At its summer meeting in Boston on Friday, the Republican National Committee (RNC) voted unanimously to approve a resolution excluding CNN and NBC from hosting any Republican presidential debates in 2016. The decision, which also applies to MSNBC, Telemundo and CNN Espanol, is in response to programs that the two networks are planning to run about Hillary Clinton. CNN is planning a documentary about the former Secretary of State while NBC Entertainment, a separate division of NBC Universal from NBC News, has commissioned a four-hour miniseries about Clinton starring Diane Lane.
In remarks prior to the vote, RNC chair Reince Priebus stated, “a network that spends millions to spotlight Hillary Clinton is a network with an obvious bias. And that’s a network that won’t be hosting a single Republican primary debate.” But, for all the heated rhetoric describing this as an attempt to “show political favoritism and put a thumb on the scales,” the move isn’t really about Hillary Clinton at all. Instead, it’s about Herman Cain.
The 2012 presidential primary featured 20 Republican primary debates, which drew great ratings for all three cable news networks, but at times descended into a freak show and enabled candidates like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann to ascend to the top of the polls. However, the RNC couldn’t directly step in and limit the number of debates without creating the appearance of the party establishment trying to take further control over the nomination process. Hillary Clinton simply provides a convenient excuse to cut down the number of debates, something that an RNC task force already recommended in March.
The resolution makes this clear. In addition to condemning CNN and NBC for their bias, it states: “the Republican National Committee shall endeavor to bring more order to the primary debates and ensure a reasonable number of debates, appropriate moderators and debate partners are chosen, and that other issues pertaining to the general nature of such debates are addressed.”
It’s likely that both CNN and NBC will still host debates in 2016 once all this is resolved. There just will be a lot fewer of them and the networks will have a lot less leverage in negotiating the ground rules than they had in the past.