When it comes to running a presidential debate, the folks at Fox Business Network—which on Tuesday will broadcast four hours’ worth of squabbling Republican candidates—are neither forgetting the past nor looking to repeat it.
FBN star Maria Bartiromo, who spent two decades at CNBC before jumping to the rival financial channel, didn’t watch her former cable outlet’s Oct. 28 debate until the next morning—long after CNBC’s moderators had been mercilessly panned by journos and politicos alike.
“I happened to be traveling that night, but my Twitter feed was on fire,” Bartiromo told The Daily Beast. “And then I came home and watched the debate… I worked at CNBC for 20 years. I don’t want to come across as criticizing people who I’ve known for a long time, and who I know probably were disappointed at the end of that night.”
Her FBN colleague, Sandra Smith—who, like Bartiromo, will be helping to preside over one of the eight-year-old business channel’s two debates in Milwaukee—was not so delicate.
“The questions and topics that matter to me the most were missed especially in the most recent debate,” said Smith. “To me, that’s a huge missed opportunity, and you’re not doing the American voter any favors by focusing on yourself, the moderator.”
Smith will be one of the moderators for FBN’s so-called undercard debate at 7 p.m. featuring four second-tier Republican candidates, while Bartiromo will help moderate the 9 p.m. debate spotlighting the eight higher-polling contenders, notably the two front-running political novices, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and reality television real estate mogul Donald Trump.
Smith, a former stock trader who reports for FBN and also co-hosts Outnumbered, Fox News Channel’s noontime chat show, was particularly critical of CNBC’s Becky Quick, who allowed Trump to skate away from a legitimate question about immigration policy and Mark Zuckerberg because she couldn’t cite the factual basis for it.
“So where did I read this and come up with this?” a baffled-looking Quick mused to Trump, after he inaccurately denied ever criticizing the Facebook CEO for supporting an increase in the number of H1B visas for foreign tech workers.
“I don’t know. You people write this stuff,” Trump retorted, to audience laughter.
Smith’s take: “There was one moment in the last debate—I won’t repeat it—where clearly somebody wasn’t prepared. You can’t hide that. You better know your stuff.”
Shouldn’t CNBC’s producers and researchers shoulder some of the blame?
“I beg to differ,” Smith replied. “You have a huge responsibility sitting there as a moderator. And I will know my stuff. Nobody writes my questions for me. I ask a question because it’s something I truly want to know the answer to… So I will know all the happenings behind that question, and especially if I’m citing the words back to a presidential candidate, I will know exactly the date, the time, and the place where that person said it.”
The two FBN debates—in which Smith will be joined by Fox Business anchor Trish Regan and Wall Street Journal Washington bureau chief Gerald Seib; and Bartiromo will share moderating duties with Fox Business and Fox News anchor/executive Neil Cavuto and Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker—will ostensibly focus on the economy, jobs, and business, but will also touch on the news of the day, such as whether or not Dr. Carson has misrepresented aspects of his youth (knife fights? West Point scholarship?) in the stories he likes to tell about his coming of age.
The debates come at an exceptionally raw moment in Republican presidential politics.
Amid the media firestorm provoked by the CNBC debacle, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus absorbed countless brickbats from the various campaigns.
They nitpicked the manner in which the party chairman had negotiated the terms of the 10 authorized primary debates (prompting a frazzled Priebus to threaten CNBC’s corporate sibling, NBC News, with the cancellation of a scheduled Feb. 26 debate) and then excluded the RNC from discussions on how to fix the perceived problems.
The candidates’ draft list of demands—which specified the required room temperature of the debate halls (67 degrees Fahrenheit), prohibited hand-raising or yes-or-no questions, and even insisted that the campaigns approve any graphics and chyrons to be used by the debates’ news media sponsors—was all but universally mocked.
“And then, maybe, like a foot massage?” Fox News star Megyn Kelly lampooned the Republican wish-list.
About the proposed graphics-approval clause, she said sarcastically, “Yeah, that’s gonna happen.”
A couple of nights later, Kelly sharply challenged Republican candidate Ted Cruz, the ornery Texas junior senator, for his suggestion that moderators of Republican debates should be Republican primary voters.
“Would we have to submit our voting records to you?” Kelly twitted Cruz.
“I agree with Megyn,” Bartiromo said. “By the way, President Obama says, ‘If these guys can’t handle moderators, how are they gonna handle China and Russia?’ You should be able to know that you’re going to be asked any question. It’s all fair game.”
Smith, meanwhile, said she understands where the White House wannabes are coming from.
“I guess it’s fair to say the candidates feel a bit empowered after that last debate when they turned things around on the media,” she said. “Naturally, after that debate they felt they were in a position to make a few demands. You never know until you ask. They just went for it.”
Another notably sensitive issue provoked a couple of howls of protest on Thursday after FBN announced which candidates had been dropped from participation in the debates because they didn’t meet the network’s polling criteria.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former New York governor George Pataki—who managed to get onstage in previous undercard debates—suffered grievous blows to their long-shot candidacies when they failed to reach 1 percent in Fox’s national polling average and didn’t make the cut for this one.
A third candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, narrowly fell short of the 2.5 percent requirement for the mainstage debate and thus was bumped to the undercard; this, at time when he has been receiving favorable media attention—the result of a viral video of a powerful talk he gave in New Hampshire on drug addiction.
Christie will be joined by former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and another victim of demotion, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
Pataki slammed the process as “a disservice to voters everywhere” and “a clear boost to the worship of celebrity over accomplishment and ideas.”
He added: “The voters—not networks driven by ratings, or national polls that are statistically irrelevant—should decide our next president.”
Graham’s campaign manager Christian Ferry, meanwhile, complained that Fox Business and the Journal made use of a poll that didn’t even include his candidate as an option, and added: “It is ironic that the only veteran in the race [Graham is a former Air Force officer] is going to be denied a voice the day before Veterans Day.
“In the end, the biggest loser tonight is the American people and the Republican presidential primary process that has been hijacked by news outlets.”
In recent weeks, Graham has proposed that instead of mainstage and undercard debates, with candidates herded together by the results of public opinion surveys, higher-rated candidates should mix it up with lower-rated contenders in two separate but equal broadcasts.
“Look, if he was leading in the polls, I’m not sure he would be making the same suggestion,” Smith said, adding that “where you are in the polls” is an indication of whether “you’re still making a legitimate run for the presidency.”
After a half-hearted attempt to defend the selection process, Bartiromo conceded that maybe Graham, for one, has a point.
“I feel like Lindsey Graham has really good ideas and really understands military and national security issues very well—better than most people—and he has been a really important voice,” she said. “I think he’ll still be a voice. It’s unfortunate that he was not getting the public support… If you have guidelines and you don’t follow your guidelines, it doesn’t make sense, right?”
Finally, Bartiromo seemed to throw in the towel. “You know that I didn’t come up with the guidelines. I’ve got some other stuff I’m focusing on.”