How CNBC created a GOP debate for the Twitter age

By Nicholas D. Mirzoeff
New York University

The new American politics was showcased in Wednesday’s Republican debate.

It’s a political landscape where Twitter may have as much impact than endorsements, and experience is no way to win support.

US politics has long been the triumph of image over content, the domain of celebrity. Today, celebrity is created by reality TV and social media followers, not television news.

The old school media form was a well-edited attack ad, featuring grainy photos, bold text captions and a gravel-voiced announcer.

Today it’s talking heads, Facebook statuses and retweets.

This was supposed to be the era of the Super PAC, but it’s become the moment of basic cable and user-generated content.

Debate audiences for the first two GOP debates and the first Democratic debate were in the tens of millions. The audience numbers for the CNBC debate were likely slightly less thanks to the World Series going on at the same time, but they were still substantial.

What are all these people looking at?

Talk radio with pictures

CNBC offered anti-television as if it were hosting a talk radio program.

The backdrop featured only its logo. Every shot was a head-and-torso picture of the person speaking, with only an occasional midrange shot for variety. No compelling visuals were offered, unlike in the second GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library that featured an Air Force One plane as a compelling backdrop.

What was happening on TV may have been eclipsed by what was happening simultaneously on smartphones and tablets. Many viewers now follow live TV events on Twitter. Donald Trump has 4.7 million Twitter followers – up from just 3.2 million a few weeks ago. Rubio and Carson are at around 900,000, while establishment hero Jeb Bush dawdles at 350,000 followers.

Compare Trump’s huge reach online with the 131,000 daily viewership of CNBC, the business channel hosting the debate, and it seems a new media model has emerged for political campaigns.

Trump’s confrontational rudeness works in 140 characters: education policy is harder to condense.

But old media is not yet done. Club for Growth attack ads in Iowa have been effective in knocking down some of Trump’s poll leads.

The bad news for the party establishment: all the lost support went to Ben Carson, another so-called “outsider” with a net worth of $30 million.

This inside-out pattern dominated all night.

Millionaires emoted about poverty, working people, student debt and Medicare. Being the son of a bartender, like Marco Rubio, beats being the child of a president, like Bush.

This third GOP debate was reality TV with exaggerated characters speaking prepared lines as if speaking ad lib. No one thinks they are saying anything other than what they hope will create an advantage for them. Republicans have set up their nomination process as a low-budget hybrid of The Bachelor/ette and Big Brother with the ethics of Survivor.

The only unaccustomed sight was that of Ben Carson, an African American, at the center of the stage. For a party that has flirted with racism in its hostility to President Obama, Carson is the acceptable “mild-mannered” face of black culture. His was one of few African-American faces visible all evening.

Whoever the horse-race commentators and polls deem to have won, the upside-down, inside-out dynamic of this election came out on top. That much was plain to see Wednesday night.


Nicholas D Mirzoeff, Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Photo: CNBC

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