UPDATED with more details: Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, who is facing a revolt of his party’s presidential candidates over the committee’s lousy handling of this week’s CNBC debate, has sent a kick-the-dog letter to NBC News chief Andy Lack canceling plans for the GOP to let NBC broadcast and moderate a scheduled debate in February.
“The CNBC network is one of your media properties, and its handling of the debate was conducted in bad faith,” Priebus wrote. “We understand that NBC does not exercise full editorial control over CNBC’s journalistic approach. However, the network is an arm of your organization, and we need to ensure there is not a repeat performance.” [see full letter below]
“While we are suspending our partnership with NBC News and its properties, we still fully intend to have a debate on that day, and will ensure that National Review remains part of it,” Priebus added like he meant it to sting in the letter to Lack who, technically, does not oversee CNBC.
As he had in a statement immediately after the event, Priebus again pounded CNBC’s debate for “inaccurate or downright offensive” questions that were “petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates.”
NBC responded with a statement: “This is a disappointing development. However, along with our debate broadcast partners at Telemundo we will work in good faith to resolve this matter with the Republican Party.”
It’s not the first time the RNC has threatened to pull the plug on an NBC GOP debate in this election cycle; the committee played this card way back in 2013 when the network was developing a Hillary Clinton miniseries.
Today’s Priebus tough-talk letter was blasted to the network as GOP White House hopefuls planned to meet in Washington this weekend to discuss how to wrest control of these debates from the RNC after this week’s debacle in Boulder, Politico reported, breaking that news earlier in the day.
Donald Trump already had said he was forced to step in and do the committee’s job to get this week’s debate cut down from three hours to two. That, he suggested, after the RNC did not put the kibosh on a CNBC plan to beef up the Q&A, which Trump said was an effort to sell more ads at $250K a pop. The GOP frontrunner detailed how he’d had to step in where the RNC failed, in his closing statements during Wednesday’s debate.
The debate clocked a hefty 14M viewers – a huge number for ratings-lean CNBC – but has been panned, not only by the candidates on stage but also by other media outlets and late-night comics, for the moderators’ lack of preparedness and “gotcha questions,” among other charges.
It’s Priebus’ second stab at damage control since Wednesday’s debate. Immediately after it wrapped, he fired off a statement blasting the Q&A:
“While I was proud of our candidates and the way they handled tonight’s debate, the performance by the CNBC moderators was extremely disappointing and did a disservice to their network, our candidates and voters,” he wrote in a scathing statement issued Wednesday night.
“Our diverse field of talented and exceptionally qualified candidates did their best to share ideas for how to reinvigorate the economy and put Americans back to work despite deeply unfortunate questioning from CNBC,” he continued. “One of the great things about our party is that we are able to have a dynamic exchange about which solutions will secure a prosperous future, and I will fight to ensure future debates allow for a more robust exchange. CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled.”
Then, as now, when contacted for comment, CNBC stuck with the statement it issued after Priebus’ first attack: “People who want to be the leader of the free world should be able to answer tough questions.” The RNC’s strategy worked well back in 2013 when the committee took a victory lap after both NBC and CNN deep-sixed what the political committee called “their Hillary Clinton infomercials.” RNC broke out in a happy dance when NBC announced that “After reviewing and prioritizing our slate of movie/miniseries development, we’ve decided that we will no longer continue developing the Hillary Clinton miniseries.” The NBC news had come the same day CNN announced it had abandoned all thought of a Hillary Clinton documentary, saying the director had backed out. But both projects were scrubbed after RNC threatened to block NBC, and CNN, from getting any GOP presidential primary debates during this 2016 election cycle if either moved ahead with their Clinton projects.
And back then, as now, the RNC said it was taking firm control of this election cycle’s GOP debates: “This was only the first step in the Republican Party taking control of our debate process,” an RNC rep boasted in September of ’13, after NBC and CNN tossed their Clinton program plans. “The purpose of our party’s debates is to better inform our grassroots and those participating in Republican primaries and caucuses. Now that CNN and NBC have canceled their Hillary Clinton infomercials, we will work on developing a new debate model that will address the timing, frequency, moderators and venues that will come in the next few months. Any media organization looking to be part of the debate process will have to comply with the new system.”
Here is Priebus’ letter to NBC News chief Andy Lack:
Mr. Andrew Lack
Chairman, NBC News
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, New York 10112
Dear Mr. Lack,
I write to inform you that pending further discussion between the Republican National Committee (RNC) and our presidential campaigns, we are suspending the partnership with NBC News for the Republican primary debate at the University of Houston on February 26, 2016. The RNC’s sole role in the primary debate process is to ensure that our candidates are given a full and fair opportunity to lay out their vision for America’s future. We simply cannot continue with NBC without full consultation with our campaigns.
The CNBC network is one of your media properties, and its handling of the debate was conducted in bad faith. We understand that NBC does not exercise full editorial control over CNBC’s journalistic approach. However, the network is an arm of your organization, and we need to ensure there is not a repeat performance.
CNBC billed the debate as one that would focus on “the key issues that matter to all voters—job growth, taxes, technology, retirement and the health of our national economy.” That was not the case. Before the debate, the candidates were promised an opening question on economic or financial matters. That was not the case. Candidates were promised that speaking time would be carefully monitored to ensure fairness. That was not the case. Questions were inaccurate or downright offensive. The first question directed to one of our candidates asked if he was running a comic book version of a presidential campaign, hardly in the spirit of how the debate was billed.
While debates are meant to include tough questions and contrast candidates’ visions and policies for the future of America, CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of “gotcha” questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates. What took place Wednesday night was not an attempt to give the American people a greater understanding of our candidates’ policies and ideas.
I have tremendous respect for the First Amendment and freedom of the press. However, I also expect the media to host a substantive debate on consequential issues important to Americans. CNBC did not.
While we are suspending our partnership with NBC News and its properties, we still fully intend to have a debate on that day, and will ensure that National Review remains part of it.
I will be working with our candidates to discuss how to move forward and will be in touch.
Chairman, Republican National Committee