Debate post-mortem: CNN miffed, pundits run amok, CNBC bashed
The morning after Jeb Bush's desultory debate performance, CNN served up his communications director as a breakfast piñata.
Alisyn Camerota, a co-host of "New Day," welcomed Tim Miller bright and early Thursday and then promptly wondered what the hell he was doing there, rather than his boss. They'd wanted Bush, so where was the candidate, especially after all the questions about his latest weak effort?
Treated like a skunk arriving rather early to a dinner party, Miller maintained a certain amiable grace and said that Bush would be out on the campaign stump soon and available for inquiries. This did not satisfy Camerota as she sternly articulated a chagrin-laced sense of cable news entitlement.
This was, after all, CNN, which has a presumably divinely inspired right to perform an instant autopsy on the candidate, or any candidate, for that matter. And, to underscore the ironclad imperative of heeding its call, Camerota informed Miller, and the world, that Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee and Marco Rubio had accepted its invitations. We saw huge Stalinesque images of them, too, just in case we had any fleeting thought of turning the dial.
How dare Bush spurn CNN!
Well, there were enough candidates to go around all the networks, cable and broadcast, even if Bush was surely left to ruminate with other aides on a rather woeful evening capped by a quite weak post-debate interview with CNN's Dana Bash (a revealing coup for the dogged Bash). He wasn't running for "entertainer in chief," he said; so if that's what Americans wanted, look elsewhere.
Ah, well, they may now do so. His performance was, in fact, so weak that even Ana Navarro, a much-used CNN pundit despite being a Bush shill (she was even wearing a Jeb shirt of some sort Thursday morning) conceded that, well, yes, he'd have to get better and raise his game at the next debate.
"Ana, hang in there, girl," Bush had said after the debate, prompting Navarro to later respond, "I'm hanging on, babe." It was a scintillating moment in the history of neutral political analysis.
But the morning-after punditry was of a distinctly similar sort, with Bush largely left for dead though there are three months left until Iowa voters actually head to their famous caucuses.
"Today, more people in politics, including in Bush's donor network, are talking about whether his campaign will continue in Iowa," said Bloomberg's Mark Halperin on "Morning Joe," where Bush partisan Joe Scarborough was among the grieving.
The general thrust was of a homogenous sort. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Chris Christie did well. Donald Trump was less a factor than envisioned. Ben Carson was enigmatic but not especially self-destructive (or insightful). John Kasich was a bit loud.
And, oh, CNBC was off its game, to put it mildly.
The business news network was pilloried in what was a combo of facile GOP media bashing and some undeniable self-inflicted wounds.
If there was any doubt as to how its moderators played among many conservative viewers, those were dispelled in my inquiry to talk radio host Laura Ingraham. She alluded to the boss of the Republican National Committee when she emailed, "Why did Reince Priebus agree to the CNBC debate moderators again? Why not have Rachel Maddow next time?"
CNBC was not quite as errant as critics suggested, but nowhere near as strong as it should have been. It started with its opening query that asked the candidates what their weaknesses were, included others that were too pointed by half and ended with a slightly off-key query on fantasy football.
At times, the estimable co-host John Harwood was relegated to being a high-decibel traffic cop, simply getting people to shut up. It worked but still added to the general untidiness of the inherently awkward format with ten candidates.
Even co-host Becky Quick, who by and large did a solid job, was caught flat-footed in not knowing the source of her own question to Trump about a disputable immigration visa remark he'd made. When he challenged her, she fumbled and looked bad. When she only later read back to him the source of the remark (his own website), the damage seemed done even as he displayed characteristic dishonesty in not acknowledging his hypocrisy.
If there ever is a next time for CNBC, it (like the other cable networks) should seriously mull a slimmer format with perhaps one, at most, two anchors. It need not turn the task of moderating into a full employment act for half the network's personalities---who tend to seize their moment in the sun with inordinate zeal that leads to an air of mere dissonance.
The prime example last night was Rick Santelli, who added nothing and whose high-decibel inquiries left one desiring that he'd been left at his usual post on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
But Santelli is a performer perfectly suited for our cable TV age, which lives and breathes on instant judgments. The unavoidable reality was on full display. No sooner had the Republican debate ended Wednesday than one of the party's media icons announced the official verdict.
"Nobody really screwed up," declared Bill O'Reilly.
He, like many others, derided the CNBC questioning, quickly running clips of some of the more debatable queries, including the one on fantasy football. His quick tour d'horizon, as the French might say, concluded that Bush and Kasich were "policy wonkish," Carly Fiorina effectively made fun of herself and Trump's lack of air time was conspicuous.
In fact, O'Reilly was droll as he wondered whether Trump had stopped by one of the state's medical marijuana centers before arriving at the debate stage. He wasn't his usual bombastic self.
As for their rivals (of a sort) at CNBC, "Most appalling performance by the moderator ever," claimed Charles Krauthammer with his usual funereal air. "Overreaching and, in the end, obnoxious. Set themselves up as the foil."
In the unavoidable declaration of winners and losers, he proclaimed, "Winners going away: Rubio, Christie and Cruz. The gold, silver and bronze."
It wasn't a whole lot different on MSNBC where Chris Matthews led the post-debate gabbing and was especially struck by the Ted Cruz call for a return to the gold standard. Matthews' world-weary skepticism was palpable.
At CNN, the army of pundits jammed on the air might have inspired viewer claustrophobia. It was as if 22 guests had surfaced at a dinner table fitting 10. Those diligent bookers' Rolodexes were surely exhausted.
Anderson Cooper was relegated to being akin to one of those ebullient young workers at a Gymboree outlet, overseeing a pre-k birthday party and straining to get everybody's attention. He did as well as he could.
There was David Gergen, Carl Bernstein, Navarro, S.E. Cupp, Gloria Borger, Donna Brazile, David Axelrod and, it seemed, ten or more others beckoned for analyst duty. With so much they craved to say, and so little time to say it, one could feel the ego-driven impulse to interject the last, the most incisive, the most telling word.
Yes, like the debates themselves, the species of instant post-mortem could use some slimming down.
Come to think of it, as she just did with Weight Watchers, maybe Oprah should invest in this media franchise.