Worst job in journalism: Moderating a GOP debate

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Conventional wisdom seems to agree that in the most recent debate of hopefuls seeking the Republican nomination for president, the biggest loser was CNBC.

GOP Chairman Reince Priebus said the debate host network “should be ashamed.” The Drudge report, never one to miss a chance to exaggerate, called the CNBC moderators the “shame of the nation.”

Fellow journalists weren’t any kinder. Consider this tweet from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, describing the commentary between the kids’ table debate and the main event: “CNBC does underscore that the only people sometimes more vapid than candidates are journalists talking about candidates.”

I’m not going to give a pass to those asking the questions. When a debate starts with the insipid question of “What’s your biggest weakness?” — a question that any job seeker encounters from the beginner HR representative before he or she gets to the hiring manager — you know it’s going to head downhill from there. Moderators quickly lost control of lines of questioning, as candidates shouted over one another as well as the moderators.

But the way the candidates twisted the moderators’ words turned what actually were some substantive questions into seeming attacks on the candidate. It’s a lot easier to accuse the media of asking “gotcha” questions than it is to give a substantive answer.

Consider this exchange between Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and moderator Becky Quick, who “asked him about what she described as poor bookkeeping skills, including facing foreclosure on a second home he bought and liquidating a $60,000 retirement account,” according to a story in the Washington Post. “Rubio responded by accusing Quick of parroting attacks of his political opponents, and then recounted his personal story as the son of a bartender and a maid who grew up poor. ‘I’m not worried about my finances,’ Rubio said. ‘I’m worried about the finances of everyday Americans.’ ”

Actually, asking candidates about how they handle finances seems like a pretty legitimate line of questioning for a guy who ultimately would be responsible for the nation’s economy. But apparently not to Republican candidates, who find it easier to earn cheap audience applause complaining about media bias than by answering questions. Ask real estate mogul Donald Trump about his four bankruptcies, and you get a “business as usual” response. Ask retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson why his flat tax plan wouldn’t leave the country with a trillion-dollar hole, and you get vague ramblings that it “works out very well.” But Republicans are quick to call such questions unfair, even as the journalists attempt to pin down candidates on empty promises.

“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” crowed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz as he avoided answering a real question with a pre-scripted answer, leaving him no time to address the substance of the question. “This is not a cage match.”

Of course, he’s right. According to a Gallup survey, only 40 percent of the American public trust the media in this country — tying an all-time low set the year before. A majority of Americans haven’t trusted the media since 2004, and the trust percentage always seems to dip in election years. Wonder how low it will go in the heat of the election next year?

Trust is lower among members of the Millennial generation than among older Americans, and lower among Republicans than among Democrats. No surprise there, as right-wing media and politicians have blasted the so-called “liberal media” for years.

Brian Steel, CNBC’s senior vice president for public relations, stood by the moderators’ performance, according to a CNN story. “People who want to be president of the United States should be able to answer tough questions,” he said in a statement.

Another defender of CNBC was Ezra Klein in a piece on Vox. “The problem for Republicans is that substantive questions about their policy proposals end up sounding like hostile attacks — but that’s because the policy proposals are ridiculous, not because the questions are actually unfair.”

During the debate, Rubio tried to paint former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent appearance before the House Select Committee on Benghazi as a win for Republicans. Reaction from conservative as well as mainstream pundits and politicians told a different story — that Clinton basically had all her GOP questioners for lunch — but Rubio claimed that just showed that the media favor the Democrats. “Democrats have the ultimate Super PAC. It’s called the mainstream media.” It was a huge applause line for a GOP audience, even if it’s not based in reality.

After the CNBC debacle, John Harwood, one of the debate’s moderators, tweeted: “Moderating GOP debate in 2015 enriched my understanding of challenges @SpeakerBoehner has faced and @RepPaulRyan will face.” No kidding.

The third co-moderator, Carl Quintanilla, summed up his night with a tweet of his own: “I’ll say this much: everyone should moderate a debate, once. It’s like yelling at the TV from home, except they talk back.”

There are eight scheduled GOP debates to go in this campaign season, on various networks, with several sponsors. Some, like the Nov. 10 debate on the Fox Business Channel, already have chosen moderators, while most moderators are TBA.

The Nov. 10 moderators just might decide that they have family emergencies, or that they have to wash their hair that night. Good luck finding poor slobs for the rest of them.

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