CNBC’s handling of the latest Republican presidential primary debate was so bad that even completely unrelated columnist Mark Patinkin felt he should take to the pages of the Providence Journal to apologize on behalf of the news media. Even the folks within CNBC seemed to know immediately after the show that it had been a disaster, but neither the station nor the broader mainstream media may have learned the full lesson of the event. Consider this from the second link:
… some of the same CNBC employees also said they were proud that the moderators had pointedly challenged the GOP candidates and potentially changed the course of the presidential race.
That sort of attitude should be anathema to a presumptuous “Fourth Estate,” one of whose heroes once proclaimed that journalists should be in “permanent Opposition” to the establishment or the powerful. It would be one thing to be proud of having brought to light important information that, when known, changed the course of an election (say, the fact that a major candidate had maintained an unsecured email server for classified work product and lied about an attack that killed four Americans), but it’s another thing for supposed journalists to take changing the course of an election as their own job.
The degree to which the CNBC moderators went awry is fascinating and instructive. A great example is John Harwood’s hit on Marco Rubio over the latter’s tax plan. Even the post-debate discussion has been indicative of the fact that America is not only divided into two distinct nations, but divided into two distinct realities. On the right, many follow Sean Davis’s incredulity that Harwood “is still refusing to admit that he was wrong.” Meanwhile, the Left (and many journalists) are tending to take the view of a Bloomberg fact check (tweeted out by WPRI’s Ted Nesi) finding that both Harwood and Rubio were correct in their statements, but that “Rubio sidestepped” Harwood’s actual question.
How is that possible? Harwood was comparing the percentage of Rubio’s tax benefits for the top 1% to those of people in “the middle of the income scale,” while Rubio was comparing the top 1% to the bottom 10%. Bloomberg calls that a Rubio sidestep, but one could just as easily see it as a Harwood fast one. Read the Sean Davis link above or watch the video of that moment and consider that this had been a prior controversy between the two men, in which Harwood had made the claim to which Rubio was here responding.
So, Harwood came out with a revised statement closely mirroring his earlier erroneous one, without referring to the lower-income group. That can be confusing in the context of a live televised debate. Then he swirled the water more with his editorializing. Yes, he did specify “the middle of the income scale,” but then made a sneering reference to Rubio’s wanting to be “the champion of Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck,” which most people would tend to associate with lower-income brackets, rather than the middle ones.
It looks an awful lot like Harwood was attempting to get the same rhetorical use (i.e., class warfare) out of a revised statement as he had been attempting to get out of one that had been wrong. When Rubio understood specifically what Harwood meant, he responded appropriately.
Apart from the phrasing of the question itself, the most telling part of the exchange, to me, comes when Rubio states that Harwood had had to correct himself on this earlier and Harwood chuckles to himself. That chuckle could reasonably be interpreted as pleasure at having tripped up Senator Rubio as intended.
“Gotcha” questions in which a journalist clearly lays out two incompatible statements for a politician’s response are one thing. This was more of a “gotcha” in the sense of having snared the candidate in convoluted language. That shouldn’t be the role of journalists, and the sense that it has become their intent drives a great deal of the distrust not only of the news media, but of our entire political system. If these highly paid professionals aren’t fulfilling their social role of keeping an eye on the powerful, but rather have devotedly picked a side, then the people can’t trust that they really know what their government is doing.
By the way, conservatives should stop playing this game on taxes. Our tax system is so progressive — meaning that the wealthy pay so much more of the overall burden — that a tax cut that didn’t benefit the wealthy more in terms of the absolute dollar amounts would be nothing other than backdoor redistribution, which is what the Left wants.