Why Don't Right-Wing Radio Hosts Moderate GOP Debates?

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Conservatives say the media is out to get them, but debates run by conservative talkers would be a catastrophe for Republican candidates and the party.

Microphone full Flickr Johann Larsson.png

Talk-radio host and Chapman University Professor Hugh Hewitt has a question about tonight's GOP debate in Arizona. "John King is moderating, incredibly, and I like John King. He's a fair guy, he's very experienced," Hewitt says. "But he's moderating his third Republican debate. How in the world does that happen, that not one debate has been moderated by, for example, a Mark Levin or a Laura Ingraham or a Dennis Prager or a Bill Bennett, and yet John King has had three of them?"

Interesting question. The Republican Party could stage a debate with any of those people. But despite constantly complaining about the mainstream media, its candidates almost always wind up onstage facing broadcast journalists. Why don't conservative talk-radio hosts get any love?   
 
Here are my explanations:

1) CNN has lots of viewers who the candidates want to reach. But the network isn't going to host a debate unless it can highlight its own talent.

2) The candidates benefit from using journalists as foils -- Herman Cain and Rick Perry both got some applause lines off at their expense, and Newt Gingrich owes much of his rise to attacking the media. Most memorably, he lambasted John King in an earlier debate for pressing him on the details of his extramarital affair, drawing raucous applause from the audience. Imagine what a difficult position he'd have been in if Bill Bennett had posed the same question.

3) John King has an incentive to appear reasonably fair and unbiased. His career depends on it. Whereas Laura Ingraham's success hinges on cultivating an audience that shares her biases. The candidates know she has a powerful incentive to aggrandize herself at their expense.

4) Most talk-radio types have said nasty things about at least some of the candidates and are perceived to have chosen favorites.

5) Candidates would much rather field predictable questions from conventional mainstream media reporters than whatever unpredictable, ethically thorny hypothetical Dennis Prager might dream up. Especially for frontrunners, who have the most power to dictate terms, there is reason to be risk-averse. A terrible gaffe can kill your bid. A great performance can't cinch the nomination. 

6) Professor Hewitt, between you and me, do you actually listen to Mark Levin? Or do you just know him from his books? When you get the actual guy without a script, things like this sometimes happen:

MARK LEVIN: Answer me this, are you a married woman? Yes or no?

FEMALE CALLER: Yes.

MARK LEVIN: Well I don't know why your husband doesn't put a gun to his temple. Get the hell out of here.

This is a guy who actually said, on the air, "Hillary Rotten Clinton, her thighness, is no better than Dumbo with the big ears." Is that the guy you want to bring before a national audience as a representative of conservatism? Is his temperament one you want to trust through a testy exchange? Come now.

7) If a journalist moderates a debate, his success or failure reflects on his employer and himself. If he has made controversial statements in the past -- imagine Chris Matthews moderating a debate -- it hurts no one on stage. But if the Republican Party or the candidates themselves broke with tradition and chose an unorthodox moderator on their own? Any dissenting candidate could use the opportunity to score points (like when Donald Trump almost hosted a debate). Any mistakes made by the moderator would reflect poorly on the party and the candidates. The media would start asking the candidates what they thought of the various controversial things their chosen moderator had said in the past. It could turn into a huge disaster. 

What I'd ask Hewitt is why, having concluded that liberal journalists are the wrong people to moderate GOP debates, he has decided that talk-radio hosts (albeit a diverse group of them) are the right people. Why not, say, accomplished conservative video-interviewer Peter Robinson, retired General Norman Schwarzkopf, First Amendment scholar Eugene Volokh, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, and a former small businessman of the year? If you're going to depart from the status quo, why go with talk-radio hosts?

Image: Flickr user Johann Larsson

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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