The revelation of the GOP debate was none of the candidates, but a brilliant performance from the network liberals love to hate
The 2012 Republican presidential debate in Ames, Iowa, Thursday night was exciting. Really.
Sure, it was a civil discussion between conservatives in nice-looking outfits. And it took place in the most midwestern of midwestern states – Iowans’ insistence on maintaining an air of middle-class normalcy is almost fanatical. Still, the two hour-long affair sparkled, thanks to the event’s co-host Fox News. If bad news is good news for television (“it bleeds, it leads”), however, then this bit of good news about Fox‘s performance is sure to be bad news for everyone – including the media organisation itself.
For starters, their grilling by Fox and its conservative media co-host, the Washington Examiner, has finally given the seven candidates on stage something to fret over besides their well-groomed hair. Sharp, pointed and revelatory, the questions not only forced the candidates to separate themselves from the pack, but also helped shape critical assessment of the conservative hopefuls themselves – emphasis on critical.
The Minnesotans, Pawlenty and Bachmann, went after each other like two hockey vets fighting over the last dental plan – which is ironic, since they both detest Obama’s healthcare law. The gloves came off after a prompt from Mike Wallace about both being too “nice”. Who won the cage match? Who cares. The jabs from each were valid critiques that will serve as padding for future opponents.
This provocation continued with the juiciest topics – social issues. While the others pandered forgivingly or flat out jumped the social conservative shark, only Rick Santorum stood his ground when prodded on abortion and gay marriage. Too bad the former Pennsylvania senator’s passionate responses were antiquated and downright appalling. While fiscally sound, limited government policies are the main focus of most conservatives and Tea Partiers these days, Santorum made it crystal clear he’s a fan of the tenth amendment, until it offends the ten commandments.
As for the rest of them: Mitt Romney stood mostly sentinel, modelling his wide, presidential shoulders. Ron Paul probably confused a lot of people by being pro-religion, anti-war, pro-gay, anti-abortion. And Herman Cain still wants a loyalty test for Muslims, but only for the dangerous ones. There was another guy there, too. Forgot his name.
With Fox’s pointed questions, the conservative candidates accustomed to being coddled had nowhere to run. Standing before cameras beaming a nationally broadcast signal, Santorum complained about being “ignored”. (Candidates Gary Johnson and Thad McCotter couldn’t be reached for comment.) Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich kept complaining about the “gotcha” questions.
Had it been another news organisation hosting the event – say, MSNBC – the easiest escape would have been to rail against journalists’ liberal bias. Except Fox has none. This left the cornered candidates a little off-balance. Faced with this reality, the GOP hopefuls were, and will continue to be, forced to either answer the questions in some form or fashion, or just admit that they think “mainstream media” means “anyone asking a question”.
Whether this will inspire them to do some soul-searching is up for debate. Probably not. It should force Fox critics in media to pause for a second, though. It’s easy to mock the organisation for its soft treatment of ideological friends. Hell, Jon Stewart has made a career out of Fox-baiting on that score. But those with a kneejerk reaction to the operation lose any credibility if they can’t face facts.
At the 2007 Democratic debate in Philadelphia, hosted by MSNBC, Brian Williams and Tim Russert “respectfully” drilled the candidates on Iran for a majority of the time. The result? Those journalists were as sceptical as their supposed “policy” questions were soft. Of course, every candidate was of the not-Bush, anti-war variety. Four years, four wars and a still open Guantánamo later, the power of that first debate should be clear.
To be fair, “respected” journalists from the Bachmann-raging NewsBeast and the laughably scare-mongering Time magazine did give Fox its due props. And immediately following the debate, the New York Times assistant managing editor retweeted an unreserved compliment from the liberal ‘tank Think Progress.
So, by most accounts, Fox did a stupendous job as moderator. Then again, you really can’t trust the MSM’s liberal bias.
But the media headache caused by Fox’s great performance is two-fold. For one, other news organisations will have to step up their game, should they host a debate. The June CNN debate in New Hampshire only resolved a question everyone already knew the answer to: these candidates don’t like the current president. As for the weak-kneed and much-ridiculed hosting duties by “respected” journalist John King – you know you’ve done something wrong when even Politico calls you the “grunting moderator”. Fox showed other journalists that getting definitive answers can be done if you ask the questions point-blank but, you know, “respectfully”. Want more policy solutions to the bad economy? Go ahead, grill them. Fox showed you how.
Second, Fox’s own “fair and balanced” slogan will now be under renewed scrutiny. It’s one thing to confirm other’s expectations of you, but it’s an entirely different matter when you blow those expectations away and end up raising the bar. Fox got away with asking some pretty sensitive questions because there’s no way they can be perceived as having a liberal bias. No doubt, they’ll use the debate accolades as “objective” armour next time one of its clan rabidly criticises the president or the Democrats, but they’ll also be rightfully expected to keep up the pace.
After this fine performance, it’ll be interesting to watch how Fox manages its on-air, opinion-driven personalities vis-à-vis its hard-hitting journalism. It’s be the kind of complicated ideological juggling act that will take real talent to master. Where’s Glenn Beck when you need him?
— Originally published on Aug. 12, 2011. Read the real thing here.