The Next GOP Debate: How Fox Business Network Moderators Plan to Keep It Civil

Maria Bartimoro Neil Cavuto Split - H 2015
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Maria Bartimoro Neil Cavuto Split - H 2015

The Fox Business Network anchors face the GOP field on Nov. 10, two weeks after the much maligned CNBC debate put networks under the microscope as the debates continue to generate record ratings.

Less than two weeks after CNBC’s Oct. 28 debate generated vociferous criticism from the candidates, Fox Business Network will host its own debate with the GOP aspirants. It’s the network’s first debate; the main event will be broadcast live from the Milwaukee Theatre beginning at 9 p.m. ET. But it’s not the first rodeo for FBN’s moderators. Maria Bartiromo, who spent 20 years at CNBC until leaving for FBN in 2013, moderated CNBC’s Your Money, Your Vote debate in 2011. And Neil Cavuto has participated in debates on Fox News Channel. (FBN and the Wall Street Journal are partnering on the Nov. 10 debate, with Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker also moderating. FBN, which is in 82 million homes, has worked with providers including DirecTV-AT&T, Suddenlink, Mediacom and others to unbundle the channel thereby making it available to their full subscriber base ahead of the debate.)

The CNBC debate led the Republican National Committee to suspend a planned February debate with NBC News and Telemundo, while some of the campaigns — notably those of frontrunners Ben Carson and Donald Trump — have said they will bypass the RNC and negotiate debate terms directly with the networks. Meanwhile, a lawyer representing some of the campaigns has drafted a lengthy list of demands, including that debates be kept to two hours at a temperature of no warmer than 67 degrees.  

Cavuto conceded that debates are “always a little nerve-wracking.” And Bartiromo noted that her mandate remains the same as in 2011: To "help the viewer better distinguish the differences in the candidates plans.”

Like the CNBC debate, the FBN debate will focus on jobs, taxes, domestic and international policy and the general health of the economy. It was negotiated by the RNC before the candidates revolted. Cavuto, who also is managing editor of business news at FBN, said that the network did not field any post-CNBC debate concerns from the campaigns. The other new wrinkle is that New Jersey governor Chris Christie — who loudly denounced a CNBC question about Fantasy Football — will be relegated to the 7 p.m. undercard debate due to a slide in his poll numbers.

In separate interviews (combined here), Cavuto and Bartiromo talked to The Hollywood Reporter about whether the criticism of the CNBC moderators was fair, how they are approaching their own moderating duties and the chances of a Trump or Carson administration.

Do you agree with some of the criticisms that the RNC and the candidates have levied at the networks and especially at CNBC?

Cavuto: To be fair to CNBC, it got to the point that any difficult question, the candidate could turn it around and say the questioner was biased. But I think more often it was the way the question was phrased or not adequately researched or backed up. But that could happen in any debate. But I also think there were enough questions where the first fault wasn’t so much the tone but the fact that it had nothing to do with business. I think that was the issue. It was very incongruous. I think a lot of business journalists feel this need to break out and be Mike Wallace. There’s nothing wrong with that. And you can be that way while asking business related questions. But business is a different venue, and that doesn’t give you the right to be boring nor does it give you the right to go for the jugular. 

Bartiromo: [The CNBC moderators] tried to ask good questions, and they did. It’s just that there was a certain tone that came out. It did feel like they were trying to poke holes in everything. Maybe that’s what they thought they should do. It’s a Republican primary. It’s not the general election. We do these debates so that the voter and viewer can have a better understanding of the candidates positions. And I thought that was missing.

The question that set Chris Christie off was about whether the government should regulate Fantasy Football. Gambling has major tax and revenue implications for New jersey. Do you think gambling is a fair topic of discussion in a business debate? 

Cavuto: You could argue that here’s Chris Christie, he is governor of a state where the casino industry is on life support. It would be a legitimate question framed that way. Believe me, I’ve had poorly framed questions. But it’s how it’s delivered and how it relates to the moment. You can’t win when the octane is up and the candidates are already angry. They say timing is everything. As time goes by, the candidates get more desperate. Those that aren’t polling well or aren’t getting enough money, they’re going to lash out. Dare I say the first debate with Fox News, if we were to have that very same debate now, we’d have a lot more theatrics and candidates going back at the questioners. Not because of anything [the moderators] said but because the candidates themselves are getting nervous and desperate. Of course you never lose going after the media. But we as media shouldn’t provide the ammunition. 

What is the biggest difference in how you'll approach this debate compared to previous presidential campaigns?

Cavuto: There are more of them. And there are more of them that are very good at it. Ted Cruz, as [Texas] Solicitor General, he’s very good at this stuff. I think Chris Christie is excellent at this. Marco Rubio is an accomplished debater, given his days as Speaker of the [Florida] House. So some are extremely adept at this. They’re smart, they know what they're doing. And we have to be smart too to try to get them off those talking points without being obnoxious. 

So how do you pin down the candidates and get them to talk specifics? For instance, Carson has deflected questions about how his 10 percent tax plan will work. 

Bartiromo: A debate is asking the question, giving them an opportunity to answer in a certain amount of allotted time. If you need to ask a follow-up, you ask a follow-up. But debate protocol is you have to move on. It’s not like you’re in an interview where it’s back and forth. That poses some issues in forcing them to get granular and specific. But I also think that in this kind of forum, they are living in a fish bowl. The voter is watching and noticing everything. So if Ben Carson wants to be vague, that's not doing him any favors with the voters. Voters are not stupid. When a person doesn’t answer the question, viewers get mad. And they say, he doesn’t know. The onus is on me to ensure I'm challenging and pushing as much as I can. But after a couple of tries, you’ve got to move on. 

Is the tone at these debates driven by ratings or are the outsider, anti-establishment candidates setting the tone?

Bartiromo: I think it’s a little of both. One thing that Donald Trump has done is he has made this election exciting and people are talking about it. I like the fact that people are talking about the issues, following it. That means we will have a good voter turnout. And that’s good. The networks know that this is a very high viewing night. They want to put their best foot forward. They certainly want to get ratings. And they want to keep the momentum going. And so that’s definitely happening. But I also think that Donald Trump saying whatever he wants to say has become something that people want to watch.

Could we see a President Trump or a President Carson?

Cavuto: Anything’s possible. Abraham Lincoln was not supposed to get nominated. John Kennedy was too young and inexperienced to have even a remote shot, especially in the happy '50s and the "I Like Ike" era to think that he could take the Republican grip off the White House. Ronald Reagan was an idiotic actor who said that trees caused more pollution than cars. What chance did he have? And we know what happened. So I’m reminded again and again that those who are dismissed tend to prove history wrong. I’m not smart enough to predict the future. I am smart enough to know that history is decided by events we didn’t see coming. Already the fixation with Trump and Carson have gone beyond the short media shelf life that Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann enjoyed. They’re sticking around longer than is typical.