A rowdy night with tele­vi­sion’s ju­nior var­sity

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - BY WES­LEY PRUDEN

The rule in pol­i­tics is that you can never win an ar­gu­ment with the man who buys ink by the bar­rel, so the wise man knows bet­ter than to start one. But pa­per and ink are not as im­por­tant as they once were; know­ing how to read is so 20th cen­tury. Just shut up and lis­ten. Ev­ery­one with a lap­top or a smart­phone has every­thing he needs to get on the Web and spread his ig­no­rance far and wide.

The times have cow­ered ev­ery­one else to si­lence, afraid to speak up in fear of say­ing the wrong thing. That’s why ev­ery­one looks around to see who’s watch­ing or lis­ten­ing, and says with a wink and a nudge that he’s glad Don­ald Trump is around to say what ev­ery­body’s think­ing.

News­pa­pers that once thun­dered are con­tent now to squeak, and leave the thun­der to tele­vi­sion, which is to news what the bumper­sticker is to phi­los­o­phy. Talk­ing is easy. Think­ing is not. On Wed­nes­day night the cast at the Repub­li­can told tele­vi­sion where to get off.

The ques­tions from the moder­a­tors — John Har­wood, Becky Quick and Carl Quin­tanilla — demon­strated how tele­vi­sion news has no tra­di­tion of the tough city editor who was once a fix­ture in ev­ery news­pa­per news­room — skep­ti­cal, ques­tion­ing and some­times harsh in deal­ing with in­ept re­porters. “If your mother tells you she loves you,” one Chicago editor fa­mously said, “check it out.”

Mr. Quin­tanilla asked Marco Ru­bio what he made of a Florida news­pa­per ed­i­to­rial call­ing on him to re­sign to cam­paign full time. “When some­one says Ru­bio should re­sign,” he asked, “when they say Florid­i­ans sent you to Wash­ing­ton to do a job, when they say you act like you hate your job, do you?”

Mr. Ru­bio tried to an­swer, but the mod­er­a­tor cut him off. “But do you hate your job?”

When Chris Christie scoffed that a ques­tion about fan­tasy foot­ball was a waste of time for both the can­di­dates and the au­di­ence — and was wildly ap­plauded for his scoff­ing — John Har­wood, the lead mod­er­a­tor, in­ter­rupted with a bit of tele­vi­sion fluff. “Do you want me to an­swer,” the gover­nor asked, “or do you want to an­swer? Even in New Jer­sey, what you’re do­ing is called rude.”

All the can­di­dates soon got into the spirit of the evening, hav­ing waited for years to say what they think about im­politic and im­per­ti­nent ques­tions that stray from the sub­ject at hand. No­body ap­plied blows to the body like Ted Cruz. Carl Quin­tanilla posed a ques­tion about the debt limit with the snark that set the tone of the de­bate, and the sen­a­tor ig­nored the debt limit to give the ques­tioner an­other piece of his mind.

“The ques­tions that have been asked so far in this de­bate il­lus­trate why the Amer­i­can peo­ple don’t trust the me­dia. This is not a cage match. If you look at the ques­tions, ‘Don­ald Trump, are you a comic book vil­lain?’ ‘Ben Car­son, can you do the math?’ ‘John Ka­sich, can you in­sult two peo­ple over here?’ ‘Marco Ru­bio, why don’t you re­sign?’ ‘Jeb Bush, why have your num­bers fallen?’ How about talk­ing about sub­stan­tive is­sues?”

The mod­er­a­tor tried an­other in­ter­rup­tion, and was stopped .

“But Carl, I’m not fin­ished yet. The con­trast with the Demo­cratic de­bate, where ev­ery fawn­ing ques­tion from the me­dia was, ‘which of you is more hand­some and wise?’”

The mod­er­a­tor tried again. “Let me say, you have 30 sec­onds left to an­swer should you choose to do so.”

Sen. Cruz ig­nored the petu­lant re­buke. “No­body watch­ing at home be­lieves that any of the moder­a­tors have any in­ten­tion of vot­ing in a Repub­li­can pri­mary,” he replied. “The ques­tions be­ing asked shouldn’t be try­ing to get peo­ple to tear into each other, it should be what are your sub­stan­tive – ”

Mr. Quan­tanilla thought he was get­ting the last word: “I asked you about the debt limit, and got no an­swer.” Ac­tu­ally, he got a lot of an­swer, but it wasn’t what he ex­pected. Nei­ther was the re­ac­tion from other re­porters and cor­re­spon­dents. Jour­nal­ists are like doc­tors, re­luc­tant to crit­i­cize each other’s work, and never, never con­cede that a jour­nal­ist is bi­ased or holds any but the noblest views about his craft. But this time there were hints of shame in the press room.

Politico said some of the ques­tions veered “be­yond sharp into con­tentious­ness.” The Wash­ing­ton Post said they strayed into “gotcha ter­ri­tory.” The New York Times said CNBC il­lus­trated “why you don’t hire ten­nis play­ers to do color com­men­tary on a foot­ball game.”

The de­bate was of­ten chaotic, with the moder­a­tors of­ten de­bat­ing among them­selves. But it was com­pelling chaos. CNBC set a record for an au­di­ence, with 14 mil­lions view­ers, though far be­low the num­bers set ear­lier by Fox and CNN. Tele­vi­sion is a num­bers game, and CNBC bought its num­bers Wed­nes­day at a fancy price. Wes­ley Pruden is editor in chief emer­i­tus of The Wash­ing­ton Times.

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