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Presidential Debate Quandary: What's At Stake For Networks And Candidates?


You know, we talk about presidential candidates fighting during debates. Now they are fighting about the debates. Many of the Republican hopefuls were furious at CNBC, which hosted last week's forum. Officials from many campaigns met over the weekend to try to agree on some demands for future broadcasts. Of course, yesterday, Donald Trump said he would negotiate with TV networks on his own terms, which seemed to blow up some of the unity we were seeing. I'm in our New York studios this morning, so I get to chat in person with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, who is based here. Hey, David.


GREENE: Just remind us why everyone is so upset.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, if you think about last week's debates on CNBC, there were - I mean, there's a host of objections. Jeb Bush's campaign officials were outraged that he didn't get enough time. You had Donald Trump who was very upset at what he thought was a question - in fact, it was a question - that seemed to suggest he was a cartoon character, a comic book character, and a series of questions in effect belittling or seeming to diminish the standing of some of the candidates. I would argue if you looked at it, these were almost tactical mistakes in how questions were posed than necessarily terrible questions to be trying to get at. But nonetheless, the CNBC moderators upset the candidates. I think, although, at its core, you're also looking at candidates frustrated with how many of them are up there. And they're each vying and jostling for advantage.

GREENE: Which has been sort of a problem for them. I mean, so many candidates, so little time for...

FOLKENFLIK: Right, exactly.

GREENE: To actually get - you know, talk of substance. Well, so the candidates - I mean, their campaigns meet. They try and come up with something to demand from networks in the future. What exactly are they asking for?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, the campaigns came together in sort of this outrage over the weekend. I jotted down a few notes here. Their questions - they wanted to get no yes-no questions. They wanted no questions where you say, well, candidate X, you know, candidate Y said this about you. How do you respond? They want a consultation about moderators. They wanted to ensure they had opening and closing statements, which the next debate on Fox News is not supposed to have - excuse me, Fox Business Network is supposed to have. They didn't want reference to bathroom breaks. They were all over the map. They really wanted to be able to sort of set micro-level strictures on how these campaign debates would be run.

GREENE: No reference to bathroom breaks?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, remember that Hillary Clinton moment...


FOLKENFLIK: Where they had this joke about her being able to just get back to the lectern in time for the debate. That was 'cause she was at the bathroom.

GREENE: And they just don't want - candidates don't want to have any sort of potentially embarrassing...

FOLKENFLIK: Apparently not.

GREENE: Well, I mean - you know, I mean, networks - there's a history during presidential campaigns of negotiating, you know, sort of the rules for a debate. I mean, the kinds of demands that these Republican campaigns are making, are networks - I mean, might they see to some of these demands? Could that happen?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, if you look at, it's been very interesting in the Republican side. You've always had both the network's moderators and also these conservative campaign buddies. You know, NBC, which is - the Republican National Committee has said they'll no longer support - had the editor of the National Review, Rich Lowry, as a campaign buddy. The conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt has appeared for CNBC - CNN and will appear so again. They basically have seated, in a sense, a certain gesture of control. But these things are often haggled over. And at the same time, at a certain point, journalistic outlets shouldn't be allowing political campaigns or political parties to dictate exactly how things are going to work, even if they might haggle over the height of the lectern or the temperature in the studio, as they have for generations.

GREENE: But if voters are hearing the candidates, you know, kind of talk about these complaints, I mean, I could see undermining the trust in debates - I mean, whether the complaints are valid or not. Is there something at stake here? Because debates are important.

FOLKENFLIK: I think particularly on the Republican side, every four years, you hear a message that the media can't be trusted. You know, you heard chants on the 2008 floor in St. Paul with the Republican National Convention against NBC. And this is going to go again and again and again. And yet, they make alliances of convenience. The candidates need the airtime, particularly as the primary votes near.

GREENE: All right, been speaking to NPR's David Folkenflik here in our New York studios. You hear David frequently on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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