’t alone. “I know the Democrats have the ultimate SuperPac. It’s called the mainstream media,” said Marco Rubio. Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie added their own media critiques.
And they’re half right. There were plenty of problems with many of the questions the candidates got asked. But it has nothing to do with liberal bias.
This is an old story. Republicans began complaining about media bias back in the 1970s, and you can count on every losing presidential candidate to begin whining about it within a couple of weeks of their defeat. The idea that the media are biased against Republicans has been woven deeply into conservative ideology, to the point where they’ll trot out the assertion on every issue, whether there’s any evidence to support it or not.
Let’s take, for example, Cruz’s assertion that the Democrats got softball questions in their first debate. That wasn’t how I remembered it, so I went back and read the transcript. Here are some of those softballs. To Hillary Clinton: “Plenty of politicians evolve on issues, but even some Democrats believe you change your positions based on political expediency…Will you say anything to get elected?” And the follow-up: “Do you change your political identity based on who you’re talking to?”
To Bernie Sanders: “You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?” To Martin O’Malley: “Why should Americans trust you with the country when they see what’s going on in the city that you ran for more than seven years?” To Jim Webb: “Senator Webb, in 2006, you called affirmative action ‘state-sponsored racism.’ In 2010, you wrote an op/ed saying it discriminates against whites. Given that nearly half the Democratic Party is non-white, aren’t you out of step with where the Democratic Party is now?”
Those were the first questions each candidate got. The question to Clinton presumed she’s a phony, the question to Sanders presumed he’s an unelectable extremist, the question to O’Malley presumed he left Baltimore in tatters, and the question to Webb presumed he doesn’t belong in his party.
Like the CNBC debate, the first Democratic one had some good questions and some silly ones. But the defining characteristic of almost every debate in recent years is that the journalists doing the questioning go out of their way to try to create drama.
Sometimes they do it by saying “Let’s you and him fight,” encouraging the candidates to criticize each other. Sometimes they do it with the old Tim Russert technique of accusing candidates of hypocrisy and seeing whether they can worm their way out of it (which is no more enlightening now than it was when Russert was employing it). Sometimes they do it by asking candidates who are behind or falling in the polls why things are going so badly, which never yields anything more interesting than the opportunity to watch the candidate squirm a little. Sometimes they do it by asking trap questions of the “Have you stopped beating your wife?” variety, which have no good answers. Sometimes they do it with inane personal queries (“What’s your favorite Bible verse?”) that test nothing more than the candidate’s ability to say something forgettably banal.
In every case, the question involves more of a pose of confrontation than actual journalistic toughness, which would involve taking the candidates’ ideas seriously, forcing them to be specific where they’d rather be vague, and holding them accountable for not just their gaffes but the consequences of what they propose to do.
So how did we get here? I put the blame for this problem on the late Bernard Shaw. Televised presidential debates started in 1960, and while there were a couple of dramatic moments in debates prior to 1988, they arose in organic and unpredictable ways. But Shaw taught his successors that the questioner could manufacture a dramatic moment with the right question. Be clever enough about it, and your incisive query would be repeated on every news show and in every newspaper for days.
In 1988, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis had been a lifelong opponent of the death penalty, a topic of substantial discussion on the campaign trail. As the moderator of the second debate between Dukakis and George H.W. Bush, Shaw could have explored this topic in any number of ways. With the debate’s first question, he said, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”
When Dukakis answered by explaining for the umpteenth time why he opposed the death penalty, reporters declared it a huge “gaffe,” presumably on the rationale that in order to have answered the question properly, Dukakis should have said, “Well, if it was my wife, I’d completely change my position on the issue!”, or perhaps that he should have shouted, “I’d rip him limb from limb, I tell ya!” They never explained exactly what the proper answer should have been, but they declared Dukakis a heartless automaton for not showing enough emotion in answering Shaw’s idiotic question.
And Shaw himself was proud of his heroic effort. “I was just doing my job, asking that question,” he said years later. “I thought of Murrow taking on McCarthy. That was the essence of what I wanted to be: Fearless, not afraid of the scorching bite of public criticism.”
Ever since, the journalists who serve on these debate panels have tried to frame questions in ways they think will create those dramatic moments everyone will be talking about the next day. But it almost never works.
The CNBC debate featured some good questions, some terrible ones, and a bunch that were somewhere in between. The next debate will probably not be much different. One thing we know for sure is that no matter what, Republicans will complain that the media are biased against them, and their supporters will cheer.