THREE DEBATES into the Republican presidential contest, the candidates are staging a revolt. Piling onto CNBC for its mediocre — but hardly scandalous — moderating last week, several campaigns are drawing up demands for the media organizations sponsoring debates during the rest of the nominating season. Others are issuing demands on their own. Their discontent has already led to real-world changes: The Republican National Committee reshuffled staff in response.
A staff reshuffle is one thing. Anything that could harm the integrity of the debates, on the other hand, must be rejected.
Some of the changes on the table are virtually irrelevant to the public at large. It won’t matter much to anyone other than micromanaging campaign staff if TV networks keep debate halls below 67 degrees or decline to televise empty podiums. At least one suggestion — that all debates be live-streamed online — would, in fact, be helpful to those who don’t have cable connections.
But the potential for harm is much greater. Candidates appear to want to ban questions that require them to raise their hands or to give yes-or-no answers, on the pretext that such questions don’t allow for substantive discussion. At times, that’s certainly the case. At others — such as when, in the 2012 nominating cycle, the Republican candidates raised their hands in opposition to a 10-to-1 budget deal in the GOP’s favor — binary questions can produce illuminating results.
The same goes for the push to ban candidate-to-candidate questioning, or to allow campaigns to vet graphics and candidate biographies flashed on screen. Journalists should be vetting that material, not campaigns seeking soft treatment. Another potential demand — for 30-second opening and closing statements so that the candidates can recite generally unenlightening prepared remarks — is a plainly terrible idea.
The largest danger to the process, though, is that this controversy might lead Republicans to choose to debate before conservative-friendly media organizations instead of outlets more likely to offer questions out of line with right-wing orthodoxies. Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) suggested that irresponsible ideologues Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin or Sean Hannity moderate the GOP debates. Carly Fiorina wants the RNC to organize future debates with fringey networks such as the Blaze and One America News. The goal, it seems, is to replace perceived liberal bias among moderators with explicit and purposeful conservative bias.
Even if that doesn’t happen, future moderators may now feel pressure to pull their punches, particularly if their networks want to keep hosting debates that draw high ratings. A draft letter to television networks warns that “the quality and fairness of your moderators’ questions” will determine “whether the candidates wish to participate in your future debates.” This is a threat. Responsible journalists will ignore it.