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Will The Media Allow GOP Whiners To Turn Debates Into Made-for-TV Brochures?

November 2, 2015

By Joe Rothstein

I have a solution for Republican presidential candidates unhappy with questions being asked at TV debates: Buy the time and program the show any way you want. Have Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh ask the questions, as Ted Cruz suggests. Bash the Democrats without mercy. Allow no uncomfortable follow up challenges to your rehearsed statements. Make it an extended made-for-TV brochure that helps the party and doesn’t do harm to any of the candidates.

Republicans keep insisting that the private marketplace is the cure-all for everything---health, education, retirement accounts, air traffic control, even parks and recreation. Let the marketplace solve your image problem. Pay for it. But spare us the nonsense that the media is the Democratic Party’s “ultimate PAC,” as Marco Rubio charged, deftly turning a legitimate issue into an attack on the media for what he argued was it kid-gloves handling of Hillary Clinton.

Anyone who believes Rubio’s charge needs to go to the tape: the very first question CNN’s Anderson Cooper dropped on Clinton during the Democratic debate two weeks earlier.

“Secretary Clinton, I want to start with you. Plenty of politicians evolve on issues, but even some Democrats believe you change your positions based on political expediency. You were against same-sex marriage. Now you're for it. You defended President Obama's immigration policies. Now you say they're too harsh. You supported his trade deal dozen of times. You even called it the "gold standard". Now, suddenly, last week, you're against it. Will you say anything to get elected?”

That’s a softball question? After Clinton did her best to answer this direct assault on her character.a trustworthiness flaw voters tell pollsters they see as her most damaging weakness, Cooper followed with this:

“Secretary Clinton, though, with all due respect, the question is really about political expediency. Just in July, New Hampshire, you told the crowd you'd, quote, "take a back seat to no one when it comes to progressive values. Last month in Ohio, you said you plead guilty to, quote, "being kind of moderate and center." Do you change your political identity based on who you're talking to?”

Cooper’s next target was Bernie Sanders, boring in on Sanders’ most difficult negative, his self-identification as a “socialist.”

“The Republican attack ad against you in a general election - it writes itself. You supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. You honeymooned in the Soviet Union. And just this weekend, you said you're not a capitalist……”
And so on.

Reporters are supposed to ask hard questions. That’s what they teach in journalism school. Even more, TV is an entertainment medium. People switch channels if they find programs boring. Advertisers want money back when audiences aren’t what the sales department guaranteed. Networks may pat themselves on the back until their skin turns raw about their contribution to society. But the fact is they make a lot of money selling network ad time for political debates that cost little to produce.

During the 2012 presidential debate season Mitt Romney was seen to have undercut his general election chances by making statements such as immigrants needed to “self-deport” and offering to bet $10,000, deepening distrust of his financial wealth. Rick Perry crashed and burned when he forgot which departments of government his handlers told him to eliminate.

The Republican National Committee vowed not to set up candidates for such messy self-exposure this year. So the very first Republican debate was on GOP-friendly Fox News, with a panel of questioners that included one the most aggressive pro-Republican commentators on radio. The second debate was on NBC’s financial channel, hardly a Democratic oasis.

But the candidates have decided what they want is more of a media brochure, highlighting personal strengths, minimizing weaknesses, and certainly avoiding challenges to candidate claims, no matter how bizarre. (See Ben Carson’s dismissal of his association with supplement maker Mannatech as “absurd,” even though Carson spoke at company conferences and promoted the product on TV). (See also Rubio’s charge that Clinton lied at the House Benghazi hearing). (See also Fiorina’s multiple false claims). Etc.

Before the debate season ends the Republicans are likely to get what they want because the networks are averse to leaving so much advertising money on the table. But if that happens, the media should cover the next Republican get-togethers for what they would be—--paid commercials, and likely dull and predictable ones at that.

Which leaves open the question of whether during presidential campaigns the media’s role is to challenge those who want to hold the most powerful job on the planet, or conversely, to be the servant of those who whine the loudest about bias. We may get the answer to that with the next Republican “debate.”

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

Joe Rothstein is a political strategist and media producer who worked in more than 200 campaigns for political office and political causes. He also has served as editor of the Anchorage Daily News and as an adjunct professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. He has a master's degree in journalism from UCLA. Mr. Rothstein is the author of award-winning political thrillers, The Latina President and the Conspiracy to Destroy Her, The Salvation Project, and The Moment of Menace. For more information, please visit his website at