Inside CNBC Debate Debacle: How Cable Network Dropped the Ball

“They made some obvious and correctable mistakes,” NPR TV critic Eric Deggans tells TheWrap

CNBC debate
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While TV pundits were split about which candidate actually won Wednesday’s GOP debate in Boulder, Colorado, everyone agreed on the night’s biggest loser: CNBC.

Social media was abuzz with a flurry of complaints aimed at the cable business channel’s panel of moderators, Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick and John Harwood.

“They made some obvious and correctable mistakes,” NPR TV critic Eric Deggans told TheWrap. “I would give them a C for their performance.”

Complaints following a debate are nothing new — both Fox and CNN moderators were criticized by candidates following their broadcasts. What’s different this time, experts says, is that the chorus of presidential hopefuls was joined by respected media pundits and journalists, all blasting CNBC for dropping the ball.

“They couldn’t control the dialogue in part because they had three different people who were acting as chief moderators,” Deggans said. “They had a hard time passing the baton.”

Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, a former debate moderator herself, took aim at Quick for letting Donald Trump get away with a lie.

“This is why u never ask a Q like this w/o having your source material at the ready,” Kelly tweeted Wednesday.

During the debate, the GOP front-runner argued that he hadn’t been critical of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s support for bringing in more immigrant workers.

“Where did I come up with this?” asked a confused Quick.

Trump shot back, “You people write this stuff.”

Minutes later, Quick circled back to the issue saying the information came from Trump’s own website, but she failed to call him out.

“They should have been able to correct him,” said Deggans. “And then when they did try to correct him, they didn’t point out the fact that he had officially either misspoken or lied.”

Some media experts believe it might be time to do away with the current debate format altogether.

“The premise of these debates has gotten off track,” Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute’s senior broadcasting faculty told TheWrap. “The main problem I saw was that it’s no longer a debate between candidates so much as it is a debate between moderators and the candidates.”

Wednesday night’s debate was filled with fiery moments, many of them aimed at the moderators.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pounced after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was asked about fantasy sports and gambling.

“Fantasy Football! We have $19 trillion in debt, we have people out of work, and ISIS and al-Qaeda attacking us, and we’re talking about fantasy football?” Christie shouted.

In perhaps the most contentious moment of Wednesday night’s debate, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz scolded the moderators for what he alleged was a liberal bias.

“The questions asked in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Cruz said. “This is not a cage match. Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?” adding, “How about talking about the substantive issues?” for good measure.

His speech got a huge cheer from the crowd.

Even Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus chimed in, saying, “CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled.”

Moderators faced a particularly difficult challenge this time around. Not only did they have to deal with a large number of candidates, but many of those on stage had to put on a strong performance to keep their campaigns alive amid sliding poll numbers and fierce competition.

“A lot of the candidates had an incentive to jump in and be more aggressive,” Deggans noted.

Critics say CNBC may have shot itself in the foot with the first question, in which Quintanilla asked candidates their biggest weakness (answers varied from being too “optimistic” to trying to “live by the rules”).

“It set the tone for the entire debate,” Tompkins said. “What it said was, ‘None of this was going to be about real introspection and real policy,’” he said. “It’s the kind of question you’d expect a fast-food restaurant to ask a college senior applying for a job.”

Tompkins said one way to avoid the shallowness of recent debates is to narrow the topics and give candidates time to dive into more substantive answers instead of 30-second soundbites.

“Moderators need to open up the floor and be more of a facilitator rather than a prosecutor,” he said.