FOX News Guards the Debate Henhouse

The news media shouldn't be running political debates.

We have now entered the season of polls that matter - that is, when actual voters make their choices known.  It's coming down towards the last chance for the candidates to make their final appeals, and hope they are remembered in the voting booths.

Which makes it an even more effective time for kneecapping attempts.  Usually, they come from an opponent, such as by releasing some horrible allegation (Obama used to deal drugs!) the night before voting - though too dirty an attempt can backfire.

In this case, though, it's FOX News wielding the big stick, by barring Dr. Ron Paul from the last New Hampshire primary debate.  They base this on the fact that he is polling at less than 10% in that state - but, at 7%, he is well within the 5% margin of error, not only of the cutoff, but in fact of Huckabee, who's spot-on at 10%.

Paul is clearly a serious candidate, having raised more money last month than almost anyone else.  One could make an argument that the polls are skewed against Paul, since his supporters tend to be younger folks, who are more likely to have only cellphones and not traditional landlines.  Pollsters don't call cellphones.

Obviously, Paul's partisans are making this argument and protesting the decision, but -- even more unusually -- New Hampshire Republican Party leaders are objecting.  And to no avail - FOX News is standing firm.

The problem here is not that FOX News is being unfair to Dr. Paul.  The real question is, why on earth is it their decision anyway?

Ronald Reagan provided us the answer almost three decades ago: "I paid for this microphone!"  In his eloquent, down-to-earth way, the Great Communicator reminded us of the Golden Rule of Politics: He who has the gold, makes the rules.

FOX News is staging the debate.  Their show, their money, their cameras, their moderators, their air their rules.  And therefore, how can we expect it to reflect anyone else's agenda but their own, whatever that might chance to be?

The conservatives have rightly complained about the fiasco that was the CNN/YouTube debate, to say nothing of Chris Matthews' execrable moderating.  Now the shoe is on the other foot, and it doesn't fit any better on that side.

Consider for a moment CBS's broadcast of the upcoming Super Bowl.  Now, CBS has purchased (at fantastic expense) the rights to broadcast the game.  It hopes to make even more money by selling TV ads in between.  But it doesn't own the game.

What would the Super Bowl be like if CBS itself, and not the NFL, were putting it on?  Well, for one thing, there surely would be different teams invited.  CBS might choose two teams with the largest following - the Packers, say, and the Raiders.

Or maybe it would take a little money under the table from the team owners.  The Washington Redskins, while lousy on the field, are consistently the most profitable franchise in the league.  Perhaps Dan Snyder would use some of that money to buy his way into the Bowl each and every year.

Whatever the solution, it would certainly not be the top two teams competing; and thus, wouldn't be a "championship" at all.  At best, it would be an invitational.  And this makes perfect sense, because it would be paid for by - and for the benefit of - CBS, not the sport of football.

Which presents us with the solution.  Time was that the debates were put on by a third party; some of the general election Presidential debates still are, most notably by the League of Women Voters.  The League sets all the rules beforehand; the candidates and TV networks can either abide by them, or stay home.  Everybody knows what they will be; some degree of negotiating is permitted, but no interested party is laying down the law.

On the other hand, since the networks wouldn't be running the show, the ratings would drop, making it less likely that a big outfit like CNN or Fox News would be willing to buy the rights to it in the first place.  So they would probably need to be offered free of charge to the networks, unlike the Super Bowl.

Exactly what is a primary supposed to be?  It is the opportunity for the Republican and Democratic parties - as political parties - to select who their candidates will be.  It is for the betterment and promotion of Republicans, and Democrats, respectively - just like the NFL arranges the football season for the benefit of all the teams, and attempts to treat them all fairly, for the betterment of the sport as a whole.

The media companies have had their try at running the debates this season, and have demonstrated beyond all possible doubt that they are utterly incompetent, unfair, venal, and unqualified to do so in the future.

Instead, let's have the political parties themselves arrange the debates for their own primaries, following clear rules that can be laid down in advance.  The news media can be invited to broadcast them, and to report, as they do to other news events.  But it's time, and past time, to get them out of the business of making news instead of reporting on it.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Partisanship.
Reader Comments
And, tonight's news says Paul got 10% in Iowa. So even by FOX News' rules, he should be allowed in the debate - that's a real vote, better than any poll. Wonder if they'll backtrack now?
January 3, 2008 10:34 PM
Their previous polls showed Paul at 7%. Since their cut off line (decided prior to the poll) was 10%, they did nothing wrong by telling him and the others they weren't invited. At some point the debates have to focus and filter out the less supported candidates.

On the other hand, now that Iowa shows Paul right at 10%, Fox should take that as equal or better proof and let him in. Keep in mind, that their cut off of 10% had to do with national polling. He only placed 10% in Iowa. Nationwide, he is still well below that.

This author makes other valid points about the business side of the decision.

Ron Paul's supporters, few as they are, DO make up a young, energetic, media-aware demographic so it was foolish of Fox to knowingly upset them. They are also obviously cash heavy and willing to use it.
January 3, 2008 10:45 PM
Forget the polling. The bar should be decide off of which candidates have the greatest donation rate per density. Ron Paul would top the list. Flagging a polling card is cheap and easy. People do not mistakes when cash is on the line.
January 5, 2008 12:57 PM
Ron Paul looked like a mouse in tonight's ABC debate. It was nice to see the opposition globber him down so handidly. Maybe his giddy, niave supporters will understand the whole issue now and get on the anti-extrimist bandwagon with the rest of us.
January 5, 2008 10:15 PM
For those who support Ron Paul, they should want him in the debate for his brilliance to shine.

For those who oppose him, they should want him in the debate so his stupid opinions can wilt under the scrutiny of the others.

Either way, keeping him out is dumb.
January 8, 2008 12:30 PM
It wastes precious time though. That's the issue you seem to be forgetting. If there was an infinite amount of time, then sure, invite whoever you want. But having the lower tier candidates, no matter how loud their supporters scream, in the later debates makes them boring and gives each [serious] candidate far less time to talk. I watched both Republican debates this past weekend. The second one [with Paul] was far better than the first.
January 8, 2008 12:40 PM
Oops, I meant "without" instead of "with".
January 8, 2008 12:41 PM
I suppose that if all you want to hear are things you adamantly agree with and desire not to be challenged on your political viewpoint, then "yes", keeping Ron Paul out of the debates is a grand idea. I mean, Lord knows, the status quo from both sides of the aisle is doing nothing but great things for this country.

Even if you dislike the message, you should support the participation of candidates like Ron Paul, purely because it furthers the ideal of what the democratic process should be like. For too long, all we have gotten is an endless parade of interchangeable faces spewing the same rhetoric on both sides of the political race.

Aren't you looking for some change? Something different? Better? Don't you think that news ideas and new viewpoint, no matter how challenging to your staid party lines is a benefit, not a detriment? If not, then I weep for this country.
February 18, 2008 11:16 AM
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