Who Controls the Debate?

Apparently the answer is: it depends on whether Donald Trump is going to be there.

CNBC has officially folded to Trump’s demands.  The next Republican debate will be capped at two hours, and each candidate will be permitted to make an opening and closing statement.  These concessions were made at Trump’s insistence, after he threatened not to participate in the debate.

The two-hour limit is a good idea.  Watching previous debates drag on for three full hours was fatiguing.  Two hours seems about right.  The only loser will be CNBC.  The network wanted a longer broadcast to sell more ad time (after the huge ratings for previous Trump-fueled spectacles, commercial slots for the debate are at a premium).

Opening and closing statements, on the other hand, only benefit the candidates themselves, who want as many opportunities as possible to make scripted remarks.  When they go on script, we all lose.

CNBC was faced with an obvious but bitter decision: make unwanted changes to your broadcast, or lose the guy most viewers tune in for.  It’s a simple economic choice.  And therein lies the rub.  The debate is supposed to put the candidates on the defensive, and force them to answer the difficult questions on the spot.  Ideally speaking, the moderators should control the discussion while the candidates only control their own reactions to it.  But in this case that was at odds with CNBC’s reason for hosting the debate: it’s guaranteed ratings.

Here we have a clear example of a candidate taking the reigns and controlling not just the discussion, but the terms on which the discussion will be had.  Mere formatting changes might not seem like a real problem, and they’re probably not if this is the extent of it.  But it worries me to think what might be next.  Could a candidate with the ratings pull of Trump start to dictate what issues could be discussed?  Who the moderates will be?  Or even who gets to participate in the debate at all?  (Trump has prominently stated his opinion that 11 debaters is simply too damned many; he happens to be correct, but it shouldn’t be his decision to make).

This worries me, especially since it’s unfolded so publicly.  It makes me wonder what strings are being pulled behind the scenes.  It’s one thing for a candidate to decide what ideas they want to present to the electorate; that’s expected and its how things should work.  But when the candidates’ ability to convey their message bleeds into control the media’s coverage of the discourse, it’s a problem.

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