In defense of FOX

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Not often will this space be devoted to a defense of FOX News or any other broadcast news source.

FOX is being criticized by pundits at other broadcast and print news outlets for limiting the prime time (9 p.m. ET, 8 p.m. CT, 7 p.m. MT, 6 p.m. PT) Republican presidential candidate debate on Aug. 6 to the top 10 highest- polling candidates among the 17 media-recognized GOP candidates.

The qualification "media-recognized" is necessary because, as of Aug. 3, there are 132 Republicans who have registered with the Federal Election Commission as 2016 presidential candidates.

Seven media-recognized GOP candidates will be allowed to debate in a non-prime time slot that same day (5 p.m. ET). This time slot has been designated as the "kiddie table" by critics of the FOX plan.

Some critics propose a second prime time debate with the participants distributed on a random basis between the two debates. Cramming 10 debaters into one evening of live prime time across four time zones already limits the depth into which the candidates can go on substantive issues. Networks have not been that interested in the past in getting substance, preferring clever or embarrassing sound bites, but we should not give up all hope for getting substance from the debates.

The plan by FOX is, in fact, a better attempt at fairness to candidates than has been practiced in the past by TV networks.

In 2012, Republican candidates Gary Johnson and Jon Huntsman were excluded from some debates even when there were fewer than 10 recognized candidates and when there was no opportunity for a second-tier debate. The clamor now being heard seems rather odd, in light of silence regarding even more arbitrary exclusions in the past.

Polls are not perfect representations of public opinion, but the imperfections have been exaggerated by the FOX critics. Margin of error calculations in polling are complicated. Pundits tend to oversimplify margins of error by using a rule -of -thumb range of "plus or minus 3 percent" of the entire polling sample.

This margin of error shrinks as a percentage of the entire polling sample as the number that a particular response gets becomes smaller. The fact that FOX plans to use an average of five polls conducted by five different organizations, all with slightly different methodology, makes the margin of error very small indeed.

The margin of error does not disappear entirely. Polling isn't a perfect way to choose, but what better method was used in the past for debate participant exclusion with which pundits seemed OK?

Critics of the FOX plan overstate the impact of the first debate when they assert that banishment to the "kiddie table" dooms a candidacy 11 months prior to the July 2016 Republican National Convention.

A candidate with a bold vision, articulately presented, can emerge after a first debate lower-tier designation. The problem the candidates have is that none of them seem to have a bold vision, or any other kind of vision, for that matter.

An irony in the criticism of the FOX plan is that the pundits seem most outraged by the "kiddie table" designation for candidates who have had the greatest public exposure.

Lindsey Graham and Rick Santorum seem destined for exclusion from prime time. Graham, along with John McCain, has been a frequent guest of cable news and Sunday news shows as a representative of the "hawk" perspective. Santorum was also a frequent guest panelist on these shows, representing the social conservative perspective.

The fact that their campaigns are not getting much traction now with fellow Republicans is certainly not for lack of public exposure.

In contrast, Ben Carson is only now getting serious attention on news talk shows, despite being clearly among the higher polling candidates for a year or more.

It is hard to predict or understand what issue will generate the collective outrage of the punditry next.