10.31.2015 | The GOP, pacifiers, and security blankets

I don't blog very often these days because the 140-character limit of Twitter means limited attention spans, and who cares what some random guy has to say on the Internet anyway? But I'm coming out of semi-retirement to point out that this toxic environment of anti-intellectualism may finally be taking its toll on our political process, and it makes me worry about the future of our country for the first time in the better part of a decade.

Remember when we mocked Sarah Palin for dodging a "gotcha" question? It was either that or Tina Fey's impression ("I can see Russia from my house!") that sank her in the polls, but now we have the leader of a national party invoking "gotcha questions" unironically to punish a media corporation, not just a news division, for having reporters with the audacity to challenge candidates on their weak points, and to do so with an air of confidence rather than ingratiation ("snarky and condescending," GOP chairman Priebus whined).

Stephen Colbert made a point on his show that the debate was conducted "without a shred of respect." OK? So? The press's responsibility is to the voters, not the candidates. They're not president yet. We're seeing whether they should be. You can't do that if you coddle the candidates, especially when they are engaging in bombastic and bullying rhetoric on the campaign trail. The biggest bullies are often the first to scream loudest about how they are the victims, it seems. Part of journalism's historic duty is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

The fact is, this is part of the presidential vetting process. Maybe we forgot what an oppositional press looks like, if we ever had one. Treating presidents with respect and deference to begin with is probably a bad idea to begin with—we're not a monarchy—but to be frank and direct when questioning people who are running for president is absolutely essential to an open democracy and having informed voters go to the polls to determine our future.

This is bigger than any one party or ideology. This is about the media's role in fomenting and shaping the course of discussion to help determine where candidates, and indeed political parties, are headed: toward the truth or away from it. By piercing the GOP's ideological bubble, CNBC debate moderators took a lot of undeserved flak and did a service to our country. My fear is that future debate moderators will be cowed into silence, afraid of offending candidates on stage and sticking to safe topics and campaign talking points that serve no one—we've been here before, and the results were not pretty.

By threatening to withhold its debate from NBC News, a division that had nothing to do with the CNBC debate, the GOP is promoting a culture of fear in media organizations, not respect. Excluding networks to extract more favorable coverage is behavior more consistent with dictatorial regimes than an open form of government. This smacks of a deliberate attempt to muzzle NBC, and other networks may follow. I am saddened to see few Americans stand up to this kind of media intimidation. We'll see how the future debates go. I'm not terribly hopeful.

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