NEW YORK — Keeping the crowded Republican presidential debates fair, lively and topical at the same time can seem like the equivalent of juggling while walking a tightrope.
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer is the next television personality on stage. He’s moderating Tuesday’s GOP forum in Washington, a little more than a week after a misplaced email from the CBS News political director raised questions about whether networks give short shrift to candidates they determine have little chance at reaching the White House.
The fluidity of the Republican nomination process and the increased importance of the debates make fairness an important issue. Viewership is up significantly compared with a similar point in the campaign four years ago, and political pros say the debate performances of Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have had a big impact on their poll standings.
Tim Graham of the Media Research Center, a conservative press watchdog, said he thinks there is “a tilt” at the networks “toward front-runners.”
“The only thing that makes it less unfair is that the front-runners keep changing,” Graham said.
That nod to front-runners was made clear when CBS political director John Dickerson questioned, in an email sent to colleagues on Nov. 12, how much airtime Bachmann would be getting during and after the network’s debate that night. “She’s not going to get many questions,” he wrote, in apparent reference to Bachmann’s shrinking standing in opinion polls.
The email was mistakenly sent to Bachmann’s campaign, which immediately seized upon it. Keith Nahigian, her campaign manager, said on Facebook that the email was “concrete evidence confirming what every conservative already knows — the liberal mainstream media elites are manipulating the Republican debates by purposely suppressing our conservative message.”
During that night’s debate, there were seven questions addressed to Bachmann — four of them during an online-only portion shown after the television network’s coverage ended. Cain and Newt Gingrich were asked 11 questions each, and Mitt Romney had 10. Perry and Rick Santorum each had eight questions, while Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman each had five.
PBS’ Jim Lehrer, who has moderated 11 general election presidential debates, said running these pre-primary debates is extremely difficult.
“You not only want to be fair, you have to be perceived as being fair,” Lehrer said, “and it’s really hard when you have eight or nine candidates.”
Playing favorites in terms of questions asked is dangerous because, as borne out by this year’s opinion polls, today’s also-ran could be tomorrow’s front-runner. A network that doesn’t try to treat everyone onstage equally is “buying themselves a lot of trouble that they don’t need,” said Lehrer, author of a recent book on debates, “Tension City: My View From the Middle Seat.”
A network might naturally want to spend more time with a front-runner, but in these situations has a civic role more than a journalistic one, Lehrer said. CBS News President David Rhodes argued that handling the debates as journalists serves a civic purpose.
“Part of why we’re here is to serve an audience,” Rhodes said. “The audience has a greater interest in people who are more likely to succeed in the process. You could argue that’s unfair because some of the people who are not successful today could become successful tomorrow, and that’s true. But that’s a challenge for these people — not for us.”
Networks usually have people backstage keeping track of how many questions are asked, often with stopwatches to measure airtime, said David Bohrman, president of Current TV and former CNN Washington bureau chief. If there was too much of an imbalance, he would try to get word to the moderator.
“You have to treat all of the candidates the same,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s current Washington bureau chief. “If you’re going to invite them, you have to treat them the same, particularly with the fluidity of this race.”
Except for some quick follow-up questions, moderators at recent debates aired on CNBC and Fox News Channel made a conscious effort to ask each candidate onstage to address one issue at the start of their debates. Fox said it tries to treat each candidate equally; NBC News would not discuss its debate policies.
An examination of transcripts for four debates (one each by CNN, CBS, Fox and CNBC) revealed that Romney, generally perceived as the campaign’s front-runner, had the most questions addressed to him. He had 45, with Cain next at 37, Perry at 36 and Gingrich at 35. Santorum and Bachmann had 29 and Paul had 27. Huntsman did not participate in all four debates.
Even the networks that strive for some equality in asking questions can’t guarantee equal time on camera. If one candidate specifically criticizes another in an answer, the victimized candidate is generally given rebuttal time. Organizers seem to relish when a couple of candidates go after one another and often let those exchanges play out.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” Bohrman said. “People who are more in the news have more to say and are paid more attention to, and they have even more to say.”