Why is CNN picking Republican winners and losers too?

Yesterday amid all the Trump-Ailes-Kelly nonsense, I had a Deep Thought:

It’s true, isn’t it? If CNN or MSNBC, rather than Fox, had pioneered the idea that a news network should get to pick and choose which candidates would get to participate in a primary debate, Fox would never have stopped talking about it. If the president of either of those two networks were to get involved in a feud between one particular candidate and one of that network’s personalities, a feud that dominated campaign coverage for days on end, there are Fox hosts who might spontaneously combust in outrage, or feigned outrage at any rate. But here we are at the end of a five day period in which the Fox News network, abandoning even its usual tissue-thin pretense of objectivity, was a bigger player in the Republican primary than all but one GOP candidate and nobody has really made a big deal about it apart from a few left wing internet outlets.

Lo and behold, though, CNN is deciding which Republican candidates are allowed to participate in the “real” portion of its double-header primary debate on September 16:

Sixteen Republican presidential candidates — the entire GOP field, minus Jim Gilmore — have been invited to participate in the CNN/Reagan Library presidential debate on September 16.

The debate will be split it into two back-to-back debates: The main event will feature the top ten candidates according to an average of national polls between July 16 and Sep. 10. The undercard debate will feature the remaining contestants who fulfill candidate requirements and register at least a one percent average in national polls between July 16 and Sep. 10. CNN set the criteria for the debate back in May.

Back in May? Well, hell, nobody ever accused me of being quick on the uptake.

Now, it would be hypocritical, even by Fox standards, for that network to criticize CNN for doing the same thing they just did, but I’m not Fox, so I can ask: why is this being allowed to happen, and who at CNN thinks it is in any way appropriate? I can certainly understand not wanting to stick 16 people on one debate stage; even if all 16 weren’t certifiable, that would still make for a trainwreck of a debate. But the only impartial way to split things up is to randomly assign the 16 candidates into two flights of 8 each. CNN is, instead, selecting winners and losers on behalf of Republican voters, which is about as antithetical to the mission of a journalistic enterprise as you can get, and they’re doing it on the basis of early national primary polls, which are otherwise meaningless.

CNN might try to minimize the “winners/losers” aspect of the two debates by holding both in prime-time and not making the lower-tier debate look like total amateur hour the way Fox did, but CNN is still prejudging the participants by putting them in tiers like this. Are we supposed to be cool with the media pre-screening our presidential candidates for us now?

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3 thoughts on “Why is CNN picking Republican winners and losers too?

  1. I don’t think it matters particularly who puts on debates at this stage of the game, months before primaries or caucuses. There’s no real skin in the game until candidates are able to earn sworn delegates to their respective conventions. Trump can win all of the GOP primary debates, and it doesn’t guarantee a thing. Right now it’s a reality TV show. Those most assured on camera can spout soundbites, remain wholly insubstantial, and they will be called winners or losers based on entertainment value alone.

    The non-partisan League of Women Voters used to do an excellent job sponsoring these things, but they stopped in 1988, discouraged by the way campaigns relentlessly tried to control every aspect of them; time rules, stage shape and format, number and type of questions, choice of moderators etc. At this point the 24/7 news channels are probably the only organizations the campaigns can’t bully into submission.

    1. I don’t think the debates matter much yet either, but the principle that a news outlet shouldn’t be influencing the course of a campaign does matter. Carly Fiorina’s scripted “win” in the last one aside, there’s a clear sense that the candidates in the second-tier debate aren’t worth anybody’s time. Maybe (probably) they aren’t, but it’s not CNN’s role to tell me that.

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