Op-ed: Cover the story, don’t be it

  • By Bob Franken
  • Tuesday, November 3, 2015 5:35pm
  • Opinion

This will not endear me to the television industry’s high muckety-mucks, because their news divisions make huge, almighty buckety-buck profits thanks to the astronomical ratings that come when they present the primary elections’ presidential debates. So they’re not going to be thrilled with my advocating that we end our Faustian deals with the parties and stop producing their candidate cattle calls … or perhaps stampedes. I’m already not particularly the fair-haired boy right now with certain CNBC moderators. I’ve criticized them for embarrassing us all with their vacuous and blatantly hostile questions and discrediting the entire idea that journalists are supposed to confront politicians with skepticism. The moderators violated what used to be a cardinal rule, which is that it’s not really about us, it’s about those we are covering. It’s not about our questions, but their answers.

Unfortunately that’s become sacrilege in our ego-addled business. What we’ve accomplished, as a result, is to give those in the political community too much power over us. They can channel their hatred of anyone daring to inquire about their carefully crafted propaganda into claims that they’re victims of scumbag troublemakers in the press who have an agenda.

GOP National Chairman Reince Priebus knows this all too well, and he’s been very open about exercising control over the debates to the point of choosing which networks get to produce them and make lots of money in the process. CNBC may have suffered a ton of ridicule, but it also drew 14 million viewers — its largest audience ever. So when Priebus publicly states that he wants to protect the Republican brand, the media clamor to deal with him.

Now, to tighten the screws, he’s punishing the owners of CNBC for all their “gotcha questions.” He’s sent a letter to NBC News, another division in the conglomerate, terminating the arrangement for the network to sponsor a debate down the road. And now, the campaigns of most of the GOP candidates are making their own demands.

NBC has responded to Priebus very timidly, saying the decision was “disappointing” and that there should be discussions. I need to point out here that I appear on MSNBC, or at least I have up until now. That’s because what I find to be disappointing is that the network executives don’t respond with emails like:

Dear Politicians,

Kiss my (bleep).

Nasty letter to follow.

All the best, Etc., Etc.

In fact, as I said at the beginning, no media organization should be putting on any of the debates, for either party. In my perfect universe, the Democrats and Republicans could offer their own, choosing the format and moderators if they want. Then the networks could decide how they report them or even whether. If, as a result, they became boring lovefests, then we could make the editorial judgment that they are or are not worth the attention. As it stands now, we’re allowing those we are supposed to be covering independently to co-opt that independence. Because so much revenue is at stake, the networks can be intimidated and whipped into line. How sad is that?

As for the complaint about “gotcha” questions, those are precisely what we should be asking, day in and day out. And if the candidates and parties don’t like it, and they don’t by the way, well, I refer you to the letter above.

Back in my CNN phase, I had landed a high-profile live interview. Shortly before it was scheduled, a producer called to say that my “get” had just demanded that certain questions were off-limits. That was easy: I said, “Tell him he’s disinvited. He’s not welcome.” He backed down, and we did the no-holds-barred interview. We and he did the right thing. Now, the networks should do right with the political entities we are supposed to challenge, by ending our deals with them. The money may be good, but the price is too high.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years ay CNN.

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