To every cloud—even a big black cloud, teeming with toxic particles and noxious gases—there must be a silver lining.
Thus, amid the widespread second-guessing of the way CNBC’s embattled moderators handled Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate—not only by the usual suspects, GOP partisans, but also by mainstream media critics—the Comcast-owned business channel had something to celebrate.
For the two-hour-plus television show, which was less a confrontation between rival candidates than a food fight between the contenders and their interrogators, the cable network garnered a record 14 million viewers, about 100 times its customary niche audience which watches for stock market info, corporate earnings reports, and gossip from CEOs and hedge fund managers.
It’s possible, if dubious, that some of the millions of presidential debate newbies will be induced to become regular viewers of CNBC’s normal programming—and that was probably it as far as good news goes.
Unless, of course, one considers it a hopeful sign for the body politic that here, at long last, was an issue on which Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton could heartily agree.
Both politicians indicated that the CNBC debate sucked.
Folks “would have been better off watching the World Series,” Clinton declared, reciting a line seemingly written by a quipsmith toiling in the bowels of her campaign bureaucracy, “because the debate, in my view, was a swing and a miss.”
Priebus, echoing the general dissatisfaction and condemnation by his constituency (including the 10 White House wannabes who were onstage for the prime-time program), issued a statement opining that “CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled.”
CNBC’s spokespeople, meanwhile, attempted to rise above the fray, answering the trash talk with a terse, if unresponsive, rebuttal from senior public relations vice president Brian Steel: “People who want to be President of the United States should be able to answer tough questions.”
Steel didn’t return phone and email messages from The Daily Beast, yet it must be at least slightly troubling to CNBC execs that many of the bad reviews for the debate performance are coming not from predictable Republican precincts but from presumably neutral journalists.
CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, for one, wasn’t quarreling with tough questions when he said on the air Thursday morning: “I thought there was more of an issue last night with the management of the time…the management of the candidates.”
Stelter, who hosts CNN’s Sunday media criticism program Reliable Sources, added: “Yes, some of the questions might have seemed staged; they might have seemed too personal; they might have been too much about getting candidates to fight with each other. But there was…this sense of chaos throughout the debate. It was unclear who was in charge.”
Unlike CNN anchor Jake Tapper’s firm hand on the three-hour-plus second Republican debate at the Reagan Library in California and the Fox News team’s disciplined management of the controversial first debate in Cleveland, Ohio, Wednesday’s event in Boulder, Colorado, was decidedly untidy.
“I think the first Fox debate was excellent,” former CNN Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno, director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, told The Daily Beast. “But when Fox did the first debate, it was a getting-to-know-you debate” for which every question—even the ones from Megyn Kelly about which Donald Trump bitterly complained—was a fresh subject to the candidates and the audience.
By contrast, Sesno said, the CNBC debate was touted in advance as focusing on the candidates’ competing ideas for strengthening the economy, creating jobs, fixing federal entitlement programs, and other pocketbook issues.
Instead, Sesno argued, the debate tended to focus on the moderators’ provocative, personal, and, by some lights, insulting questions—and the candidates’ reprisals.
“I think it was a great wasted opportunity,” Sesno said. “CNBC had an opportunity to own a space that was unique, and they advertised it as such. They’re the economy and markets channel, and they had an opportunity really to drive a focus around a genuine debate over economic policy … And it didn’t happen.”
Sesno continued: “The questions were utterly predictable. There were very few follow-ups. There was little effort to generate an actual debate… Instead, there was this rehash of totally legitimate questions about rack record, the viability of candidacy—but all questions that have been asked before. The opening question—‘What are your personal weaknesses?’—was a very clever effort…but it had a thoroughly predictable result, and some candidates ignored it completely. In a sense, it was wasted time…and a grownup debate about the economic direction of our country didn’t happen.”
Sesno acknowledged that CNBC’s three principal moderators—Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick and John Harwood—had a tough assignment.
“This is probably a good lesson in just how difficult it is to conduct a debate among ten people in front of a partisan audience. That is hard to do, and if you’re going to challenge a candidate, you better be fully prepared for the push-back, for the boos from the audience—and they weren’t. I think either they were not prepared or they were not disciplined enough.”