Campaign Crawlers

Debating the Deciders

Are media moderators playing favorites among Republicans?

By 11.14.11

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SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Rep. Michele Bachmann is a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and, as such, was amply prepared to discuss U.S. foreign policy during Saturday night's presidential debate at Wofford College here.

During the debate broadcast on CBS, the Minnesota Republican was first asked about Afghanistan, and signified her familiarity by name-checking Helmand Province and Kandahar, then mentioning the Haqqani Network as a major insurgent threat. Asked later about Pakistan, Bachmann discussed the importance of stabilizing the nuclear-armed nation against Islamic radicalism. Subsequently asked about the controversial use of waterboarding during interrogations of captured terrorists -- which she supports, but President Obama has prohibited -- Bachman cleverly quipped that the incumbent Democrat "is allowing the ACLU to run the CIA."

All in all, Bachmann acquitted herself credibly during the event, co-sponsored by National Journal and billed by CBS as the "Commander-in-Chief Debate." It is therefore difficult to imagine how shocking it must have been for Bachmann, her staff and her campaign's supporters to learn that one member of the CBS News team apparently viewed her as insignificant. In an e-mail exchange, a network staffer informed CBS political analyst John Dickerson that Bachmann was interested in appearing on Dickerson's post-debate webcast. The staffer CC'ed the message to Bachmann's communications director Alice Stewart and when Dickerson answered, he evidently clicked "reply to all" without realizing that what he wrote would go directly to the Republican aide. Dickerson wrote: "Okay let's keep it loose though since she's not going to get many questions and she's nearly off the charts in the hopes that we can get someone else."

What Dickerson appeared to be mean by his "keep it loose" remark was that he wanted to avoid a firm commitment to have Bachmann on the webcast, as he was hoping to "get someone else" as a guest. But the part of the 29-word Dickerson e-mail that infuriated Bachmann's team most was what looked very much like proof of a preordained decision by CBS that the candidate would not "get many questions" during the debate because she was "off the charts" -- out of contention for the GOP nomination, based on her declining poll numbers. Posting the e-mail to Bachmann's Facebook page, campaign director Keith Nahigan fumed that Dickerson's comments were "concrete evidence confirming what every conservative already knows -- the liberal mainstream media elites are manipulating the Republican debates by purposely suppressing our conservative message and limiting Michele's questions."

Beyond the specifics of Nahigan's accusation as it relates to Bachmann, the "concrete evidence" certainly will be cited by supporters of several other Republican candidates who have complained that televised debates this year have been manipulated to favor certain candidates at the expense of others. These complaints cannot be dismissed as merely a case of campaigns trying to "work the refs" to obtain better coverage, because this year the debates have so clearly influenced the fortunes of GOP candidates.

Consider, for example, that Atlanta businessman Herman Cain's candidacy got an early boost from his strong performance in the first debate of the year, May 5 in Greenville, South Carolina. Only five candidates participated in that debate televised by Fox News, but by the time of the next debate -- June 13 in Manchester, New Hampshire -- the debate field had expanded to seven. CNN decided to exclude former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who had been in the May debate on Fox, while Bachmann, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were added. Cain was quite literally shoved aside, relegated to the far end of the stage, while Romney was at center stage, flanked by Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. CNN explained that Johnson's poll numbers didn't rate his inclusion, but if polls controlled the event, Cain clearly had cause for complaint. Prior to the debate, Cain was out-polling every candidate on the stage except Romney. CNN's own poll taken June 3-7 showed Cain tied with Gingrich for second, and yet the stage arrangements in Manchester seemed to suggest Cain was considered a marginal candidate.

Bachmann emerged from that June debate as an overnight superstar, and some conservatives suspected that the media were promoting her candidacy in order to discourage former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin from jumping into the 2012 race. Bachmann's rise -- on July 19 she peaked at 14 percent in the RealClearPolitics national poll average -- was the beginning of the "flavor of the month" trend in the campaign. For much of the next several weeks, Bachmann overshadowed the rest of the field with the exception of one candidate. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has been a media darling ever since his June 21 entry into the field. His poll numbers have never exceeded the statistical margin of error, but Huntsman has been included in every subsequent debate (sitting out Las Vegas last month was his choice), as though it would be unfair to question the legitimacy of the only GOP candidate to have served in the Obama administration. ("I know that Jon is the kind of leader who always puts country ahead of party," the president said in naming Huntsman ambassador to China.)

During the third debate -- Aug. 11 in Ames, Iowa, televised by Fox -- the moderators clearly were trying to incite clashes between Bachmann and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who both were going all-out to win that week's Iowa Republican Party straw poll. Pawlenty came out the loser in both the Thursday debate and the Saturday straw poll, and by Sunday quit the race. Meanwhile, the race had been transformed by the entrance of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who quickly rose to become the front-runner. Perry seemed an unstoppable juggernaut until his performance in three June debates derailed his bandwagon. While most of Perry's debate damage resulted from self-inflicted wounds, this is not to say that the manipulations of moderators were without effect. Howard Kurtz watched as the Fox News team planned for the Sept. 22 debate in Orlando, Florida, aiming to "get some fireworks going," as Fox managing editor Bill Sammon put it.

Whether they're accused of trying to gin up rating-friendly "fireworks" or limiting questions to a candidate they deem to have dropped out of contention, suspicions toward debate moderators are part of an ongoing erosion of the media's credibility. Perfect fairness and complete objectivity are perhaps an impossible ideal, but when a candidate claims to have discovered "concrete evidence" of bias, it is a serious charge that merits serious consideration. Republican voters will ultimately decide their party's nominee, despite efforts by the media elite to decide for them. And Bachmann's poll numbers are still higher than Huntsman's.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.