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Fox Business Network, the host of Tuesday’s GOP debate, has its claws out — not for the candidates, as its moderators vow to stick closely to the issues, but for its more famous competitor CNBC.
Tuesday’s encounter will be the first Republican debate since CNBC’s on Oct. 28, after which multiple campaigns blasted the moderators for losing control and asking “gotcha” questions — while Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus dismissed it as a “crap sandwich.”
Thus, FBN moderators Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo insisted in POLITICO interviews that they are aiming to be quite different from CNBC — and seemed to share the sense that CNBC’s questions veered from the strict substance of the issues.
“My goal is to make myself invisible,” Cavuto, one of three moderators for the prime-time debate, said in an interview last week. “That I’m not the issue. … That we’re not the issue. The answers to what we’re raising become the issue.”
Bartiromo sounded a similar note: “After that [CNBC] debate, I realized, I knew my marching orders. It was clearer than ever what my marching orders are, and that is to help the viewer, help the voter better understand what each candidate’s plan is; is it a realistic plan, can it work and how is it different from the next guy or gal, and that’s what I plan to focus on.”
Cavuto and Bartiromo both worked for CNBC before defecting to Fox Business, whose chairman and CEO, Roger Ailes, used to be president of CNBC.
For years CNBC has been seen as the more famous and influential cable business-news network. CNBC is available in approximately 93 million homes, while Fox Business is in about 82 million homes, according to Nielsen. But Fox Business has been catching up in the ratings, notching some important wins this year, and clearly sees the debate as an opportunity to make up some ground in both ratings and credibility.
A debate promo from the network airing in recent days declares, “CNBC never asked the real questions, never covered the real issues. That’s why on Nov. 10, the real debate about our economy and our future is only on Fox Business Network.”
The tough talk went all the way up to the highest levels of parent company 21st Century Fox, which is co-chaired by Rupert Murdoch.
“We think it’s really a great opportunity to showcase and differentiate Fox Business in terms of depth, quality and production,” 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch, Rupert’s son, said of the debate on the company’s quarterly earnings call last week.
FBN clearly hopes to emulate CNBC in one respect — earning big ratings. With 14 million viewers that advertisers reportedly paid $250,000 a pop to reach, the Oct. 28 debate was said to be the most-watched piece of programming since the network launched in 1989. But it also drew criticism and negative reviews.
Candidates blasted moderators Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick and John Harwood for focusing on loaded, negative questions. “This isn’t a cage match,” Sen. Ted Cruz thunderedat one point in the evening.
Afterward, many of the campaigns ganged up on the RNC, which sanctioned the debate and worked with CNBC on its guidelines. As a result, the RNC suspended plans to partner with sister-network NBC News on a February debate, and the ordeal reportedly led to hand-wringing among CNBC’s on-air talent and executives.
At FBN, Bartiromo and Cavuto will be joined as questioners by Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker, whom the Journal did not make available for an interview. But Cavuto and Bartiromo said they’re doing a lot of preparation, immersing themselves in every candidates’ position, from previous acts in office to current statements.
“There’s a lot to it; you have to be up for everything and get your hands on everything, but not to the point that you’re so beaten down in the weeds and details that you lose sight of the bigger picture,” Cavuto said.
Then there’s the risk of something entirely unexpected. With many of the candidates lagging in the polls and desperate for momentum, both Bartiromo and Cavuto are well aware that some of the candidates might resort to antics to get attention. FBN will allow more time for answers than at previous debates and will utilize a bell to signify when time is up, which should at least make it easier for the moderators to keep the stage under control.
“I don’t think you can be prepared for a comment that may come from one of the candidates that you weren’t expecting. You can’t prepare for a live situation in that regards,” Bartiromo said. “What you can prepare for is ensuring you know the issues, that you’ve got the right questions and you’ve got the right follow-up and you know exactly where they stand on the important issues.”
The network is also planning to keep close track of how long each candidate is speaking in order to ensure equal time. During CNBC’s debate, both RNC officials and representatives of the various campaigns complained that candidates were not being given equal opportunities to speak.
“We will actually be policing times to make sure that this candidate [who] has not gotten enough time, that he or she will get that addressed so we can leave the debate saying that as crowded as the field was, they all had their chances to state their case,” Cavuto said.
While Cavuto and Bartiromo said they plan to stick strictly to economic and business questions — “We’re business journalists. We’re nerds, we should embrace who we are, we want to stick to these subjects,” Cavuto said — it doesn’t mean the entire night will be an Econ 101 class.
Bartiromo gave an example of asking a candidate to list potential names for Cabinet positions.
“There are questions that may be unforeseen because there are situations in life that are unforeseen. If you’re running the country, you want to have a comfort feeling that this person can think on their feet, answer questions that may be unforeseen and do it in a calm, controlled way,” Bartiromo said.
But Cavuto said that at its heart, Tuesday’s debate will be a serious discussion about issues and that Fox Business won’t become a character in the campaign soap opera.
“This stuff in and of itself is riveting. People are tuning in for a reason. They’re engaged in this process, so you don’t have to sell it like some sort of TV drama; it writes itself,” Cavuto said. “So we should just make sure we’re being informative and people feel informed, and we’ll let chips fall where they may.”
And, in a veiled reference to the attacks on CNBC, he added, “Don’t trivialize this, don’t ‘gotcha’ this, don’t make this into something it’s not. It’s a debate on economic issues, it’s not ‘Access Hollywood.’”
The two-hour debate, to air at 9 p.m. Eastern time, will feature eight candidates. An undercard debate with four candidates will precede it at 7 p.m. Both are being held in Milwaukee.