November 05, 2015

At the CNBC debate Republican Ted Cruz issued the shot heard ‘round the anchor desks and corporate board rooms. He accused the media of asking debate questions that were designed to embarrass and provoke rather than to elicit candidates’ views on substance. Could Cruz be right?

Cruz was wrong, according to Vox’s Ezra Klein in a smart piece titled Were the questions at CNBC’s debate really so hostile? Let’s compare the transcripts. Klein analyzed the first six questions of each debate thus far (the point at which Cruz blasted the moderators) and found that CNBC’s questions were “unusually substantive.” However, CNBC’s questions were tougher to answer and were framed as if being asked by a critic of the Republican Party. Also, the CNBC questions ended with mocking or dismissive “kickers.” Moreover, Klein argues, since the parties and not the networks are responsible for the debates, the moderators must try to walk a tight rope (or in my view, moderators must be aware that the boardroom above is looking at the terror of millions in blown income on each question).

I agree that the CNBC questions were more substantive than those of other networks, but that isn’t to conclude – yet – that Cruz was wrong.

Klein is moderately troubled by the “kickers” but I see them as more problematic. As Steven Pinker writes in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, the able writer wants to end a sentence or paragraph in the strongest manner, the better to  capture the reader (here, the viewer). The CNBC moderators certainly did that.

The problem is that the questions were designed to reach two different and incompatible goals: to ask a tough substantive question, and to invite a moment of entertainment. Since the questions ended with the entertainment goal, that objective prevailed on balance.

Yesterday Professor Duquette used the 2014 gubernatorial primary as an example of how the public is misled by media coverage that focuses on polls. Polling is pseudo-news that is largely a marketing opportunity for media outlets. Debates – like the ones we have seen this year – are marketing opportunities too. This was also evident in the 2014 general election here in Massachusetts.

Yes, there were substantive questions in 2014, but much time was taken up with lightning rounds, routine (and since forgotten) accusations of scandal, “Martha Chokely,” and of course, when was the last time you cried. These were all questions designed to get a response that would enhance media branding, not inform citizens. The crying question certainly succeeded. Among issues that escaped sustained attention in the debates were the proposal to bring the Olympics to Boston, the possibility of a budget deficit facing the next governor, and the condition of our public transportation system.

So my answer to the Senator Cruz question is yes, he was right. Media conglomerates place profit before the public good – this is not a startling insight. The parties’ control who gets to televise primary season debates and they want to showcase their candidates in the best light. But there is at least a tacit agreement between the parties and their media partners that the debates should provide some entertaining spark: a Trump insult, a Rubio put down of Bush, or even, a Cruz tirade against the media. It’s the unwritten codicil of the contract.  

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Ezra Klein, Republican Party, Ted Cruz, CNBC debate

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