Toughest Job in America: Debate Moderator
It’s tough being a debate moderator. Just ask Candy Crowley. In the 2012 debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, the tit-for-tat was getting out of control about whether Obama called the Benghazi attack “terror.” In an effort to get things back on track, Crowley said, “he did, in fact, sir, call it an act of terror.”
Crowley was obviously frazzled. She would have done better to just say, “let’s move on.” You can see it in the video.
CNN did a fact check and found that the president said this the day after the attack: “No ACTS OF TERROR will ever shake the resolve of this great nation. . .Today we mourn four more Americans. . .We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. ” The next day, he repeated, “No ACT OF TERROR will dim the light of the values that we proudly shine on the rest of the world.” [Emphasis added.]
This year, we’ve already had moderator complaints—before the first debate! It was from the NBC/IAVA “Commander-in-Chief Forum,” Sept. 7. This time, the complaints came from the Democratic side. They said moderator Matt Lauer spent too much time (seven questions and a follow-up) on Hillary’s email woes, but when he interviewed Trump, he didn’t bring up that Trump didn’t object to the Iraq War until after it was clear that the war had caused serious problems. We provided the full video here.
Fox News’ Chris Wallace says he is not going to step into that trap. Wallace says a good moderator doesn’t inject himself, BUT—he throws the ball to the opponent. If the opponent can’t counter misinformation/disinformation, it’s their loss.
I see myself as a conduit to ask the questions and basically to get the two candidates, or as I say, if one of the other people is on the stage as well, one of the third party candidates, but to get the candidates to engage. I view it as kind of being a referee in a heavyweight championship fight. If it — if it succeeds when it’s over, people will say, you did a great job. I don’t even remember you ever even being on the stage.
However, in an interview, Wallace can be a bulldog.
The former secretary of state cited Comey when asked to account for her repeated claims that she never sent or received material marked classified on her personal email account. When host Chris Wallace noted that Comey said those things were not true, Clinton disagreed.
“That’s not what I heard Director Comey say … Director Comey said that my answers were truthful and what I’ve said is consistent with what I have told the American people, that there were decisions discussed and made to classify retroactively certain of the emails,” she said.
Turns out, Trump doesn’t want to have any moderator, at all.
“As far as the debates are concerned, the system is being gamed because everybody said that I won the debate [the Sept. 7 NBC/IAVA “Comander-in-Chief Forum], you know, the so-called forum that your group put on,” Trump said during a phone interview with CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “But they all said I won and that Matt Lauer was easy on me. Well he wasn’t. He was — I thought he was very professional, I have to be honest. I think he’s been treated very unfairly, but they all said that I won, and what they’re doing is they’re gaming the system so that when I go into the debate, I’m gonna get — be treated very, very unfairly by the moderators.”
Generally, when a combatant says any moderator or referee or umpire was “very professional,” it usually means that combatant got an advantage. Also, of course, it helps to charge unfairness ahead of a contest, to put the moderator/referee/umpire on the defensive.
“The fact is,” Trump continued, “that they’re gaming the system, and I think, maybe, we should have no moderator. Let Hillary and I sit there and just debate because I think the system is being rigged so it’s gonna be a very unfair debate, and I can see it happening right now because everyone’s saying that he was soft on Trump. Well now the new person’s gonna try to be really hard on Trump just to show, you know, the establishment what he can do. So I think it’s very unfair what they’re doing. So I think we should have a debate with no moderators — just Hillary and I sitting there talking.”
Newt Gingrich agrees with Trump.
— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) September 13, 2016
Angelica, a frequent commenter in our pages commented on the debates.
Some of my pet peeves are:
1. Talking over each other.
2. Not answering the question.
3. Running over the slotted time.
4. Referring to the websites.
5. Bad questions, irrelevant.
6. Questions for sound bites.
Turning off the mic is a great way to help stop most of these problems. We can only hope.
The debates have a format, for instance 30 seconds for a comment and 15 seconds for a response. A clock should be kept, and the officials could handle this in two ways. Either strictly cut off the mic when time is up, or provide a “ding” to let them know that they are going overtime—and that time will be deducted from the time they have left remaining. If a candidate used up his or her time and had to sit idly while the opponent spoke freely, they’d start obeying the format.
However this is not likely to happen. The media are cowed. In 1980, a debate was scheduled between Ronald Reagan and leading candidate George H.W. Bush. At the last minute, Reagan invited all the other minor candidates and wanted to explain why. The officials tried to turn off Reagan’s microphone, and Reagan said, “I am paying for this microphone.”
Since that time, the partisan campaigns have run the show. In fact, the League of Women Voters stopped hosting the event in 1988, saying they “refused to participate in perpetuating a fraud” of objective examination of the candidates.
However, the biggest problem with the debates is that candidates just don’t answer the question. And they simply parrot their stump speeches. In the Republican debates, Chris Christie, basically, ended Marco Rubio’s campaign by pointing out that he kept repeating the same, exact, 25-second, memorized soundbite.
It’s tough to be a moderator, but you don’t have to be a fact-checker to repeat the question, if it’s not answered. Nobody is as good as the BBC at getting people to answer. They ask the question. If it’s not answered, they repeat the question. If it’s not answered, they restate the same question in different words. If it’s still not answered, it’s turned into a yes/no question. If that’s not answered, the host will say, “we’ll take that as a no.” If American newspeople had the guts to do that, there would be a lot less evasion and obfuscation.