The real lessons of CNBC debate

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Errol Louis: CNBC made a royal mess of Republican debate

But moderators also raised important issues, he says

Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN  — 

It’s one thing when left-leaning pundits at Salon or the Nation slam Carson, as they frequently do. But when conservative voices line up against the good doctor, as they seem to be doing frequently, he’ll have to decide whether it’s time to be less of a truth-teller and more of a serious, thoughtful, well-briefed and fully prepared candidate for the highest office in the land.

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I personally found the CNBC disaster painful to watch because I’ve been in the position of being on the media panel: Over the past decade, I have served as a moderator or questioner in dozens of debates, for offices including Congress, U.S. Senate, New York state comptroller and attorney general, New York City mayor and a wide range of local offices.

Some of the debates I’ve moderated were sedate, while others were raucous and freewheeling, and a few included disruptions by audience members. Most were one-on-one debates, but in 2013, I moderated a crowded panel of seven candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for New York City mayor (including the eventual winner, Bill de Blasio).

‘Shell-shocked’ CNBC staffers had long flight home

Errol Louis

Having seen what can go right and wrong in these settings, I heartily agree with critics who say that the CNBC team committed unforgivable errors. The two most serious problems were the failure to establish a controlled tone to the discussion and the constant interruption of candidates trying to respond to questions or interject a thought or a rebuttal.

It’s critical in a debate with so many candidates to have questioners firmly establish what will and won’t be allowed. CNBC didn’t follow that rule – in fact, it did something close to the opposite by rotating questioners on and off the panel with no apparent rhyme or reason.

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Jim Cramer, Rick Santelli and other network personalities would show up, ask a few questions and then vanish. That destroyed any hope of connecting different ideas and themes between the beginning, middle and end of the debate.

Even worse were the moderators’ interruption of candidates in midthought or midsentence, and the bickering that ensued. The formal framework of a televised political debate – the rules about the length of time permitted for responses and rebuttals – should never be treated as strict limits on candidates. The guidelines are the means to an important end: getting a robust discussion going that fleshes out important issues.

Once the discussion gets going, the moderator should step out of the way and let the candidates talk for a few minutes until the issue has been thoroughly aired. If others want to jump in along the way to rebut points or argue against an opponent, they should be allowed to do so.

A final self-inflicted wound by CNBC was the uneven quality of the questions, starting with the very first one. “Tell us your biggest weakness, in 30 seconds” was a ludicrous way to open a debate about the future of the country. Later on, an especially ill-timed and poorly conceived question about regulating fantasy football leagues led to audience groans and a heated lecture from Gov. Chris Christie.

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CNBC could and should have borrowed a page from the generally excellent Fox News debate in which each candidate was pointedly asked to explain a particular shortcoming of their campaign or political philosophy.

But it’s important to note: even as the CNBC folks were screwing up many of the basics, they also raised important issues that revealed shortcomings and outright deception by several candidates.

A case in point came when CNBC’s Becky Quick asked Donald Trump about a statement in which he called Sen. Marco Rubio “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator,” an unflattering reference to Rubio’s support for a certain kind of visa that helps corporations such as Zuckerberg’s Facebook import highly skilled technical talent from overseas.

“I never said that. I never said that,” insisted Trump.

Quick immediately backed down – “My apologies, I’m sorry,” she said, drawing an insult from Trump: “Somebody’s really doing some bad fact-checking.”

As it turned out, Quick was accurate: Trump’s own website did, indeed contain the phrase slamming Rubio. The exchange showed poor preparation by CNBC. Quick should have known the source of a direct quote before challenging Trump in front of 14 million viewers, but it also showed Trump to be less than truthful about his own public position.

Quick had a similar encounter with Rubio over his personal finances. He has faced foreclosure, admitted double-billing the government and the Republican Party of Florida for airplane flights, and raised eyebrows by billing the Florida party for $100,000 of what looked like personal expenses, including repairs to the family minivan and purchases at a wine store.

“It raises the question whether you have the maturity and wisdom to lead this seventeen-trillion-dollar economy. What do you say?” Quick asked Rubio.

A perfectly good question. Rubio refused to answer: “You just listed a litany of discredited attacks from Democrats and my political opponents, and I’m not gonna waste 60 seconds detailing them all.”

Ben Carson did his own duck-and-dodge when CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla asked him about his long involvement promoting products for Mannatech, a herbal supplement maker that paid $7 million to settle charges of false advertising.

Carson flatly – and falsely – denied involvement.

“I did a couple speeches for them, I do speeches for other people, they were paid speeches. It is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of relationship with them,” he said.

Not so. The conservative National Review and The Wall Street Journal both looked at Carson’s relationship to Mannatech earlier this year and showed extensive connections, many of which appeared to continue after the company’s legal problems were widely known.

For Trump, Rubio and Carson to attack CNBC’s questions as motivated by political bias is not simply untrue: it’s also a convenient way to dodge hard questions to which voters deserve answers.

The reality is that all three candidates were caught shading or evading the truth during the debate – not because of “gotcha” questions, but in part because they, like the moderators, weren’t quite as prepared as they could and should have been.

The CNBC team reportedly took a long, “shell-shocked” flight back to New York after the debacle, and presumably will learn from the experience. But no matter how clumsy CNBC’s preparation and execution, there’s no excuse for the RNC’s temper tantrum or the accusations of media bias from several of the candidates, such as Ted Cruz’s baseless slander that the CNBC panel was a group of “left-wing operatives” bent on harming the Republican Party.

Even if the Republican Party limits the number and format of future debates, the fundamentals won’t change: skillful and properly prepared moderators will manage to shine a light on things that some candidates would rather not discuss.

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