George Boardman: The debate over the Republican debates is about controlling the message |

George Boardman: The debate over the Republican debates is about controlling the message

George Boardman
John Hart/ | The Union

Observations from the center stripe: Softball edition

IRONY ALERT: Becky Quick, who is catching flak for the questions she asked at the CNBC presidential debate, is best known for asking softball questions when Warren Buffett grants the network an interview … FRED THOMPSON, who died last week, is known by most people as an actor and failed presidential candidate, but it was minority counsel Fred Thompson who blew the lid off the Watergate scandal when he asked Alexander Butterfield if White House conversations were recorded … THE NBA is going to try something new at the all-star game by putting ads on the players’ uniforms. Do they really want their stars to look like soccer players or, even worse, NASCAR drivers? … I WAS OK with the word “curate” until techy types started using it to describe every mundane task you can think of. I never have, and never will, curate my sock drawer … ARTISANAL HAS become a problem too. Here’s a tip: Any product or service that’s called artisanal is more expensive than it would be otherwise … SACRAMENTO MEDIA treat every routine rainstorm like it’s a major news event, something you don’t see in the Bay Area. Most of the Sac TV stations also appear to have more weather forecasters than field reporters … FOR THE record, I saw my first Christmas ad on Halloween. Best Buy shouldn’t expect any business from me …

Expect the candidates to come out swinging when the bell rings Tuesday for round four of the Republican presidential debates.

The candidates will have their dukes up, ready for any haymakers that come their way. Each has probably developed some counter punches designed to deflect blows and impress the judges … I mean the TV audience.

I’m speaking, of course, about the ongoing battle between the candidates and the media, a guerilla war that flared anew at the Oct. 28 debate sponsored by CNBC.

The debate was widely panned by Republican candidates and commentators for both the substance of the questions and the tone of the moderators. Even investigative journalist Carl Bernstein, who gained fame and fortune hanging a group of Republicans out to dry, called the event “reprehensible.”

Any veteran journalist will tell you that an intelligent, thoughtful question will often produce more news than a hostile one.

The Republican National Committee, which organized the debates on behalf of the candidates, suspended plans to hold a February debate with NBC because of CNBC’s “bad faith.” (Both networks are owned by Comcast Corp.)

“While debates are meant to include tough questions and contrast candidates’ visions and policies for the future of America, CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of ‘gotcha’ questions, petty and mean spirited in tone,” wrote RNC chief Reince Priebus.

“What took place Wednesday night was not an attempt to give the American people a greater understanding of our candidates’ policies and ideas,” he wrote.

Candidates, who usually take the diplomatic approach when confronted with hostile questions, didn’t hesitate to fire back this time. Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio said several questions were out of line, Gov. Chris Christie called one line of questioning “rude,” and Dr. Ben Carson called for changes in the debate format.

“Debates are supposed to be established to help the people get to know the candidate,” Carson said later. “What it’s turned into is — gotcha! That’s silly. That’s not helpful to anybody.”

Gotcha questions, which have been around since at least the 1990s, have come to mean any question one doesn’t want to answer, any question whose answer would or could reveal something unflattering.

“In a way, a question is simply a question and only becomes a gotcha if you, the answerer, feel convicted and unsettled by it,” wrote columnist Charles Blow in the New York Times. “Gotcha is in the mind — and spine — of the interviewee.”

Carson was caught flat-footed during the debate when asked about his association with Mannatech, a nutritional supplement company that has had numerous run-ins with authorities.

It’s no secret that Carson has been paid to deliver speeches to Mannatech distributors, has appeared in promotional videos, and has endorsed the supplements. Yet Carson said at the debate “I didn’t have any involvement with them” and dismissed claims of a connection as “total propaganda.” (The Wall Street Journal, which has written extensively about Carson’s work for Mannatech, is co-sponsoring Tuesday’s debate. Perhaps editor Gerard Baker will want to follow up on the subject.)

A lot of this posturing and chest pounding is about control, who gets to shape the message the public will hear. The political parties know they have a commodity that’s valuable to the television networks, and they want their party and candidates to look good at the end of the day.

So the parties work hard to negotiate a debate format that will make their message appealing. After the CNBC dust-up, the Republicans are pressing for changes. Among them: Approval of camera angles and on-air graphics, a ban on audience reaction shots, and a constant temperature of 69 degrees. All of this is in a no-fly zone.

Journalists, who don’t like any setup where they feel they’re being manipulated, automatically push back. It’s almost impossible to get direct access to candidates anymore so they’re forced to play along, but they don’t have to play nice. Thus the gotcha and other hostile questions, an approach that creates theater and light, but little useful knowledge or wisdom.

Television journalists in particular seem compelled to prove their independence and toughness. While they are generally better looking, better paid, and better known than their print brethren, they are usually considered the lightweights of the news business. Some of them even think they’re bigger than the story.

Any veteran journalist will tell you that an intelligent, thoughtful question will often produce more news than a hostile one. Even the right innocuous question (“Were conversations in the White House recorded?”) can produce explosive results.

The candidates are hardly above reproach. They would have a better case if they actually tried to educate us about their philosophy and where they stand on the issues. But as anybody who watches political ads and reads the literature of candidates can tell you, they try to appeal to our hopes, fears and darker instincts instead of our intellect.

But this debate about debates may be nothing more than sound and fury, signifying nothing. After the first two Republican debates (the candidates had problems with them too), one of the top queries at Google was “How tall is Jeb Bush?”

Now that’s an electorate that yearns to learn.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union.

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