Salon: Far-Right Candidates in GOP Debates Hurt Party's Image, But They're Must-See TV

May 12th, 2014 9:59 PM

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus wants more of a say in choosing the party's 2016 presidential nominee. Makes sense, right? Actually, it doesn't, according to Salon's Jim Newell, who argued in a Monday piece that greater RNC control over pre-primary and primary-season debates will make them boring, thereby causing the many viewers who want to see the candidates snarling and sniping at each other to turn off their televisions or maybe not tune in at all. On the other hand, Newell gives the RNC credit for understanding after 2012 that "[t]he more [GOP] candidates are on public display with each other, the worse it is for the party."

Newell was especially disdainful of the RNC's plan to include conservative pundits on debate panels alongside journalists from so-called mainstream outlets. He alleged that when Republicans identify "the 'mainstream media' as the force behind any sort of intra-party problem, they’re using a reliable scapegoat."

From Newell's piece (emphasis added):

The Republican National Committee came to a firm conclusion following the 2012 presidential primaries: The more its candidates are on public display with each other, the worse it is for the party. They should be credited for this realization. But will limiting the number of debates, as the RNC has voted indirectly to do, change the effects of the debates that survive?

On Friday, the RNC gave final approval to chairman Reince Priebus’ plan for comprehensive debate reform...There are two goals...

The first is to reduce the number of primary debates, of which there were approximately 20 in the previous cycle...It’s unclear what the final tally will be but one RNC meeting attendee tells Politico they’re thinking “six to 10.”

Then there’s the other, harder to enforce goal: reshaping the content of those debates by “insist[ing] that conservative panelists join moderators from the mainstream media.” Priebus insists that this complaint comes from the “grass roots,” who are tired of the secret liberal MSM questioners playing agents provocateurs and launching intra-GOP quarrels...

So they’re thinking of having Rich Lowry or Bill Kristol onstage to ensure no questions cause any sort of debate or friction within the party. Sounds journalism-y to me…does it sound journalism-y to you?

But as is so often the case whenever the GOP cites the “mainstream media” as the force behind any sort of intra-party problem, they’re using a reliable scapegoat. The perceived problem isn’t clandestine Democratic operatives posing as moderators with the intention of sabotaging the GOP presidential prospects. The problem is the medium of television, wherein television networks seek to attract viewers. The network needs “viewers” to train their eyeballs at advertisements, which brings the television networks “profits.” And a surefire way to attract these eyeballs is to create drama and fighting and other forms of spectator entertainment.

This doesn’t matter if you’re a liberal, centrist or conservative network — you want fighting, because fighting makes good television! The RNC must know this because, according to the Politico piece, CNN (a bland centrist network that the Republican base nevertheless perceives as somewhere to the left of Marx) and Fox News (a right-wing news channel) are two of the networks with which the RNC is most disappointed:

CNN and Fox News, which together hosted 12 of the 20 debates last cycle, are less enthusiastic. Debates were a ratings boon for both channels in 2012, and an opportunity to showcase talent. But it was the cable networks that contributed most to the sense of primary debates as Wrestlemania.

CNN’s elaborate, doom-laden introduction videos came in for heavy criticism. Fox News forcing the candidates to raise their hands if they’d agree to a $1 tax increase if it meant $10 in spending cuts also bothered a lot of people on the right.

The RNC can get whichever network it wants — CNN, Fox, Russia Today, whatever — and stack the deck with Lowry and Kristol and Jonah Goldberg and George Will and whichever moderators it wants. But the networks will still want drama and fighting and debate within their debates, because that’s what the people watching them will want.

Besides, it’s not like the moderators have to go out of their way or ask leading questions to spark fisticuffs. All the moderator has to do is say, “Umm … immigration?” and it will be on.

Oh, and don’t smile too much, Democrats. You’ll have to go through this crap again in 2016, too.