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FOX News Guards the Debate Henhouse

The news media shouldn't be running political debates.

By Petrarch  |  January 3, 2008

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.