In the days leading up to Tuesday night's Republican debate, moderators Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo, anchors of Fox Business Network — on which it aired — and Gerard Baker, editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal, made it clear they would not just be hosting a discussion of economic policy.
No, perhaps even more importantly, they would be restoring order to what had become a media-fomented Fight Club in which debate moderators seemed intent on making a bigger splash than the candidates. In contrast, Cavuto swore that he and his colleagues would be "invisible."
"Unobjectionable" would be closer to the mark. The medium continued to draw as much attention as the message, just in a more candidate-considerate way.
Indeed, even as conservatives and liberals alike criticize Yale students and University of Missouri protesters for their "politically correct" attempts to control the media and create "safe spaces," the Republican presidential candidates gathered in Milwaukee for the debate did both.
The questions seemed exquisitely tailored for each candidate. The most alarming graphic was a Facebook-generated "thought cloud." The moderators spoke gently, in tones of almost deferential agreement, with the essential assumption that the country is in crisis.
Baker chose to begin one question to Carly Fiorina by noting "how weak the current recovery has been and how disappointing by any historical standards."
Each candidate was given 90 seconds to answer, no personal acrimony was referenced by the moderators and cross-talk was, at least initially, kept to a minimum.
Even the automated timer, a game-show like ding easily ignored, was consciously non-hostile.
Sure, it took 30 minutes for the moderators to ask each of the eight candidates a single question, and sure, Donald Trump still managed to insult at least two of his rivals, but the candidates did not feel threatened by the media in any way, and that was clearly the network's primary goal.
"It was all about them," Cavuto said in a moment of near-parental self-congratulation at night's end.
It was a very weird thing for a journalist to say, but then this is a very weird time to be a journalist.
During this first presidential campaign to occur in the newly reinvigorated world of television, with its embrace of ancillary screenage, the media have received as much attention as the candidates. Some of this springs from the candidates — Hillary Rodham Clinton's refusal to grant early interviews, Trump's constant reference to ratings, the requisite dismissal of the "liberal media" by conservatives — but from the moment first debate moderator Megyn Kelly called out Trump for his verbal abuse of women, there was a new, social-media-driven sheriff in town.
Just as the candidates attempt to circumnavigate "old media" — Clinton's first sit-down was with Lena Dunham; Trump tweets constantly — "old media" struggle to embrace the new. All the moderators, including Anderson Cooper, who questioned the Democrats, have moved at least a few steps away from Ivory Tower journalism to a Facebook populism, hitting issues and adopting tones drawn, at times literally, from Twitter, Facebook and various comments section.
Not surprisingly, there has been an escalation of conflict and the interest/outrage it generates.
No matter how you measure it — ratings, tweets, postings on Facebook (proud co-sponsor of Tuesday night's event) — this year's Republican race has been the surprise hit of the season, with each set of moderators influenced by public reaction to those who went before them.
After Kelly and her team were dinged for allowing the candidates to make false statements with no argument, Cooper doubled-down on information. After CNN managed to turn its debate into a symphony of revelatory cross-talk, CNBC doubled-down on that, infuriating the candidates and launching Cagematch-gate.
Led by Ted Cruz, who openly declared war on the "liberal media," many of the candidates met to draw up a list of demands for how they should be treated during subsequent debates.
The effort fell apart. Trump, Fiorina and others quickly distanced themselves from the complaints, which soon became their own less-than-flattering story.
So if many watched the Tuesday night debate to see whether Jeb Bush would make a showing or if Trump could talk actual policy, many others watched to see how Fox Business would react.
By creating a safe space, that's how.
One by one, Cavuto, Bartiromo and Baker first expressed agreement with the party's basic assessment of general crisis, then asked each candidate a question that both played to his or her strengths, but also had a high pivot factor.
The first round especially seemed designed to showcase stump speeches. Trump was asked whether he would raise the minimum wage (he could not do it, Neil), which allowed him to open hard with his "America never wins anymore" pitch.
Asked which of the Democratic giveaways he would take back, Marco Rubio offered instead his personal description of the American Dream. John Kasich, who as governor of Ohio has played up his administrative skills, was asked how he would balance the budget. And so on.
The Sunday-school civility didn't last, of course; it was a political debate between strong personalities, and even with softball questions, political divisions and personal crankiness quickly emerged.
Just a few minutes in, when Kasich attempted to speak out of turn, Bush reprimanded him saying, "You've already made two comments, John. It's my turn." Bush then went on to complain that he had gotten only about four minutes in the last debate.
Then a softball to Trump broke the debate wide open. "At the heart of this issue is the effect that illegal immigrants are having on our economy. What will you do about it?" Bartiromo asked in near-hilarious deadpan, as if immigration weren't the one piece of policy on which Trump has been fairly clear.
But this time his answer — "Build a wall" — met with pushback from Kasich and Bush, and if the direct arguments were less personal than in previous debates, they were no less heated or divisive.
For a few minutes, it looked like an actual debate might ensue. But then the spoon-feeding continued: Ben Carson was asked what he would say to those questioning his veracity; Rubio was asked why he would make a better president than Clinton.
Rather than a lightning round of final questions, all of the candidates were allowed to make final statements and draw viewers to their own websites.
Opinions were mixed as to which candidate "won," but once again, the moderators were graded as quickly as those running for office.
"And that @CNBC is how you run a debate," Chairman of the Republican Party Reince Priebus tweeted seconds after it ended.
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