NEW YORK -- Debate moderators never want to be the story the next day.
But that's unavoidable after Wednesday night’s universally panned Republican debate. It wasn’t just Republican candidates taking swipes at the moderators on stage or conservative pundits slamming the CNBC trio throughout on Twitter. Many mainstream journalists and political analysts, too, found the debate disjointed and unruly.
CNBC's moderators -- John Harwood, Carl Quintanilla and Becky Quick -- drew criticism for interrupting candidate exchanges, asking "gotcha" or out-of-context questions for a debate on jobs and the economy, and appearing, at times, unprepared or dismissive. Media types, partisan and nonpartisan alike, seemed to agree the big loser was CNBC.
The network should bear the brunt of the blame, though some candidates also helped take the debate off the rails. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for one, launched into a screed against the liberal media when asked about the debt limit. The swipe was good for Cruz, not just in riling up the Republican audience but also in going viral on social media, but only distracted from the type of substantive debate the candidates -- and party -- claim to want.
That doesn’t mean media critiques weren't sometimes warranted. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio effectively dismantled a question about the Sun-Sentinel editorial board calling on him resign after missing votes by challenging whether the paper responded as harshly when it came to the voting records of the Democratic senators it endorsed for president.
The candidates barely left the stage before RNC chief Reince Priebus blasted CNBC’s moderators as “extremely disappointing” and doing "a disservice to their network, our candidates, and voters.” But the RNC also deserves some blame, given that the party took the reins of the debate process following the 20-debate circus last cycle. Priebus announced in January that there would be just nine debates during the 2016 cycle. Not to mention, the RNC selected the network sponsors and helped facilitate partnerships with a conservative media outlet for some of those chosen.
While CNN partnered with Salem Media Group -- Christian radio and conservative opinion juggernaut -- CNBC wasn’t mandated to have a conservative media partner. Presumably, that’s because CNBC would be considered by Republicans to be a fair arbiter for a debate on jobs and the economy. The more common media critique of CNBC is that the network is too cozy with business, and as Jon Stewart drove home in early 2009, that it failed to challenge the big banks in the run-up to the financial crisis. One of CNBC’s questioners for Wednesday’s debate, Rick Santelli, helped launch the tea party movement with his rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and would be one of the last TV analysts accused of liberal bias.
In light of Wednesday's issues, here are five ways to avoid another debate going off the rails.
Kill the undercard debate (or better distribute the candidates):
The second-tier contests have been good for cable news networks, with Fox News and CNN drawing millions more viewers than they typically would at 6 p.m. CNBC is expected to see a huge uptick at that hour when the ratings come in, and Fox Business Network -- sponsor of the next Republican debate on Nov. 10 -- will again produce an undercard event.
But it makes little sense, as CNBC did, to produce an undercard debate with just four candidates followed by a primetime event stage packed with 10 candidates—especially when the difference between the first and second tiers is only two points in national polls. If a network is going to invite 14 candidates, they could better distribute the Republican hopefuls at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Or, the networks can do away with the undercard debate altogether, along with the stigma attached to it. Solution: Produce two 90-minute primetime debates, each with seven candidates, starting at 8:00 pm and 9:30 pm.
Drop the opening statements
Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson threatened to boycott CNBC’s debate unless the network agreed to limit the primetime event to two hours with opening and closing statements. While the length demand made sense to many -- and was a welcome relief after CNN’s three-hour marathon last month -- the network could have pushed back on the latter, which tend to just serve as a platform for talking points. CNBC tried framing the opening statement by using the cliché job interview question in which an interviewee offers his or her greatest weakness (which is typically a positive trait anyway). It didn't work, and most candidates ignored the question and went in a variety of directions, resulting in a disjointed kickoff to the debate.
Limit the number of questioners
Fox News tapped three top hosts to moderate the first Republican debate in August. CNN has opted for a single moderator -- Jake Tapper for the Republicans, Anderson Cooper for the Democrats -- who then turned to a couple additional questioners. Both networks’ strategies worked, but CNBC’s combining of the two didn’t. CNBC not only went with three moderators, but also three network questioners, which only added to the chaos as 10 candidates vied for airtime.
Debate moderators often come off as hyper-prepared, like Anderson Cooper rattling off the population of Denmark as an aside during the recent Democratic debate. But CNBC’s team fell short, most notably when Becky Quick, a co-anchor of morning show Squawkbox, asked Trump about his criticism of Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg’s immigration views. Trump claimed he's said nothing critical of Zuckerberg, leading Quick to ask a follow-up that no moderator wants to utter in front of millions of viewers: “Where did I read this and come up with this?”
Quick later told Trump that she thought he called Rubio “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator,” to which Trump responded that he never said that. Trump had said that on his campaign website, as many quickly pointed out on Twitter. Though Quick would later revisit the question, with the quote, the damage was done.
Defuse the “liberal media” critique with substance
It’s inevitable that Republican candidates, playing to a conservative audience in the hall and at home, will take shots at the media. But CNBC’s moderators only helped fuel long-running grievances on the right that Republican candidates don't get a fair shake in the media to discuss and debate their ideas.
Trump -- who complained of being treated unfairly after both the Fox News and CNN debates -- preemptively declared Wednesday morning that CNBC would also treat him unfairly. Though Harwood’s first question to Trump, on whether the Republican front-runner’s immigration policy and tax plans can work, was legitimate, the moderator's dismissive tone -- “Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?" -- only led conservatives expecting bias to dismiss him, too.
CNBC's moderators also gave candidates openings to question the network's focus by including questions that seemed to lack urgency or strayed from a night billed as being about jobs and the economy, such as one from Quintanilla on fantasy football regulation.
“Carl, are we really talking about getting government involved in fantasy football?” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said amid cheers from the audience. “We have -- wait a second, we have $19 trillion in debt. We have people out of work. We have ISIS and al Qaeda attacking us. And we’re talking about fantasy football? Can we stop?"
Christie didn't stop, though, and Thursday morning described the question as "stupid" on CNN. "When we entertain these ridiculous question from the media, we empower them," Christie said, adding that he was going to stand up to the moderators in future debates.
"I'm not going to allow them to ask stupid questions and I'm not going to let them continue to have their bias show, like it showed last night." he said. "The people in the audience saw it and I was just pointing it out."