CNBC debate yields confusion rather than clarity

Trio of moderators among the worst I have ever seen.

The nicest thing I can say about Wednesday night’s GOP debate on CNBC is that it was lively.

But that’s where the nice stops.

What a trio of grandstanding, hotdog moderators in Becky Quick, Carl Quintanilla and John Harwood. And as a result of their erratic application of what could only laughingly be described as rules and their sometimes poorly researched questions, what a mess of a debate.

I have been criticizing moderators in the last few debates for not being tough and authoritative enough, but this was a case of moderators trying to be tough without putting fairness first and, most of all, without asking questions that would help viewers know more about the candidates and issues at the end of the two hour telecast.

I never thought I’d find myself agreeing with Republican politicians who were attacking journalists, but I found that to be the case at least three times Wednesday night. This was a two-hour exhibition of moderators putting performance ahead of service to the audience.

One of the worst moments by any moderator came at 9:25 p.m. when Quick said to Donald Trump, “You have been very critical of Mr. Zuckerberg, of Facebook …”

“I have not been at all critical of him,” Trump interrupted, using a technique the candidates have used repeatedly to throw the moderator on the defensive and muddy the water as to what they did or didn’t say. Ben Carson used it over and over in previous debates.

This is where the prepared moderator-journalist is supposed to say something along the lines of, “Well, Mr. Trump, let me refer you to this statement, and I quote…”

And then, of course, the moderator establishes her or his authority by sounding the quote and essentially telling the candidate, “Don’t play that game with me again tonight, my friend, because I came prepared and I will show you up again and again as a dissembler.”

But not Quick. Her reply to Trump: “Where did I read this and come up with this then?”

Where did you read this and come up with this then? You’re asking the guy you’re trying to put in the hot seat where you read something that is supposed to make him look bad?

Trump being one million times better at this game than Quick, came back with, “… I don’t know. You people write this stuff.”

The hall erupted in laughter and applause.

Freeze frame the look on Quick’s face as that happened, if you want to see what it looks like to feel out of your depth and on the ropes.

She came back to it again and then apologized for the question. Later yet, someone at CNBC appears to have found the quote she was looking for on Trump’s homepage. But by that time, it was impossible for viewers to know what was or wasn’t true.

The end result of her line of questioning was confusion – not clarity – for viewers. And that’s the way it went most of the night.

The moderating got so bad that by the end of the telecast I found myself siding with Chris Christie when Harwood interrupted him as he tried to answer a question at 9:58 p.m.

“John, do you want me to answer or do you want to answer?” Christie said. “Because I got to tell you that even in New Jersey what you’re doing is called rude.”

After the debate, CNN reported on RNC chairman Reince Priebus denouncing CNBC for its handling of the debate.

“While I was proud of our candidates and the way they handled tonight’s debate, the performance by the CNBC moderators was extremely disappointing and did a disservice to their network, our candidates, and voters,” Priebus said. “CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled.”

While I am sure this statement will be seen mainly through partisan blinders, both anchor Anderson Cooper and correspondent Dana Bash said they had never seen or heard that kind of denunciation leveled in the immediate wake of a debate.

Given their experience, that’s saying something.

But then, I’ve never seen moderating veer quite so far off the course of serving viewers and democracy as I saw on CNBC Wednesday night.

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