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NBC's big fight with the Republican Party, explained

CNBC's John Harwood got a lot of criticism from Republicans for his handling of the third GOP debate.
CNBC's John Harwood got a lot of criticism from Republicans for his handling of the third GOP debate.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Republicans fumed this week over what they saw as CNBC moderators' biased and disrespectful treatment of the GOP presidential field at the candidates' third debate Wednesday night. During the debate, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and other candidates blasted the moderators for their hostile questions, earning cheers from the mostly Republican audience.

On Friday, the Republican Party played its trump card: It threatened to cancel a Republican primary debate, hosted by NBC-owned Telemundo, that's currently scheduled for February and let another media organization host the event instead. In a scathing letter, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus accused the moderators of engaging "in a series of 'gotcha' questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates."

Not everyone agrees with these charges. Vox's Ezra Klein, for example, argues that the moderators were just doing their jobs: "The problem for Republicans is that substantive questions about their policy proposals end up sounding like hostile attacks — but that's because the policy proposals are ridiculous, not because the questions are actually unfair."

But Republicans see things differently. In their view, the questions weren't just tough but downright hostile. And they're using their control over the Republican debate schedule to pressure NBC — and other mainstream media outlets hosting debates — to treat their candidates with more respect.

The GOP says the moderators were biased against Republican candidates

It's the moderators' job to ask tough but fair questions that will help to illuminate differences between the candidates and help voters decide which candidate to support. Conservative critics argue that in Wednesday night's debate the moderators nailed the "tough" part, but they forgot about the fair part:

  • Moderator John Harwood listed some of Donald Trump's less plausible campaign positions — such as a plan to build a wall along the southern border and make Mexico pay for it — and then asked, "Let's be honest. Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?"
  • CNBC's Carl Quintanilla mentioned that Marco Rubio had sponsored an immigration bill that "conservatives in your party hate and even you don't support anymore," and added, "Now you're skipping more votes than any senator to run for president. Why not slow down, get a few more things done first, and at least finish what you start?"
  • Addressing Jeb Bush, Harwood asserted, "The fact that you're at the fifth lectern tonight shows how far your stock has fallen." He continued: "Ben Bernanke said he no longer considers himself a Republican because the Republican Party has given into know-nothingism. Is that why you're having a difficult time in this race?"

These questions don't seem calculated to elicit thoughtful responses from the candidates so much as to telegraph the moderators' disdain for the candidates or — in the case of the last question — the Republican party as a whole.

"The media works from the unspoken assumption that Democrats are normal while Republicans aren’t," National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote after the debate. "Many mainstream media journalists think asking tough, even unfair, questions of Republicans is their job. They’re congratulated for it by the media critics and by Democratic activists who are often friends or even spouses of the reporters."

While most of the complaints about the debate came from the political right, even some non-conservatives were put off by the moderators' behavior. "CNBC showed us how to conduct a debate unburdened by a shred of respect," late-night host Stephen Colbert said.

Attacking the moderators was a crowd-pleasing move at the debate

The Republican-leading crowd cheered every time candidates attacked moderators Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick, and John Harwood. (Adam Jeffery/CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

The Republican-leading crowd cheered every time candidates attacked moderators Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick, and John Harwood. (Adam Jeffery/CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

The candidates onstage didn't appreciate the steady drumbeat of negativity from the moderators' table, and a lot of Republican voters shared the sentiment. After all, most Republicans — who are, after all, the people the moderators are supposed to be serving — expect to vote for one of the candidates on stage. In recent weeks at least a quarter of voters have told pollsters they plan to vote for Donald Trump, suggesting that they don't regard his campaign as cartoonish. The way the questions were framed seemed to confirm conservative suspicions that the moderators were hostile not only to particular candidates but to the conservative movement in general.

So the Republican candidates took every opportunity to hit back at the moderators. The most crowd-pleasing counterattack came from Ted Cruz, who lashed out at the string of one-sided questions he'd heard so far in the debate.

"The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media," Cruz said. "This is not a cage match. You look at the questions — Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio, why don't you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen? How about talking about the substantive issues?"

Of course, these paraphrases aren't quite accurate — Harwood suggested Trump was running a cartoonish campaign, not that he was a cartoon villain, for example — but the crowd roared its approval nonetheless.

Later, Harwood twice interrupted Chris Christie as he tried to answer a question about his stance on global warming. "I got to tell you the truth, even in New Jersey what you’re doing is called rude," Christie shot back.

The Republican Party is threatening to boot NBC from its next scheduled GOP debate

Most of the time, when Republicans feel they're being treated unfairly by the media, there's not much they can do about it. But Republican primary debates are organized by the Republican Party and Republican presidential campaigns. They have the collective power to decide who will host and moderate candidate debates.

On Friday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus wrote a letter to NBC announcing that he was "suspending the partnership with NBC News" for a future Republican debate that was scheduled to be hosted by NBC's Telemundo station in February.

Priebus argued that CNBC's moderators handled the debate in bad faith: "CNBC billed the debate as one that would focus on 'the key issues that matter to all voters — job growth, taxes, technology, retirement and the health of our national economy.' That was not the case. Questions were inaccurate or downright offensive."

"CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of 'gotcha' questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates," Priebus wrote. "What took place Wednesday night was not an attempt to give the American people a greater understanding of our candidates’ policies and ideas."

It's not clear how serious the RNC is about this threat. Priebus says he's "suspending," not terminating, NBC's participation in the February debate, and his letter didn't name another media sponsor to take Telemundo's place. He may be hoping that NBC will provide assurances that the next debate will feature moderators who will be more respectful of the Republican candidates.

The RNC-NBC spat is part of a broader love-hate relationship between Republicans and the media

Media bashing works for Republican candidates because American conservatives have long been convinced that the media was hostile to them. Republican presidents since Richard Nixon have been suspicious of the mainstream media's motives, and decades of grassroots conservative hostility toward mainstream media outlets have fueled the rise of alternative outlets such as talk radio and the Fox News Channel.

Yet the mainstream media's reach is too broad for Republicans to avoid it altogether. Centrist and independent voters often watch mainstream media outlets, and Republican candidates usually need to reach them if they want to win elections. So despite their misgivings, they've continued to cooperate with mainstream media outlets on a sporadic basis.

Priebus is trying to use the leverage provided by the star power of Donald Trump and other candidates to pressure mainstream journalists to treat them with a bit more respect — at least when they're hosting Republican debates.

So far, NBC's response to Priebus's broadside has been low-key: "This is a disappointing development," the network said in an email statement. "However, along with our debate broadcast partners at Telemundo we will work in good faith to resolve this matter with the Republican Party."

Disclosure: NBC Universal is a minority owner of Vox Media.

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