Republican Party Should Scrap Network Primary Debates

| August 10 2013
John Walker

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus struck a nerve when he threatened to boycott NBC and CNN when it comes time to host the party’s presidential primary debates in 2016.

Priebus made the threat because of NBC’s plan to broadcast a miniseries about Hillary Clinton and CNN’s plan for a Clinton documentary.

media_bias_agenda_ethicsThe RNC chairman raises a valid point, but it does not go far enough. Republican presidential primary debates, as well as the presidential debates themselves, need a major overhaul.

In a rare burst of candor, even NBC News White House correspondent Chuck Todd said he does not like the idea of a Clinton miniseries because of the inherent conflict between the network’s news and entertainment divisions.

“This miniseries is a total nightmare for NBC News,” Todd said, adding that the miniseries is a no-win situation for NBC’s news division.

“We’re going to only own the negative,” Todd said. “Whether it’s negative because the Clinton people are upset that it’s too tough on them or negative because the Republicans think it’s this glorification of her.”

At CNN, Erin Burnett was defensive about the planned Clinton documentary.

“Here at CNN, the program that we’re talking about comes from the CNN Films division,” she said. Not the news arm that I’m an employer of, and obviously at NBC, I know it’s a similar idea.”

The flap between Priebus and the two networks opened the door for consideration of reforms to the deeply flawed presidential primary debate system. The Republican Party should consider the following points in launching an overhaul of the debate process:

  • In the last election cycle, the party held 20 debates that began in May of 2011 and ended in February of 2012. This was a case of serious overexposure and destructive intraparty bickering.
  • Of the 20 debates, 15 were hosted by network and cable outlets hostile to the Republican Party. The other five were conducted by Fox News, the only cable channel that even attempts to show balance.
  • The party should abandon the network news and cable channels and conduct the primary debates with state and local journalists. National distribution of the debates needs to find a home similar to C-SPAN.
  • No debate should be held more than two weeks before a state primary. No state should receive more attention than any other on the primary election schedule.

As for the general election debates, Republicans need to crack down on the selection of moderators. The party should refuse to participate in presidential debates with hostile moderators chosen from the mainstream media.

The Clinton miniseries and documentary show the audacity of NBC and CNN, but their actions come as no surprise to viewers. The party primary debates are another matter. Preiebus’s objection to the Clinton promotions will have served his party well if it leads to reform.

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