Politics » Politics Feature

RNC Adopts John Ryder’s Debate Proposal

Networks will be excluded from any control over GOP presidential primary events; outliers at risk?


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There was a lot of politics in Memphis this last week or so. Last Tuesday, the voters of Shelby County went to the polls and chose nominees in Democratic and Republican primaries for county offices.

The most notable win was that of former County Commissioner Deidre Malone in a three-way race for County Mayor with the Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr. and County Commissioner Steve Mulroy. She will oppose incumbent Republican Mayor Mark Luttrell on August 7th.

Both local parties subsequently held post-primary unity rallies in preparation for the county general election in August, which will coincide with judicial races and primaries for federal and state offices.

Then on Wednesday, the Republican National Committee (RNC) began a four-day spring meeting at the Peabody here, resulting most notably in a dramatic change in the way GOP presidential candidates will debate in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

In the long run, the consequences of the RNC meeting are likely to overshadow not only the local election results but a good deal of what is currently passing for momentous circumstance in national politics.

The major event of the RNC conclave was the passing of a motion by John Ryder, the Memphis lawyer who is both a national committeeman from Tennessee and the RNC's general counsel, and who, further, was the impetus for the RNC holding its meeting in Memphis.

What the Ryder motion did was establish a machinery for the Republican presidential primary debates in 2016 that will exclude the national TV networks from any semblance of control over how the debates are conducted.

The motion — technically an amendment to "10H," the RNC's rule governing participation by candidates in presidential debates — was first presented by Ryder in a meeting of the RNC Rules Committee on Thursday.

Contending that only 7 percent of media members were Republicans, Ryder drew a portrait of a party whose prospective leaders in 2011 and 2012 had been hamstrung and misrepresented in televised national debates.

There had been 23 debates between Republican candidates, all totaled, too many and all of them too much under the sway of a media that was 93 percent hostile, said Ryder, who contended the result had been harmful — perhaps fatal — to the GOP's hopes of gaining the White House.

Ryder's amendment would create a 13-member committee to sanction a list of approved presidential-candidate debates. Eight members would be elected from the RNC membership — two each from the committee's four regions — and five more would be appointed by the RNC chairman.

Once a committee so appointed determined an officially sanctioned list of debates, any presidential candidate participating in an unsanctioned debate would be prohibited from taking part in any further sanctioned debates. All details of the sanctioned debates would be overseen by the 13-member RNC committee — the rules, the questions, the choice of moderators, the length of answer time permitted to the candidate ... everything and anything, in short.

"We would be in control," Ryder said. Not "the Great Mentioner" (presumably meaning the media as a collective entity).

There were objectors to his proposal — notably Ada Fisher, a delegate from North Carolina, and Diana Orrock of Nevada, both of whom questioned its dampening effect on free speech, and from Morton Blackwell of Virginia, who concurred with them and expressed a further concern that the proposed RNC commission would be over-loaded with appointees by the chairman, who would have too much authority over the primary process and might be able to cherry-pick the presidential contenders.

But Ryder insisted that all these concerns were irrelevant to the need for the GOP to get out from under the control of a "hostile media."

Ryder's contention was further boosted by Randy Evans of Georgia, who rose to acknowledge to the rules committee that his 2012 candidate for president, home-stater Newt Gingrich, had profited from the free-ranging nature of that year's debates.

But the issue was very simple, he said. "This is about control ... the networks versus the party. No more is the mainstream media going to control what we do." As he had put it earlier, in what was probably the defining line of the debate, a showstopper, "Somebody has to have the power to say 'no' to [CNN's] Candy Crowley!"

In the end, the objectors to the Ryder amendment turned out to be only a handful, limited essentially to those few who had spoken against it. A Blackwell amendment to alter the way members were picked for the proposed commission went down hard, and then Ryder's amendment sailed through the Rules Committee, 46 to 3, with one abstention, needing only the approval of the full RNC contingent at Friday's General Session.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus began that session with a speech containing the following admonition: "We have an important mission .... When something gets in the way of that mission, we have to act. We all know that that roadblock so often is in the media. ... In the past, Republicans would complain about it but didn't act. That was the old way. By acting smartly in the most important cases, we're getting results with the media."

Priebus recapped his successes in pressuring NBC and CNN into halting plans last year for televised "tributes" to Hillary Clinton and in forcing an apology from Ebony magazine for an article he deemed unfriendly and unfair to Republicans. The next step, he said, prefiguring the debate on the Ryder proposal, was to "take ownership over control of our debates. The liberal media doesn't deserve to be in the driver's seat."

When the time came to present his proposal to the full body, Ryder continued in that vein, citing once again "an academic study ... which revealed that exactly 7 percent of journalists in America are Republican."

That meant, he said, that "93 percent are not our friends," and "so we have engaged in a process over several presidential cycles where the people who plan and organize and orchestrate the debates are composed of that 93 percent who wish us no good."

The same objectors as before had their say, but the result was proportionally similar to that of the day before: 152 to 7 in favor of excluding the media from all control over Republican primary debates. The networks would be faced with a take-it-or-leave-it choice on televising the debates.

Now that it's a done deal, what are the actual facts of the "academic study" mentioned by Ryder — the one allegedly demonstrating the existence of a media composed of "93 percent who wish us no good"? The study, by Indiana University professors Lars Willnat and David Weaver, shows something else entirely. True, it indicates that only 7 percent of responding journalists called themselves Republicans. But it notes that only 28.1 percent call themselves Democrats — meaning that the balance — 64.8 percent — proclaim themselves either Independent or something other than either Republican or Democratic.

Nothing in these figures suggests that this preponderant journalistic majority "wishes no good" to either Republicans or Democrats, both of whom, as declared party adherents, constitute small minorities of all practicing journalists.

The specter raised by Ryder and Priebus of a "hostile media" could, in other words, be raised almost as readily by Democrats as by Republicans, but the more obvious interpretation is surely that the majority of journalists prefer to consider themselves objective observers, not partisans of either side politically and certainly not enemies of either side.

In fact, the chief victims of the new RNC debate policy are likely to be neither Democrats nor the putatively offending networks but those candidates — long shots like Gingrich who got a new birth as a candidate in 2012 by upbraiding CNN's John King for a question about his private life or political outliers like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, whose heterodox mix of libertarianism and conservatism may not accord with the wishes of the GOP establishment and the RNC hierarchy.

Ironically, Paul was the principal speaker at Friday's RNC luncheon and was already drawing flak from remarks made to some Memphis ministers expressing doubt about the value of requiring photo IDs for voting. Now that would be a topic well worth debating — if someone could be found to ask about it.

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