In his second term as Republican National Committee chairman, after the defeat of Mitt Romney, Reince Priebus was keen to make enemies in the media. In August 2013, he went on MSNBC's Morning Joe to lecture host (and one-time Republican Representative) Joe Scarborough's network about why it didn't deserve to host any of the 2016 debates.
"I’m not going to have you moderate the Republican debates in our primary," said Priebus, "because you’re not actually interested in the future of the Republican Party and in our nominees."
Not long before this, both NBC and CNN had announced specials about Hillary Clinton, who was enjoying a historic (and since unseen) surge of post-State Department popularity. Priebus had warned the networks that running those events would deny them debates. "They know darn well that what they’re going to do is going to have an effect on the election,” he told Scarborough. “I can’t have companies in the business of making what I believe to be promotional movies…and then have those same people depose the people running for president on the Republican side of the aisle."
On Friday in San Diego, the Republican National Committee gave Priebus a third term—and released a tighter debate schedule that excluded MSNBC. As in the 2012 primary, Fox News would host the first debate (in August, three months later respectively). For the first time, the low-rated Fox Business network would host a debate. NBC and CNBC would both get cracks. MSNBC, having co-hosted two debates last cycle, would get none. (MSNBC's ratings can surpass those of Fox Business by a 10-1 ratio.)
An MSNBC source waved off any talk of a snub, pointing out that even the network's Sept. 7, 2011, debate, co-sponsored with Politico, was branded as an NBC News forum and hosted by Brian Williams. The source also noted that Fox News hasn't been awarded a Democratic debate in years. That's true, but the context matters. Fox News co-hosted a debate during the 2004 Democratic primary, but in the spring of 2007 a coalition of progressives goaded Democrats into refusing to appear at a Fox News debate. That debate was canceled, while Republicans stuck with an MSNBC debate co-hosted by Keith Olbermann, an outspoken critic of the party who became an inspiration for Jeff Daniels's character in The Newsroom.
That memory stuck with Republicans. During the 2012 campaign, Priebus clashed with MSNBC's Chris Matthews. At Republican events he got strong applause when he insisted that the party should never let the likes of Matthews host a debate. One year ago, after the MSNBC Twitter account made a joke about "the rightwing" probably hating a commercial that starred a biracial family, Priebus asked fellow Republicans to boycott the network.
"This is more than just a tweet or an offhand comment," Priebus wrote. "This is part of a pattern of behavior that has gotten markedly worse, and until Phil Griffin personally apologizes and takes corrective action, we cannot be part of this network's toxic programming."
Griffin, the network's president, apologized to Priebus. An editor responsible for the tweet was sacked. But that did not stop Priebus from going forward on his plan to limit debates and to deny one to MSNBC.
Why do this? Apart from bringing joy to every conservative, it was as Priebus said—he did not want debates to be steered by people who wanted to make Republicans look stupid. When Republicans point to an on-camera Romney mistake that hurt his chances, they often cite his comment, at a Florida debate, that "self-deportation" was an answer to illegal immigration. NBC co-hosted that debate...but it was Tampa Bay Times reporter Adam Smith who asked the question.