Republicans want to cut the lamestream media out of the presidential vetting process.
They should be careful what they wish for.
Representatives from most of the Republican presidential campaigns met Sunday for a post-debate Airing of Grievances, an event accompanied by an orchestra of the world’s tiniest violins. Campaign reps subsequently drafted a partial list of demands for future debates, according to documents leaked to my Post colleagues David Weigel and Robert Costa.
Among those demands: Moderators must pledge to have zero by-a-show-of-hands questions, and zero yes-or-no-only questions. There shalt be no “reaction shots” of audience members or moderators. Also, no descriptions of “how far away the bathrooms are.” And candidates get to preapprove any on-screen bios before the broadcast.
The temperature in the venue must be kept below 67 degrees. (Unsurprisingly, given that frigid workplace temperatures are notoriously sexist, the only female Republican candidate’s campaign was absent from this discussion.)
Separately, various reports suggested that some of the GOP contenders simultaneously want more time per candidate, more candidates onstage and also shorter debates. (And they wonder why moderators question their math skills.) At one point, Ben Carson’s campaign reportedly proposed allotting a minimum of five minutes for opening and closing statements for every candidate, which, given 15 remaining candidates, would take up at least an hour and 15 minutes alone. This would turn the debate into a series of infomercials.
Don’t be surprised if next we hear of demands for soft-focus cameras, bowls of M&Ms with all the brown ones removed and requirements that questions begin with “if you please, your excellency.”
By Monday evening several campaigns had announced they wouldn’t end up signing the leaked list of demands, but they are expected to continue pressuring would-be debate hosts to make changes.
And while it’s easy to mock some of these demands as petty and prima-donnish, many of them suggest a more insidious strategy: a concerted effort to extricate as much independent journalistic influence from the democratic process as possible and essentially turn the Fourth Estate into a bunch of stenographers.
Both the Republican National Committee and its mutinying candidates have explicitly expressed an aim to eliminate “gotcha” questions, with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus complaining that these “mean-spirited” questions have been “designed to embarrass our candidates.” As opposed to those kindly, softball questions designed to flatter them, as a more obedient press would presumably supply.
“We should have moderators who are interested in disseminating the information about the candidates, as opposed to, you know, ‘gotcha,’ ‘you did this’ and ‘defend yourself on that,’ ” Ben Carson echoed Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
Asked in a follow-up if candidates should be challenged by a free press, Carson acknowledged, “There’s a place and time for that,” and indicated the debates were neither the place nor the time.
Carson’s camp has likewise proposed taking the debates out of the hands of journalistic organizations altogether and just streaming them over YouTube or Facebook.
As much as Americans generally — and Republican voters more specifically — pretty much hate the media, I can’t imagine this collective hissy fit and any resulting concessions from the networks boding well for the candidates.
For one, all their whining about mean-spirited media bullying suggests the GOP candidates may not be equipped to handle the rough-and-tumble of a general election campaign, let alone the far more demanding presidency itself, despite tough talk about staring down dictators. A reasonable voter response to such bellyaching might be: If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. Maybe to someplace below 67 degrees.
Secondly, the candidates need the media as much as we in the media need them.
We need them for our headlines, horse-race narratives and wry political portraiture — in addition to, you know, material for more wonkish policy analysis about tax plans that don’t add up. And the candidates need us to serve as arbiters of their ideas, values and records, and to help them more credibly fake their own “authenticity.” It’s true that a lot of voters don’t trust the media, but it seems unlikely that voters would be more trusting of (or even interested in) the candidates’ unvarnished reports of their own unimpeachable greatness. Which is basically what voters already get from stump speeches.
Finally, of course, “the media” has proved a useful rhetorical enemy and whipping boy for almost all of these candidates. If the candidates transparently exert too much control over their own discourse and debates, it might be difficult to continue to bash, blame and scapegoat “liberal media bias” when candidates (inevitably) foul up and prove themselves unworthy of higher office.
The candidates, in other words, won’t have the media to kick around anymore. That’s riskier than they may realize.