Republicans have ben squawking loudly about the mean treatment they allegedly got from their CNBC questioners at last week’s debate. Their complaints aren’t entirely without merit (more on that below) but mostly they show the Republicans in their usual mode of working the refs. “Working the refs” is a term familiar to many sports fans: it refers to the practice by a player or a coach or fans of loudly and repeatedly complaining about a referee’s calls, partly in the hope that the oversensitized ref will henceforth bend over backwards to be kind to the complaining side. Republicans have been working the refs—i.e., the mass media—for decades, alleging “liberal bias.” That allegation is mostly nonsense, but it has brought some success to the Republicans. The reluctance of the media to acknowledge the destructive radicalism of the contemporary Republican Party is partly a reflection of misguided ideas about objective journalism, but it also very likely reflects the unremitting campaign by the right to intimidate the media into leaning in their direction.
Many of the questions that the Republican candidates found offensive last Wednesday reflected the interviewees’ discomfort at journalists having the temerity to critically probe their frequently indefensible policy positions. Ezra Klein of Vox explains:
The questions in the CNBC debate, though relentlessly tough, were easily the most substantive of the debates so far. And the problem for Republicans is that substantive questions about their policy proposals end up sounding like hostile attacks — but that’s because the policy proposals are ridiculous, not because the questions are actually unfair.
The Republican primary has thus far been a festival of outlandish policy. The candidates seem to be competing to craft the tax plan that gives the largest tax cut to the rich while blowing the biggest hole in the deficit (a competition that, as of tonight, Ted Cruz appears to be winning). And the problem is when you ask about those plans, simply stating the facts of the policies sounds like you’re leveling a devastating attack.
But I’m more critical than Klein is of the interviewers’ behavior. Commendably, they wanted to ask probing questions that would challenge the candidates. But it’s possible to be tough without being snide or abrasive, and more than occasionally the questioners crossed the line. The first question to Trump was especially egregious: after reciting a small litany of Trumpian absurdities, the questioner asked if Trump’s was “a cartoon candidacy.” Trump is indeed a cartoonish character, but you don’t call him that to his face if you’re seriously hoping for a decent answer. The questioners’ combativeness gave the odious but brilliant Ted Cruz the opportunity for the biggest grandstanding of the evening, denouncing the questioners for turning the debate into a “cage match.”
So, unfortunately, the big story to come out of the debate was the Republicans’ outraged sensibilities, rather than their frequent mendacity. Politifact did a good inventory of the many inaccuracies spouted by the candidates; more polemically, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones focused on just a few of what he saw as the most glaring lies. Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post has an excellent piece explaining how the Republicans displayed exemplary techniques of credible lying, for example:
Look straight into the camera, and with complete conviction, say something that is not true. Maybe your lies will get fact-checked later, but if your certainty can sufficiently excite pundits in the interim, no one will care (or notice) that you lied.
This technique works best in a multi-candidate “debate” (“forum” would be a better word) in which so much is going on that the speakers have good reason to hope that there won’t be enough time to probe questionable statements, and they’ll eventually get lost in the evening’s torrent of words. Maybe the best example of this technique was provided by Donald Trump. Asked whether he had called Marco Rubio Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator, Trump said “I never said that.” In fact he had said that, or, at least, Trump’s website says that, and Trump must surely know what’s on his website. But Trump’s certainty caught his questioner off-guard, who actually apologized for misquoting him, before learning too late that in fact she had quoted him accurately.
So yes, the questioners’ performance left much to be desired, but their shortcomings had nothing to do with liberal bias.