The Republican presidential candidates tore into CNBC’s moderators at Wednesday night’s GOP debate, issuing the sharpest attacks on the mainstream media of the 2016 election cycle.
Sen. Ted Cruz accused the moderators of trying to instigate a cage match, Sen. Marco Rubio called the media a super PAC for Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump slammed “ridiculous questions.”
The candidates took to the airwaves again early Thursday morning and continued to criticise CNBC for the tone and substance of the debate. And in the days ahead, sources said, campaign representatives will air their grievances to the Republican National Committee in a conference call.
The campaigns will find a sympathetic ear in RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, who blasted CNBC late Wednesday night for asking “gotcha” questions and said the network “should be ashamed.”
“I was very disappointed in the moderators. I’m disappointed in CNBC,” he told reporters in the spin room in Boulder, Colorado. “I thought they would bring forward a pretty fair forum here tonight. But I think it was one gotcha question, one personal low blow after another.”
He added, “It’s like they tried to design a Rubik’s cube for every question to take the worst element, I think, of what the moderators and what the media should bring to the table. And all I can tell you is that while I’m pretty much proud of our candidates for pretty much sticking together, I’m very disappointed in the moderators and I’m very disappointed with CNBC.”
Priebus went even further in an official statement: “One of the great things about our party is that we are able to have a dynamic exchange about which solutions will secure a prosperous future, and I will fight to ensure future debates allow for a more robust exchange,” he wrote. “CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled.”
The candidates’ attacks on the media were red meat for the conservative base, which already has a deep mistrust of the mainstream press. But even by conservative standards, the candidates’ broadsides on Wednesday night were aggressive and unrelenting, and delighted the audience in Boulder.
The candidates’ fierce criticism of CNBC – the first sustained volley against the media, on the current campaign immediately calls to mind the frequent attacks against the press during debates in the 2012 elections.
“People who want to be President of the United States should be able to answer tough questions,” Priebus said in a statement late Wednesday night.
Yet the morning after the debate on Thursday, GOP candidates continued to criticize CNBC and the mainstream media generally. In an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo on “New Day,” Rubio took issue with the tone and substance of the debate and said he hoped future debates would do a better job of focusing on important issues.
On Wednesday night, CNBC’s moderators struggled to maintain control of a debate that, according to many journalists on Twitter, they appeared ill-equipped to handle. The panellists, usually familiar with covering Wall Street and finance, were left scrambling to talk about a presidential race they seemed to know little about.
At one point during the debate, Jeb Bush campaign manager Danny Diaz began pounding on the control room door, shouting at the CNBC producers about how the network wasn’t giving equal time to all the candidates, a source with a rival campaign told CNN.
The night left GOP hopefuls and reporters wishing for the previous Republican debate moderators from Fox News and CNN.
The audience in Boulder was electrified by Cruz’s attack. Social media mentions of Cruz blew up during his attack on the media – it was the top moment on Facebook, the social network said – while pollster Frank Luntz said his focus group “burst out in applause at Ted Cruz’s media attack.”
CNBC’s problems were further compounded by the network’s meandering commentary between the night’s two debates, which was widely panned on Twitter.
“CNBC does underscore that the only people sometimes more vapid than candidates are journalists talking about candidates,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tweeted, echoing the sentiments of many journalists and political operatives.