Republican presidential candidates beat up CNBC journalists like so many pinatas at Wednesday night’s debate, railing against what they called media bias and unfair questions – a technique that could succeed in intimidating moderators in future debates.
“You will see pulling of punches from some reporters,” veteran investigative reporter Mark Feldstein told TheWrap on the heels of the RNC and GOP pundit pool voicing outrage against CNBC for what they saw as biased questions.
The debate was highlighted by anti-media rants from Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Chris Christie, reigniting a war against a favored opponent– the liberal media conspiracy. RNC chair Rence Priebus scolded: “CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled,” citing “gotcha” questions and “low blows.”
“Particularly in TV…you’ll see reporters from CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, they may be a little more careful on how they phrase their questions, they may be a little more cautious at using a phrase that can be considered inflammatory,” Feldstein predicted about what journalists will do after the debate.
The reason is simple–Republican candidates hold the winning cards; reporters and networks need to be in good graces with candidates to have favorable access to campaign events and interviews.
This is even more crucial for candidates like Donald Trump, a one-man ratings bonanza for TV news executives. As usual, The Donald was at the center of a faux debate battle, getting into it with CNBC’s John Harwood right out of the gate.
“That’s not a very fair question,” the real estate mogul shot back to moderator Harwood’s opening question as to whether he’s running a “comic book campaign.”
But Harwood asked a “perfectly legitimate question,” argued Feldstein, who teaches journalism at University of Maryland.
“It’s the media’s role to goad, prod, even provoke in an attempt to get a truth just as it’s the politicians role to spew out canned sound bites,” he said. The result is the infamous media “gotcha game.”
But it’s not just fear of Republicans like Trump yanking their access that will cause reporters to pull back–it’s that dreaded “B” word that can be the death knell over journalists and networks.
“If you’re perceived as in the tank for any one side, that’s not good for the mainstream outlets,”Feldstein continued. “These network executives are very sensitive to the perception of bias.”
Reporters have some degree of autonomy, but not complete autonomy. “Executives won’t write the questions for them, but they’ll sprinkle the word out to be careful not to be biased.”
Feldstein pointed to none other than the “king of conservative media,” Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, who seemed to bow down to Trump following his post-Fox News debate hissy fit against network star Megyn Kelly.
“If Roger Ailes had to do that, it just goes to show you how mainstream, less influential media players are in a more vulnerable position.”
But branding expert John Tantillo says even though it was a smart move for candidates like Ted Cruz to rail against the media as a brand builder, the GOP shouldn’t pick this war to fight it if has aspirations to win the general election.
“It’s not a smart strategy to criticize the media,” he told TheWrap. “It comes off as whining,” Tantillo continued, explaining people want their lives to be better rather than watch a never-ending contest of who can yell loudest.
Regardless, GOP candidates are screaming in unison as they go after the liberal media to boost support and enhance their credentials as renegades against the establishment.
It might help them win a few campaign cycle battles–and the looming war of 2016.