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CNBC's debate flop re-tarnishes the "mainstream media"


CNBC Republican debate interrogators John Harwood, Becky Quick and Carl Quintanilla felt the heat then and now. CNBC photo

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Republicans are squealing -- with glee in truth -- over their perceived mistreatment by the three principal CNBC questioners at Wednesday night’s two-hour debate.

Blasting the mainstream, or “lame stream,” media has long been a favorite pastime of the GOP. But this time there’s a strong case to be made. Led by an obnoxiously abrasive John Harwood and abetted by co-panelists Becky Quick and Carl Quintanilla, CNBC made a massive mess of things while also making it all the more difficult for their responsible peers.

Harwood, CNBC’s head Washington correspondent and also a writer for The New York Times, set a wrongheaded tone from the very start by asking Donald Trump if in reality he’s a “comic book” campaigner. He later tried to bait Mike Huckabee into saying Trump is an immoral presidential candidate.

Huckabee demurred, and Trump called the question “nasty.” But well before that, Ted Cruz jet-fueled Twitter and a Fox News Channel focus group by declaring, “The questions asked in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media.” He then added the zinger that became the debate’s No. 1 “sound bite.” Said Cruz: “This is not a cage match.” On the strength of that quote alone, legions of post-debate analysts declared Cruz the clear “winner” of the 10-candidate mashup.

Others later joined in, with Chris Christie telling an interjecting Harwood at one point, “I got to tell you the truth. Even in New Jersey, what you’re doing is called rude.”

Marco Rubio said the mainstream media essentially served as Hillary Clinton’s “Super PAC.” Even Dr. Ben Carson showed a smidgen of indignation at the accusatory nature of the questioning while Trump twitted Quick after she stumbled through another “gotcha” question regarding the billionaire businessman’s supposed criticisms of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s support of an increase in high-skill immigrant visas.

Trump immediately denied he had ever criticized Zuckerberg, leaving a floundering Quick to ask, “Where did I come up with this?”

“I don’t know,” he shot back. “You people write this stuff.”

It turned out that Quick was mostly right in the first place, as she noted later in the debate after scrambling to find the source of her information. It turned out to be Trump’s own website, deep into a long position paper headlined “Immigration Reform That Will Make America Great Again.” But the damage already had been done. And Trump still could rightly claim that he’d never vocalized any criticisms of Zuckerberg.

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said CNBC “should be ashamed.” And this time it wasn’t merely empty rhetoric.

Pointed questions in fact should be asked at debates, if for no other reason than to get the candidates off their well-rehearsed “talking points.” As CNBC vice president of communications Brian Steel said afterward in a statement, “People who want to be president of the United States should be able to answer tough questions.”

But it’s the way they were posed Wednesday night that put CNBC in the crosshairs both during and after the debate. Harwood in particular seemed to be primarily interested in making a name for himself with the overall goading and personal tone of his inquiries. Imagine Harwood’s indignation at being asked, “To many people, you give off a smug persona. Aren’t you in reality a preening provocateur who loves nothing more than pontificating on Morning Joe?”

Carson later wondered, during an interview with Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly, whether many people had actually seen the debate. After all, he noted, it aired opposite the World Series on what Carson termed an “obscure” network.

Well, CNBC isn’t as obscure as the Fox Business Network. And now everyone is talking about it -- for all the wrong reasons. CNBC’s panel of debate analysts didn’t help matters by chit-chatting inanely before and after the big show. They also took a beating on Twitter, with some wondering if they’d stumbled into “public access” TV. Personally speaking, it made me long -- almost -- for the head-deadening musings of Fox’s irksome World Series analyst, Harold Reynolds.

Those who live by the dictum of “any publicity is good publicity” might say that CNBC comes out way ahead on that score. But in reality, the entire media profession certainly doesn’t need this latest kick in the gut.

The Republican presidential candidates and fellow believers in a vast “liberal media conspiracy” now have enough free ammunition to fire away ad infinitum. Cruz in particular comes away as the Sir Galahad of this crusade. Thanks to CNBC -- and to his own well-placed declaration of indignation -- Cruz is taking all of this to the bank. Bashing the media has seldom been a more profitable enterprise than it is at this very moment. Thanks a lot, CNBC. As a laughing stock, you’re currently a great investment.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net