Candidate control: The press, not politicians, should shape debates

The following editorial appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Wednesday, Nov. 4:

Republican presidential candidates are demanding greater control over their debates. They claim that biased moderators are trying to embarrass them with “gotcha” questions, instead of allowing them to address “real” issues.

But scrutiny of their positions is the last thing many of them want. That’s why some of the proposals for format changes would turn the debates into campaign infomercials.

Last week’s forum on CNBC was reviled by candidates and the Republican National Committee. Some of the questions were dumb (“What is your greatest weakness?”), but most others were fair.

It was legitimate for the moderators to ask Ben Carson — the GOP front-runner — about his affiliation with a nutritional supplement maker that has paid $7 million in settlements over its claims that its products could cure autism and cancer. Carson did not answer the question.

It was also fair to press him about his flat-tax proposal. After denying that the plan would mean big cuts in federal spending, he blandly asserted that “when we put all the facts down … it works out very well.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich warned at the debate that Americans could elect an unqualified candidate. Donald Trump’s response to him was, in effect, you don’t count — your poll numbers are down. To his credit, Kasich says that answering tough questions is part of the process.

Still, several candidates resorted to that time-honored tactic: Blame the media. And press bashing is not limited to Republicans. At the Democratic debate last month, James Webb repeatedly complained about his lack of airtime. The former Virginia senator quit the race days later, but now says he is thinking of running as an independent.

Letting candidates control the format of debates would only produce the result they desire: a PR bonanza. But it wouldn’t be responsible journalism, and it wouldn’t help voters learn about the people who want to be president.


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