Editorial: Debate and Switch

The tenor of the Republican presidential nomination race has taken a surprising turn toward civilization—or so it appears on TV. The fourth primary debate, Nov. 10 on Fox Business Channel, managed not to devolve into meta-howling about the media or candidates’ backgrounds. Nevertheless, it pulled a record audience of 13.5 million viewers.

In this overpopulated contest that is a long undercard to the main title fight still a year away, even a few seconds of unfiltered discussion of immigration policy are enough to bring a tear to the eye of a policy wonk. Still, the TV business should take note of the decidedly less-admirable prologue to the debate.

In October, CNBC held a widely criticized debate that saw candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz using up airtime attacking the perceived bias of media and the event’s moderators. (It was, admittedly, a tamer response than Donald Trump’s weeks earlier, which blamed moderator Megyn Kelly’s unpalatable questions on her menstrual cycle.) During the CNBC aftermath, Republican attorney and pro bono debate negotiator Ben Ginsberg met with 13 GOP campaigns and drew up a list of proposed rules for networks. The resolution wound up fizzling by the time of the Fox Business outing, but the letter’s demands offer a reminder of how much influence campaigns are seeking. And in the feverish quest for ratings, capitulating is perhaps inevitable (as CNN did when shortening a planned three-hour debate to just two).

Most galling to those on the right is the idea of “gotcha” questions being crafted by the media, that infamous cartel memorably described by public radio’s Bob Garfield as a bunch of “elite, quinoa-eating know-it-alls.” Ginsberg’s bullet-pointed letter doesn’t go quite as far as Cruz, who proposed that moderators must have voted in a GOP primary. But it asks questions of networks that would be comical if they weren’t such brazen attacks on press freedom. The roster includes a ban on asking candidates to raise their hands to answer a question; no “lightning round” questions; no reaction shots of audience members or moderators; and no candidate questions of other candidates. It further inquires about on-air promo spots mentioning moderators and lead-in programming before the debate and insists that nets “pledge” that the venue temperature stays at 67 or lower.

In past decades, before the proliferation of cable nets, before Citizens United, before the sense that presidential races can last nearly as long as presidencies, primary debates were far humbler affairs. Sponsored by local newspapers and possibly picked up by C-SPAN, they offered an early peek at candidates for the party’s die-hards. Now, these events supply entertainment spectacle. Although technically tethered to our democracy, they are about as governable as an episode of Master Chef Junior.

There will be a long break before the next GOP get-together on Dec. 15. Hopefully the lack of outcry this time means good sense will (for now) prevail. Such is our holiday wish.