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Republican Party ‘Suspending’ NBC News From Planned Debate After CNBC Fallout

Upset over CNBC moderators’ questions at the GOP debate earlier this week, the Republican National Committee has informed NBC News that it is “suspending” its partnership for a Feb. 26 debate in Houston.

The RNC said that they still planned to move forward with a debate on that day and that the National Review remains a partner.

In a letter to NBC News chairman Andrew Lack, RNC chairman Reince Priebus wrote that “we simply cannot continue with NBC without full consultation with our campaigns.”

“The CNBC network is one of your media properties, and its handling of the debate was conducted in bad faith,” Priebus wrote. “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.”

Some of the candidates, like Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Chris Christie, openly complained about the questions asked and the way that they were posed by the moderators. Politicoand other outlets reported Thursday that some campaigns were planning a meeting on Sunday to find a way to wrest more control of the debates away from the RNC.

A spokeswoman for NBC News said, in a statement, “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.”

In the letter, Priebus outlined a number of complaints against CNBC.

“CNBC billed the debate as one that would focus on ‘the key issues that matter to all voters—job growth, taxes, technology, retirement and the health of our national economy.’  That was not the case. Before the debate, the candidates were promised an opening question on economic or financial matters. That was not the case. Candidates were promised that speaking time would be carefully monitored to ensure fairness. That was not the case.  Questions were inaccurate or downright offensive. The first question directed to one of our candidates asked if he was running a comic book version of a presidential campaign, hardly in the spirit of how the debate was billed.”

This is not the first time that the RNC has threatened to sever ties with the network. In 2013, after the NBC entertainment division announced plans to do a miniseries based on the life of Hillary Clinton, the Republican party threatened a boycott of the news division during debate season. The miniseries was dropped. CNN also abandoned a planned Clinton documentary project in the face of objections from the RNC.

“I have tremendous respect for the First Amendment and freedom of the press,” Priebus wrote. “However, I also expect the media to host a substantive debate on consequential issues important to Americans. CNBC did not.”

Some critics panned CNBC’s handling of the debate — not just for the questions asked, but for losing control of the candidates at certain points. Stephen Colbert skewered the event on “Late Show” on Thursday.

What’s apparent from the RNC’s letter is that NBC News has been “suspended,” leaving open the possibility of negotiations between the party, the campaigns (or what will be remaining of them by that date) and the network.

Alan Schroeder, professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University in Boston and author of “Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV,” said via e-mail that “NBC cannot really agree to demands over editorial content (including what questions are asked and who serves as moderator) without ceding their journalistic independence.

“This leaves the network in a difficult spot, because they undoubtedly would prefer to produce the February debate as planned, yet they can’t just give free rein to the RNC and the candidates,” he added.

But he said that the network would be wise to continue negotiating “because February is a long way off, and tempers are likely to cool down between then and now.”

The debates have proved to be very lucrative for the networks, allowing them to charge ad rates exponentially more than their normal programming. Trump even pointed that out during the CNBC debate, citing reports that they were charging advertisers $250,000 for a 30-second spot. But he also noted that he and Ben Carson used their leverage to get CNBC to trim the length of the debate to two hours.

Even though the audience for the third GOP debate dropped substantially from the first two, the estimated 14 million viewers was mammoth viewership for CNBC.

Still, Schroeder said that there was some risk for the GOP pressing the case. He suspects that Priebus’ letter was a way of deflecting some of the anger of the campaigns, and “the RNC positions itself as responsive to the candidates, and in solidarity to their concerns.”

“The CNBC debate may not have been great, but the journalists didn’t do anything that egregious,” Schroeder wrote. “If Republicans continue to harangue, they run the risk of looking like whiners who can’t handle anything beyond softball questions.”

Priebus’ complete letter is below:

Mr. Andrew Lack
Chairman, NBC News
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, New York 10112

Dear Mr. Lack,

I write to inform you that pending further discussion between the Republican National Committee (RNC) and our presidential campaigns, we are suspending the partnership with NBC News for the Republican primary debate at the University of Houston on February 26, 2016. The RNC’s sole role in the primary debate process is to ensure that our candidates are given a full and fair opportunity to lay out their vision for America’s future. We simply cannot continue with NBC without full consultation with our campaigns.

The CNBC network is one of your media properties, and its handling of the debate was conducted in bad faith. 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.

CNBC billed the debate as one that would focus on “the key issues that matter to all voters—job growth, taxes, technology, retirement and the health of our national economy.”  That was not the case. Before the debate, the candidates were promised an opening question on economic or financial matters. That was not the case. Candidates were promised that speaking time would be carefully monitored to ensure fairness. That was not the case.  Questions were inaccurate or downright offensive. The first question directed to one of our candidates asked if he was running a comic book version of a presidential campaign, hardly in the spirit of how the debate was billed.

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. What took place Wednesday night was not an attempt to give the American people a greater understanding of our candidates’ policies and ideas.

I have tremendous respect for the First Amendment and freedom of the press. However, I also expect the media to host a substantive debate on consequential issues important to Americans. CNBC did not.

While we are suspending our partnership with NBC News and its properties, we still fully intend to have a debate on that day, and will ensure that National Review remains part of it.

I will be working with our candidates to discuss how to move forward and will be in touch.

Sincerely,

Reince Priebus
Chairman, Republican National Committee

 

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