An analysis from Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a website of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, found the moderators “engaged in too much confrontation with the candidates.”

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BOULDER, Colo. —

Are the news media reporting the campaign, or making and breaking the campaign?

That is a key question coming out of the third Republican presidential debate, a faceoff in which one moderator from CNBC, which televised the debate, likened a GOP campaign to a comic book and several candidates and analysts protested that the journalists are becoming too much of a player in the story.

14 million viewers

CNBC reached its biggest audience ever with the third Republican presidential debate. The Nielsen company said 14 million viewers watched the debate Wednesday night, down from the 24 million who saw the first contest on Fox News Channel in February and 23 million viewers for CNN’s second contest. Still, it’s an extraordinarily high bar: a 2011 debate with GOP candidates on CNBC had 3.3 million viewers, Nielsen said. This week’s debate also competed against the second game of the World Series. The next GOP debate is scheduled Nov. 10, to be shown on the Fox Business Network.

The Associated Press

Campaign officials were annoyed with too many questions probing candidates’ quirks and personalities. An analysis from Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a website of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, found the moderators “engaged in too much confrontation with the candidates.” Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus said he was “ashamed” at how the network handled the event.

“The whole format was just craziness,” Ben Carson said Thursday, vowing to push for changes before the next Republican debate, Nov. 10. He said he’d reach out to other candidates for help.

Carson said he wants “the opportunity to lay out policies … and then be questioned about it.” He said he’s also seeking “moderators who are actually interested in getting the facts and not gotcha questions.”

During the debate, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida called the media “the ultimate super PAC” for Democrats. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas blasted the moderators’ questions, saying “everyone home tonight knows that the moderators have no intention of voting in a Republican primary.” The debate was moderated by the CNBC anchors John Harwood, Becky Quick and Carl Quintanilla.

CNBC spokesman Brian Steel said: “People who want to be president of the United States should be able to answer tough questions.”

The furor illustrates the tension over the role of the news media as de facto kingmakers and king-breakers in the campaigns, particularly in the televised debates.

The news media play a role in planning the debate events. They have a huge say in who gets to participate and be exposed to tens of millions of viewers/voters — and who is stuck at, in the Republican race at least, the earlier “kids table” debate. And TV moderators of pivotal debates can play an outsize role.

The media help determine who participates based on the media’s polls, triggering howls from candidates who fail to qualify for the main event. “I think it sucks,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, an expert on military affairs, who’s been relegated to the undercard debates because his poll numbers have lagged.

In August, the McClatchy-Marist Poll temporarily suspended polling on primary candidates because of concern that public polls were being misused to decide who’s in or out of debates. The Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which conducts the national survey, said the debate criteria assume too much precision in polls in drawing a line between candidates just a fraction apart and assume that the national polls are comparable.

Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute, also was uncomfortable being a participant in making news: “It’s a problem when it’s shaping who gets to sit at the table.”

Problems also surface when politicians pick fights with the media asking the questions. In the first Republican debate, Aug. 6 in Cleveland, Donald Trump’s insults of Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly sparked an uproar, and their battle seemed to be as discussed on social media as any other debate topic.

The media involvement reinforces Republicans’ view that the mainstream media won’t treat them fairly. That was particularly true after Wednesday night’s debate.

When Harwood asked Trump if the mogul was waging a “comic-book version of a presidential campaign,” he elicited rare sympathy for the brash candidate. Trump called it a “not very nicely asked question.”

Trump also accused Quick of incorrectly quoting him, and it took her several minutes to prove her point.

In other questions, Carson was asked what kind of analysis made him think his flat tax plan would work; Rubio was asked why he wouldn’t “slow down, get a few more things done first” before running for president; Jeb Bush was asked why his candidacy wasn’t catching on; and Carly Fiorina was asked why Americans should hire her as president when she was fired by Hewlett-Packard.

When Quintanilla asked Cruz whether his opposition to a budget deal showed “that you’re not the kind of problem-solver American voters want,” he exploded.

“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Cruz said. “This is not a cage match.”

The questioners did not relent. Quintanilla asked whether the federal government should regard fantasy football as gambling. Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, spoke out loudly. “We have $19 trillion in debt. We have people out of work. We have ISIS and al-Qaida attacking us. And we’re talking about fantasy football? Can we stop?”

Some people did think the debate, with its emphasis on economics, had come off well. “This was, in many ways, the first adult conversation we’ve had this campaign,” said Maya MacGuineas, head of the Campaign to Fix the Debt, which studies budget issues.

Priebus disagreed:. “The performance by the CNBC moderators was extremely disappointing and did a disservice to their network, our candidates and voters.”