David Zurawik

Fox Business gives Ben Carson a free pass in GOP debate

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks with members of the media in the spin room after the Republican Presidential Debate sponsored by Fox Business and the Wall Street Journal at the Milwaukee Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Tuesday night's GOP debate hosted by the Fox Business channel was about 2 million times more responsible and substantive than its predecessor on CNBC.

Here's to Fox Business for that.


The debate mainly kept the focus on the candidates and stuck to its stated goal of questioning them on the economy.

But let's not get carried away and unduly praise Fox Business because it looked so good in comparison to what came before. Three dogs sitting at a table barking into microphones would have been a vast improvement over the chaos, partisan questions and lack of moderator preparation of CNBC.


The moderators for Fox -- Neil Cavuto, Maria Bartiromo and Gerard Baker -- pulled some punches and let some candidates, like John Kasich and Carly Fiorina, ignore the rules throughout. In the end, the pulled punches made me question the credibility of the event itself.

The one big punch they pulled that really upsets me was letting Dr. Ben Carson go all but untouched on questions of his biography and some of the more outrageous things he has said about gays, Jews during the Holocaust, Marxism, Obamacare and slavery.

And no one was worse in this regard than Cavuto. His deference in questioning Carson and his glaring unwillingness to follow-up did a disservice to all viewers who came expecting a tough but fair session with the candidates.

The one question Cavuto did ask about the growing number of issues being raised in connection with Carson's biography highlighted how easy Fox went on Carson all night -- easy to the point where I am sure some will wonder whether the debate was more about not harming GOP frontrunners than it was serving voters.

"Dr. Carson, you recently railed against the double standard in the media, sir, that seems obsessed with inconsistencies and potential exaggerations in your life story, but then looked the other way when it came to then Senator Barack Obama's. Still, as a candidate whose brand has always been trust, are you worried that your campaign, which you've always said, sir, is bigger than you, is now being hurt by this?"

This isn't a journalist questioning a candidate. This is Sean Hannity genuflecting before Sarah Palin during the 2008 campaign when he used his show to try and help the GOP ticket of Palin and John McCain get elected.

First of all, it sounds from the question like the alleged "double standard" is a fact, or, at least, something Cavuto believes in along with Carson.

Second, how has Carson's "brand" always been "trust"? Trust in what -- that he was a good surgeon, because he's only been a candidate the last couple of years?


Was his brand "trust" when he was mainly a Fox News contributor after retiring from Johns Hopkins? That would make him a rarity among most talking heads on cable news, wouldn't it?

And what the heck does "which you've always said is bigger than you" mean? Doesn't every candidate say that, implying they are vessel of something good in America or great in heaven. Remember Palin again?

"Well, first of all, let me thank you for not asking me what I said in the 10th grade," Carson said jokingly. "I appreciate that."

"I'll just forget that follow-up then," Cavuto says joining Carson in the joke about questions of his past and essentially affirming a solidarity with the candidate against such journalistic inquiry.

"The fact of the matter is," Carson said, finally sounding like he might answer the question, "is that we should vet all candidates. I have no problem with being vetted. What I do have a problem with is being lied about and then putting that out there as truth. And I wouldn't even mind that so much if they'd do it with people on the other side."

At this point, journalists with one-tenth the experience of Cavuto would understand that the question begging, no demanding, to be asked is: Can you be specific about one or more of those lies that have been told about you?


But not Cavuto. He let Carson roll from that charge of the press lying about him untouched into a statement about what a liar Hillary Clinton is.

Referring to her conflicting explanations as the cause of the attack on the American compound in Benghazi, he said, "Where I came from that's called a lie."

And, he continued, "That's very different from someone misinterpreting when I said I was offered a scholarship to West Point. That's the words that they used. ... People who know me know I'm an honest person."

Doesn't almost every politician say that about "people who know them" know how honest they are? I think even Richard Nixon did.

But no one was even gently going to challenge statements like that in this debate.

All we got from Cavuto was, "Thank you, Dr. Carson."


Unlike the way the Republican National Committee denounced the CNBC debate minutes after it ended, Sean Spicer, the director of communications for the RNC, was on CNN Tuesday night singing the praises of Fox Business.

And why shouldn't he be. With such deferential questions allowing Carson to try and clean up questions about the dramatic stories he has told of his past while attacking Clinton, it was a dream of an RNC evening.

But, thanks to moments like the one with Cavuto and Carson, it felt more like an exercise in home-team image building than candidate vetting to me. It had none of the credibility of the first Fox News debate when Megyn Kelly challenged frontrunner Donald Trump on his statements about women.

Tuesday's debate felt political, while that first one felt like public service to me. Let's not be confused about what was going on.