Analysis Politics

How Many ‘Helpful’ Questions Can We Expect From Thursday’s GOP Debate Moderator Hugh Hewitt?

Ally Boguhn

Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt’s “focus” on getting answers from the GOP has been undermined by his own statements and failure to hold candidates accountable.

On Thursday night, the remaining GOP contenders for president will take the stage for their tenth debate. One of the moderators, a noted conservative, claims to care about getting real answers from candidates, but his history suggests otherwise.

Hosted by CNN, Telemundo, and the Salem Media Group at the University of Houston, the debate will be moderated by a representative from each of the three networks. For CNN, Wolf Blitzer will take the stage; Maria Celeste Arraras will represent Telemundo; and talk radio host Hugh Hewitt will be there for Salem Media Group.

This isn’t Hewitt’s first trip to the debate stage: The conservative radio personality participated as a panelist in the second GOP debate in September and moderated another on CNN in December.

“I am excited by the opportunity to continue to help shape the conversation about which of the candidates ought to be the GOP nominee in 2016,” Hewitt said in an October statement regarding his future participation in debates. “My focus remains on posing questions that elicit answers GOP primary voters will find helpful in casting their ballots …. I’ve done over 50 in-depth interviews with the candidates who remain in the field and will continue to invite them onto my radio show between now and March to pose tough, straightforward questions. There’s no better way for me or for them to prepare.”

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But Hewitt’s “focus” on getting answers from the GOP has been undermined by his own statements and failure to hold candidates accountable.

In September, Hewitt faced heavy criticism from conservative media figures after the radio host asked candidate Donald Trump a question about foreign policy during an interview on his program, The Hugh Hewitt Show, seemingly hoping to test his knowledge of terrorist organizations. When Trump was unable to come up with an answer, he lashed out against Hewitt, accusing him of posing a “gotcha question” and claiming it was a “ridiculous” one for Hewitt to have asked. Hewitt initially defended his questions; eventually, however, he backtracked amid backlash from fellow conservatives, saying that Trump “legitimately misunderstood” the question and taking responsibility himself for the candidate’s inability to muster an answer. “I framed the question wrong,” he told MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

The Washington Post in December chalked Hewitt’s repeated inclusion in the GOP debates up to “Republican carping,” after candidates repeatedly claimed they were treated unfairly by CNBC moderators during the third debate.

That same month, in an episode of NPR’s All Things Considered, the show’s hosts discussed the matter with the chief strategist of the Republican National Committee (RNC), Sean Spicer, who explained that Hewitt was included in the debates as part of the party’s push to gain more control over what occurs during the events.

“The media controls all aspects of the debate—when they were going to debate, how many there were, where they were. And really, what this came down to was the Party recognizing that while the media has a huge role to play, that ultimately, people are seeking our nomination and that we should have the responsibility to make sure that that process is a little bit more orderly,” Spicer said.

Hewitt’s own commentary also raises confusion about the kinds of answers he’ll be seeking. In January during an appearance on CNN’s New Day, Hewitt concluded that even when candidates are wrong, “fact-checking doesn’t matter,” and that “personality and aura” mattered more.

It isn’t just Hewitt’s ability to fact-check others that is in question, but also whether he has his own facts straight. In the wake of the deadly shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood late last year, the conservative radio host invited Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) on his program to discuss the matter. Dismissing those who tied the clinic violence to increasingly threatening rhetoric, Hewitt claimed that he had never met an anti-choice activist who favored violence.

“I have never met, not once, a single pro-life activist who is in favor of violence of any sort. Have you, Senator Cruz?” Hewitt asked the Republican presidential candidate.

Cruz agreed, “I have not.”

As Cruz himself stated in 2015, however, “Rhetoric and language do indeed have consequences.” The rhetoric about abortion employed by conservatives and GOP politicians, especially in the wake of the deceptively edited videos released by the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), is no exception. The FBI has found that it has led to an increase in clinic violence; according to reports, the alleged Planned Parenthood shooter used the same language invoked by conservatives discussing the videos to justify his acts.

And Cruz does in fact know of anti-choice proponents who favor violence—he has even been endorsed by one. In November, prior to his interview with Hewitt, Cruz welcomed the endorsement of Troy Newman, the head of the extreme anti-choice group Operation Rescue, who harassed Dr. George Tiller for years prior to the abortion provider’s assassination. Although Newman later condemned Tiller’s killer, the group nonetheless continued to associate with other extremists.

Hewitt’s assertion in November comes as no surprise, however, as he has consistently defended the CMP videos since their release. During an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press in September, Hewitt stood up for then-presidential candidate Carly Fiorina after she falsely claimed the anti-choice videos depicted a “fully-formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking.” Although numerous fact-checkers debunked Fiorina’s claim, Hewitt stood by it, claiming that Fiorina simply misspoke and that the media had taken her comments out of context.

“I don’t agree that [the CMP videos] are highly edited. This is highly edited. The debate the other day was highly edited,” Hewitt claimed according to the program’s transcripts, before suggesting that Planned Parenthood should be defunded.

The month before, during an interview with Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) on his radio program, Hewitt had referred to the CMP videos while questioning whether the presidential candidate would “push back against the war on women tag” he suggested Republicans would face in this election cycle. “No one can defend this,” Hewitt said, referring to the claims made against Planned Parenthood in the debunked videos.

Perhaps even more alarming is Hewitt’s assertion that he will not address reproductive rights and health at all in the debates, having criticized previous moderators who did so.

During an interview with Bloomberg Politics in early 2015, Hewitt discussed how he came to have a role in the debates. “This is really all Reince Priebus’ doing,” Hewitt claimed, referring to the head of the RNC. “Of all the things he’s done, getting conservative journalists on the panels is probably his lasting legacy. Our issues are not the standard issues people hear about. The conservative primary voter has been frustrated with Republican debates for as long as I remember. They don’t hear the questions asked that they want answered by people who want their votes.”

When asked what questions he had objected to during the 2012 election cycle, Hewitt pointed back to a moment when George Stephanopoulos asked Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney about whether states had the right to ban contraception. The question came just days after Republican candidate Rick Santorum asserted that he did believe states had that right.

“There wasn’t one conservative in 2012 who wanted to make birth control inaccessible to women. Not one. Zero,” Hewitt claimed. “And so when George Stephanopoulos asked about birth control in New Hampshire, I thought it summed up very nicely the problem with using even good journalists like him, a former Clinton operative. That question would never come from a conservative journalist. It’s not a debate. It doesn’t exist.”

When asked whether he would ask questions about birth control or abortion during a debate, Hewitt replied that “it does not seem to be on my top shelf,” because all of the candidates are anti-choice. “I can’t imagine I’d be asking questions from the mindset that those questions are important,” he concluded.

Now in 2016, Republicans such as Ted Cruz are again falsely claiming that no members of the GOP are trying to ban birth control. This ignores a years-long crusade by members of the party to do just that, through attempts to pass “personhood” measures, which could outlaw many forms of contraception, attacks on the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit, and other restrictions.

Can Hewitt be trusted to ask about these topics, let alone push back on Republicans’ misinformation about them, given his own admissions that he doesn’t believe fact-checking matters or that reproductive health is worth discussing?

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