October 30, 2015
Hadas Gold and Kyle Cheney
The RNC has suspended plans to partner with NBC News for a February debate, citing a “bad faith” performance by CNBC in Wednesday night’s meeting of the candidates.
“The CNBC network is one of your media properties, and its handling of the debate was conducted in bad faith,” RNC chairman Reince Priebus wrote in a letter to NBC chairman Andrew Lack on Friday. “We understand that NBC does not exercise full editorial control over CNBC’s journalistic approach. However, the network is an arm of your organization, and we need to ensure there is not a repeat performance.”
During and after Wednesday night’s debate, candidates and GOP officials lashed out at CNBC for the handling of the debate format and their line of questioning.
The February forum -- scheduled for Feb. 26, at the University of Houston -- was the only Republican primary debate set to be co-hosted by a Hispanic news organization, with National Review as the conservative media partner. Priebus said a debate will still occur on that date, and National Review will still be a part of it, but he did not say whether another Spanish-language media organization will be involved. The relationship between the two organizations is not necessarily dead, and NBC News said in a statement they plan to work with the RNC to resolve their issues.
"This is a disappointing development. However, along with our debate partners at Telemundo, we will work in good faith to resolve this matter with the Republican Party," NBC News said in a statement.
Immediately after the CNBC debate, Priebus issued a harsh statement calling CNBC’s handling “disappointing” and campaigns began organizing to meet up and plan a way to take control of future debates. The campaigns are aiming to agree on a list of demands that they will submit to the RNC, which plans to make those demands to the networks for future debates.
In his letter on Friday, Priebus argued that CNBC assured the committee that the debate would focus on substantive policy issues like jobs and taxes, but he said the network failed on that count. He also said it failed to guarantee relatively equal speaking time for the candidates.
"While debates are meant to include tough questions and contrast candidates’ visions and policies for the future of America, CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of 'gotcha' questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates,” Priebus wrote in the letter to NBC. "What took place Wednesday night was not an attempt to give the American people a greater understanding of our candidates’ policies and ideas."
In the middle of the CNBC-hosted GOP debate on Wednesday, RNC chief strategist and spokesman Sean Spicer and chief of staff Katie Walsh approached CNBC officials about the amount of speaking time candidates were getting.
"Several campaigns had a concern about time allotments, we approached CNBC on multiple occasions to give us a read out of times as they promised and they refused," Spicer said in a statement.
A CNBC employee who was involved in putting on the debate and with direct knowledge of the conversations, said Spicer and Walsh approached CNBC during the debate, saying they were concerned about time allotments, but that Bush was the only campaign mentioned by name.
The same complaint had come directly from the Bush team, as campaign manager Danny Diaz confronted CNBC producers during the debate about Bush’s speaking time.
Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire Republican committeeman who chairs the RNC’s Debates Committee, said his panel voted unanimously to suspend NBC based on two complaints: unfair time distribution among the candidates and the “snarky and condescending” tone of the moderators’ questions.
“No network should be proud of that debate,” he said in an interview.
Duprey said Republicans have been frustrated by networks’ crowing about how much money they’re making off of the debates.
“I think but for the candidates speaking up and the RNC stepping in, CNBC might have tried to make it a three hour debate because they were making money,” he said.
He added that the networks have been too plain about their intent to get the candidates to attack each other.
“They’re trying to make it like the Ali-Frazier fight,” he said. But he also noted that the nearly universal panning of CNBC’s performance might be enough of a warning to other networks to keep the questions high-minded.
“I don’t think anybody, our candidates, our party or a network wants to have a debate that is so poorly perceived in the public eye than the one that just happened,” he said.
The RNC is under pressure to show that it has teeth and can seriously negotiate on behalf of the campaigns. In the days since the CNBC debate Priebus, Spicer, and Walsh have been calling the campaigns to hear out their complaints. Yet some campaigns still aren’t convinced the RNC can work effectively on their behalf.
One good example for why they feel this way: In the weeks leading up to the CNBC debate, there were intense behind-the-scenes discussions between the campaigns, the RNC, and CNBC over the network’s plan to not include opening and closing statements. Donald Trump and Ben Carson both threatened to pull out of the debate unless the event was under two hours and included opening and closing statements. CNBC ultimately backed off, telling the RNC – which was negotiating on the campaigns’ behalf - it would allow an open-ended opening statement and a closing statement.
Though CNBC and NBC are partners and some NBC staff such as political director Chuck Todd had input, CNBC handled the debate on its own. After Wednesday night, some CNBC staffers were left wondering if more input from NBC’s politics team would have led to a better result.
Asked for comment, CNBC spokesperson Brian Steel gave the same statement CNBC gave as the criticism of the debate started pouring in on Wednesday: "People who want to be the leader of the free world should be able to answer tough questions," Steel said.
Sources at Fox Business Network, the hosts of the next GOP debate on Nov. 10, said they have not been contacted by the RNC or any of the campaigns regarding debate format but that they weren't concerned. They pointed to positive reviews of the first GOP debate, hosted by Fox News, and noted that though it's Fox Business' first debate, viewers and the candidates can expect the same results next month with moderators Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto.