CNBC’s John Harwood Has No Business Moderating A GOP Presidential Debate
Mollie Hemingway
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It’s not news to anyone that political journalists tend to be liberal. That alone doesn’t mean they’re bad at their jobs, but the presence of strong political views combined with the lack of ideological diversity can pose problems for those with differing political views.

We see this frequently with mediated political debates, where journalists moderate and control what topics are covered, how questions are framed, and what assumptions are built into topics.

Some journalists are better than others, of course, but too often the moderators — from smug local journalists to Candy Crowley — become part of the story. They frequently don’t have the policy chops to ask good policy questions or respond to dumb policy answers. When they generally agree with a politician, they won’t push back on even the most erroneous or outlandish claims. But if they disagree with a candidate, they’ll push back, no matter how uninformed about the matter at hand they may be. This is related to another point of confusion: they seem to believe it’s their job to argue with candidates rather than facilitate discussions among candidates. The debate is supposed to be with one other, after all, not with the moderator.

They seem to believe it’s their job to argue with candidates rather than facilitate discussions among candidates.

Journalists frequently ask questions full of incorrect assumptions, mistaking their job of reporting on a given topic for being significantly knowledgeable on the same. The ideological agendas advanced by various journalists show that the media are not neutral parties. To take just one example, reporters love to push pro-life candidates about every angle of their views on the sanctity of life, posing increasingly difficult questions. But when was the last time you heard a pro-choice politician asked much of anything about his views, much less if he thinks the right to abortion extends to killing a child because she’s a girl?

Many Republican observers were excited by the news that Reince Priebus, Republican National Committee chairman, had announced changes to the 2015 primary debates. Here he was on Hugh Hewitt’s show earlier this year explaining why liberal media will partner with conservative media figures, including Salem Media and Hugh Hewitt, this time around:

RP: Well, hey, congratulations to you and congratulations to Salem Media. This is exactly what I wanted to do a couple of years ago when we talked about taking control of the presidential primary debate process. And I was never interested in turning the debate process into some kind of patty-cake session, but that we would have serious journalists, serious people that wanted to get involved in asking questions and creating a debate environment that would bring honor to the Republican Party, not a debate environment spurred on by nefarious actors like Chris Matthews and others. And so, you know, we’re going to have a reasonable number of debates, and we’re going to have conservatives help in the moderating and the management of these debates, and today was a big announcement. I’m excited about it. I’m happy for you.

That was a big announcement.

So permit me to ask the obvious questions: Why in the world is liberal journalist John Harwood moderating Wednesday’s Republican debate? And where the heck is his conservative media partner?

Wednesday night’s debate will be hosted by CNBC at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. It will be moderated by Harwood along with CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla and Becky Quick and is supposed to focus on economic issues, though previous CNBC debates have strayed far from that topic.

Harwood frequently angers conservatives for his partisan takes on the news. I mostly laugh off his predictably liberal views because I don’t take him that seriously. But that only leads us back to figuring out why he’s moderating this Wednesday’s debate. Let’s just look at a few examples of how he covers news.

These Headlines Tell You Most of What You Need to Know

Harwood works for both CNBC and The New York Times. You can get something of a feel for his predictable but conventional liberal takes from the headlines of just his most recent pieces:

  • On the Economy, Republicans Have a Data Problem
  • Tax Plans of G.O.P. Favor the Rich Despite Populist Talk
  • Timing Gives Sanders a Lift in His Quest
  • Republicans Vow to Erase Obama’s Record, but Such Promises Are Rarely Kept
  • Outsiders Stir Politics, but Often Fail to Win or Govern Well
  • Angry Bent of Party Let Trump Rise
  • Bernie Sanders: A Revolution With an Eye on the Hungry Children

Hillary Clinton’s Chief Defense Strategist

Harwood has long defended Hillary Clinton when embroiled in scandal. A recent example:

There are multiple problems with this “PERSPECTIVE” tweet. For one, Petraeus’ mistress actually had security clearances. For another, he didn’t put the information out on the open Internet as Clinton did. For another, her IT firm in Denver didn’t have security clearances. Her attorney, who kept the classified information on a thumb drive, didn’t have security clearances. None of the people who wiped her server or helped her screen her email to choose which would emails would go to the State Department and which would stay hidden from the public had security clearances. This tweet does give “perspective” but only a view into what a Clinton hack Harwood is. Harwood also put out this gem a while back:


Now, to put this as succinctly as possible, evidence of national security harm is not required for punishment under the law. Take the sailor who was indicted the day before Harwood’s tweet on allegations he had classified photos on his cell phone. He didn’t get off because nobody could prove he’d grievously harmed national security. He just faces 30 years in prison. That’s par for the course, which is why people who are not journalists are outraged at how the law seems unevenly applied for people with and without power.

Or what about this exchange where Harwood tried to argue that Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush’s handling of email was identical, nevermind that Bush was not, in fact, Secretary of State; hadn’t had a secret email address but one that was totally public; hadn’t built a secret server in his house to keep emails from being detected; had voluntarily released his emails; was not held to the stringent security requirements of the country’s chief diplomatic office; and hadn’t had a history of stonewalling investigations into his emails or blocking FOIA requests. But yes, other than that, sure. You really must read the whole exchange to get a flavor of how clueless Harwood is on the substance of the Clinton scandal.

OK, one more:

It literally doesn’t matter what the scandal is, our media always try to transition the story to supposed Republican overreach. Every time. Harwood was also downplaying the Benghazi scandal within weeks of its occurrence as nothing more than an opportunity for political exploitation.

All the Flapdoodles

Back when Americans were loudly telling anyone who would listen about their strenuous objections to Obamacare, Harwood claimed that they were simply misinformed and didn’t know enough to make a proper judgment about the bill. However, when it turned out the misinformation actually came from Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber, Harwood sang a completely different tune. Gruber admitted that the proponents had to lie about the bill to get it passed and that the law had been written in exactly the problematic way critics had alleged. Here’s Harwood’s response:

Here’s another whoopsie flapdoodle:

It’s almost like you can detect a subtle pattern to what Harwood thinks is a problem and what he thinks is not a problem. This refers to Hillary Clinton’s claim that businesses don’t create jobs. Harwood repeatedly tried to downplay Clinton’s remarks, to which Brit Hume responded with actual quotations from Clinton that showed such downplaying was not journalistically defensible. Keep in mind, this is the guy who’s going to moderate the GOP “economy” debate.

Parents Who Oppose Obama Are Stupid and Racist

Back in 2008, the media were poring over every John McCain comment, trying to detect super-secret coded racism in everything he said. But when Joe Biden made his “clean and articulate” comment about Obama, Harwood defended it, calling it “refreshing” and “an asset.” However, when some parents didn’t want their children used as a political audience for President Obama to give a speech to, Harwood suspected it was because they were racist. He also said the parents were stupid.

Damned-If-You-Do, Damned-If-You-Don’t Journalism

More than a year ago, a Politico journalist ran the puffiest of puff pieces about Lois Lerner, the woman behind IRS’ targeting of Obama’s critics. Stephen Hayes critiqued the light touch of the profile on a FOX program. He’d asked the reporter behind the piece about whether she’d pushed Lerner for details behind the scandal and hadn’t been able to get them or what explained the piece’s weakness. Reporter Rachel Bade did not even respond to Hayes’ queries. However, after his critique of the piece went live, she lambasted him for “refusing” to have her on the show. Hayes tweeted that it was “Awfully disingenuous of @rachaelmbade to suggest she didn’t have chance to explain the interview when I emailed & she didn’t answer my ?s” Harwood told Bade that “some people find reality disappointing,” then admitted he hadn’t even watched the segment he was piling on, then asked Hayes what the panel’s problem with the story was. Hayes said he’d wished the article had made headway on Lerner’s role in the political targeting, noted that Politico’s piece was sympathetic, and that he didn’t know whether questions were asked of the subject. To which Harwood then tweeted, “why should she explain her journalism to you? You can read it. story speaks for itself.” Hayes noted the absurdity of Harwood’s flip-flop flap-a-doodle: “I will say – seems odd that you’d first fault me/Fox (incorrectly) for failing to include her & then scold me for trying.”

Harwood Hearts Obamacare

One of these tweets comes straight from the White House. One of these tweets comes from someone who is moderating the GOP debate on Wednesday night:

In other words, why have laws? Let’s just give the keys to the president and let him use his best judgment. Obviously the only reason someone might oppose a president unilaterally changing a law is not because of concern for the rule of law but spite. (Harwood’s tweet came first, by the way.) When the White House is taking its talking point cues from you, you might have a problem. Or a future job in a Democratic White House. Either way, this is our moderator for the GOP debate?

Harwood Hearts Obama

Remember all the way back to 2013 when President Obama was pushing for war in Syria (all that “red-line” business)? Polls kept showing Americans wanted him to request authorization from Congress — as in 80 percent of Americans wanted that. The media kept insisting it wasn’t necessary. But much to everyone’s surprise, Obama announced he would seek Congressional approval to go to war.

He can’t be this stupid, right? Reluctant warrior? Are we talking about the guy who invaded Libya (and didn’t that turn out great!) without Congressional approval? The drone king?

But this arc of history business is mind-bogglingly wrong:

Harwood said that was different because, well, “Yes. This is different case. Admin has made case for urgent action, which now may not happen.” Come again? President Obama had specifically said, “Our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive.” When Davis asked Harwood “Question: is this potential war more or less ‘urgent’ than 9/11 response? Bush received congr. approval 7 days after attacks,” Harwood said it was much less urgent. So if it’s less urgent than post-9/11, if Bush sought approval for his actions post-9/11, how is this so arc-bending? Harwood said something about how it was a hard case, where Obama’s ability to act unilaterally “mattered most.” When someone pointed out that Bush had far more reason to act unilaterally and had the public support to do so, Harwood said this decision was harder because there was less support. He never did explain why it’s “arc-bending” for a president to acknowledge Congress’ role in approving an unpopular, unnecessary war. By the way, what happened with this courageous, arc-bending move of Obama’s? The spin at the time was that, oh boy, those dumb Republicans demanded a vote, and now they’re going to regret it. That Obama sure outsmarted them. He requested an immediate vote. Except that once it became clear the Senate would vote against it — something the pundits all swore would never happen — Obama just moved on and pretended he never even wanted to go to war with Syria. And when was the last time you heard about the “Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against the Government of Syria to Respond to Use of Chemical Weapons” bill? It died a lonely death of natural causes years ago.

Puff Interviews For You, But Not For You

Harwood isn’t the hardest-hitting of interviewers, to be sure, but he’s particularly soft on President Obama. This bit, where he gushed over, and I’m not kidding here, President Obama killing a fly, is perhaps the most embarrassing, but it’s a tough pick. He won Media Research Center’s “Obamagasm Award for Seeing Coolness in Everything Obama Does” that year, because after the interview aired, he did a special hit on how “It was a, you know, Dirty Harry, ‘make my day’ moment.” Then anchor David Shuster said: “It never fails — great weather, rainbows, incredible speeches, and three-point baskets. A fly and he nails it. Unbelievable. Unbelievable.” That was not the treatment Rand Paul got, to put it mildly. Last week, Harwood was extremely excited to appear on Trevor Noah’s version of the Daily Show. During the interview, he attempted to get support from the notoriously liberal audience by talking about how he’d played dumb when Ben Carson had expressed concern about the unintended consequences of redefining marriage. It worked. Also, I guess it’s entirely possible that Harwood wasn’t playing dumb. I’m not entirely sure which is worse.

Gosnell Isn’t Newsworthy

Back in 2013, reporters were finally shamed into covering the horrific case of Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortionist who snipped the spinal cords of babies he delivered. He’s currently in prison for some of these murders as well as the murder of a woman who sought an abortion at his filthy, unregulated, urine-infested abortion clinic. The story had everything the media would typically care about, including angles about health care, immigration, illicit drug trafficking, abortion, infanticide, serial killing, keeping trophies of victims, organ harvesting, racism, and more. And yet for some reason, many in the media couldn’t figure out how to cover the story. Here’s how Harwood tweeted about it the day after Kirsten Powers’ powerful op-ed ran in USAToday, “We’ve forgotten what belongs on Page One.”

Yep.

Why would Tiger Woods be in this tweet? Hell if I know what Tiger Woods did that day, making this tweet look somehow even worse and more callous in retrospect. But the idea that Harwood couldn’t even deal with the inconvenience of readers and viewers angry about the media blackout of this scandal shows a profound bias on the topic.

Not to mention ineptitude in news judgment. Let’s look at him keep digging this hole as readers react with anger at his callousness about the serial murderer who targeted the most vulnerable of victims:

Harwood didn’t explain how a Twitter onslaught of readers doesn’t reflect interest in a given topic or why certain topics that progressives push get pushed no matter the lack of popular interest.

I could go on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on with Harwood’s lambasting of Republicans in general and conservatives in particular, his increasingly ludicrous defenses of Hillary Clinton’s scandals and gaffes, his concern trolling about the GOP, and his excuses for Dems.

The problem isn’t that Harwood is biased or not particularly worth reading or watching. That’s between him and his employers.

But why is he moderating a GOP debate? And why doesn’t this debate have a conservative partner?

Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is a senior editor at The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @mzhemingway

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