The Jan. 6 Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire told us little about the GOP candidates that voters did not already know. But it was instructive and informative nevertheless.
The behavior of the reporters present to question the candidates and moderate the discussion was embarrassing and abysmal. This debate was a transcendent moment in American democracy. It marked a moment when the gatekeepers of information stepped forward to take control of the process.
Bashing journalists who participate in debates is nothing new. Reporters in the electronic media are notorious for their unwillingness to share the spotlight with candidates. Who can forget the electric moment in 1988 when CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis about his reaction to the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife Kitty?
We are used to these moments. Political candidates usually come to debates prepared to do battle with media mavens bent on catching them in a slip. Sometimes they are even more ready for reporters than they are to create contrast with their opponents. Voters have gotten used to that.
Sometimes silly questions that have little to do with understanding how each of the candidates is prepared to be president generally slide by. The prepared journalistic sound bites like “riding the straight-talk express” and “no new taxes, so help me God” are usually ignored, as they deserved to be.
In New Hampshire, it was the antics of NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert that drew the most attention. From the first question to Gov. Bush, Mr. Russert took it upon himself to inject follow-up queries, at the expense of the time allotted to others on the stage. It became readily apparent that Mr. Russert had chosen to try and narrow the discussion down to where it would only be between Gov. Bush, Sen. McCain, and himself, excluding the other presidential candidates.
As events unfolded, it was Alan Keyes who finally set things right, suggesting that an announcement of Mr. Russert’s candidacy appeared imminent. Put in his place, Mr. Russert sheepishly allowed the debate to continue.
The next morning, the Manchester Union Leader, a debate co-sponsor, led its front page with a signed editorial titled “We Apologize.”
It read in part: “Last night’s moderator did exactly what many of his brethren in the national media often try to do decide the contest before the New Hampshire voters have a chance to do so. NBC’s Tim Russert apparently decided to make this his own two-man show with candidates George Bush and John McCain, virtually ignoring the four others for much of the questioning. The national media have it all figured out for us. Bush the name versus McCain the hero. No others need apply. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy!”
There are many more debates to go in this cycle. This one is only noteworthy because of the extremes to which the media went to make themselves part of the evening’s events. Not to cover them or to elicit useful information but to become the masters of the politicians. It was disturbing to see the elite political press actively interposing themselves between the candidates and the voters, making judgments that should be reserved for us to make for ourselves.
Democracy functions best when the people are informed. Mr. Russert’s behavior actually prevented information from being placed before us. And for that he, not the Manchester Union Leader, should apologize.
Peter Roff is a political strategist and a frequent commentator on politics and culture for MSNBC and the Fox News Channel.