Debate Forum, 10/23

Who should moderate presidential debates?

Presidential debates have long since become a fixture during presidential elections in the United States. Often, the behavior of the moderator of the debate is as heatedly discussed in the post-debate analysis as the argument over who won the debate. Traditionally, members of the media have been invited to act as moderators for these historic occasions. However, members of the working media bring to the position of moderator and to the debate their own biases and preferences, developed through their professional experiences.

As a result, there are instances like last week’s debate where Candy Crowley disputed the answer being given by Mitt Romney, only to later admit that Romney may have been mostly correct. Republicans were indignant over Crowley’s blown real time fact-checking in which she incorrectly supported the president’s position on the issue. Or instances like the first debate, where moderator Jim Lehrer was seen by some Democrats as having lost control of the debate and having allowed Mitt Romney to disregard the debate rules.

So who runs these presidential debates and why are they in charge? Is it possibly time to look outside the media to find debate moderators?

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was begun in 1987 by the Democratic and Republican parties to establish the formal procedures by which presidential election debates would be conducted. The CPD has moderated all presidential debates since 1988.

Prior to 1988, the League of Women Voters moderated the 1976, 1980 and the 1984 debates.  After a conflict between the League and both presidential campaigns developed as negotiations were under way for the 1988 debates, the League withdrew from the position of official debate moderator. They issued a statement expressing their frustration and reasoning for their withdrawal, complaining, “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.” The Commission was then taken over by the Democratic and Republican parties, forming today’s version of the CPD.

In 2000, the CPD established a controversial rule that for a party to be included in the national debates it must garner at least 15 percent support across five national polls. This rule essentially eliminates most third party candidates. The result is that most Americans tuning into the televised national debates will only hear the opinions of the two main parties instead of the opinions of the multiple other candidates.

Currently, the CPD only uses well-known journalists who are familiar faces to Americans who get their news from watching television. These journalists have the task of moderating these high-stake games of verbal combat between the candidates, and to do so without tipping the television audience to their personal preferences. Each side of the political spectrum sees the moderator as being biased towards their opponent. Some are asking if there could be other moderators who are not associated with television news networks. Perhaps a scholar from a college or university with a background in debate moderation could be picked by the commission.

This week’s edition of Dayton City Paper will go to press before the outcome of the third debate is decided. Bob Schieffer, veteran journalist and host of “Face the Nation,” will be moderating the debate. Schieffer’s task will be to firmly, but fairly, control the debate while making sure both candidates have an equal chance to discuss their respective policies. If Tuesday’s headlines make no mention of the moderator, then Bob Schieffer will have done his job. Perhaps avoiding a Crowley-like, real-time fact checking would be a good start.

Forum Question of the Week:

Who should moderate presidential debates?

Debate Left

Mission Impossible 5: Finding an unbiased moderator

By Rana Odeh

I understand that people like to find a scapegoat when things go wrong; it is easier to point the blame at someone else than it is to invest time, energy and emotion into fully understanding a bad situation. I felt a little frustrated with Jim Lehrer after the first debate, though I did take note that he was practically jumping out of his seat and waving his hands in the air, which is all he could do to try to get Romney to stop talking when his time was up. I also understand why conservatives are frustrated with Candy Crowley’s performance as moderator of the second presidential debate … her interruption made Romney look like a fool.

When it comes to presidential debates, the viewers’ concerns about who moderates the debate depend on which candidate is being corrected or interrupted the most. The “winning” side never complains about the moderator’s performance: “the harsher one party’s reaction to a moderator is, the tougher time their candidate is having onstage,” said David Bauder of Huffington Post. No matter what happens during the debate, it is always a no-win situation for the moderator; there will always be at least two parties represented in a presidential debate, and there will often be high points for one party at the expense of the other. In the second presidential debate, it was very clear that Romney’s low point – when he was fact-checked – was a high point for Obama. That is bound to upset Romney’s supporters. Thus, the first half of Crowley’s statement – “He did call it an act of terror” – has been under close scrutiny, while the second half which explicitly supports Romney’s point – “It did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea of there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.” – was mostly ignored.

Even worse, when Crowley re-stated that the Obama administration waited almost two weeks to come out and conclude that the Benghazi attack was a terrorist attack, it was used against her in claims that she “back-tracked” what she said during the debate, and that Romney was right. The fact is, she said the same thing during the debate and what she said was accurate. There can be several different interpretations of Obama’s statement in the Rose Garden, and of Crowley’s interruption, but if you look closely at what Romney was arguing, technically, she and Obama were correct. Crowley only interrupted to move the debate along while the two candidates were arguing again like teenagers about who said what. Nonetheless, it is understood that Crowley fact-checked Romney, and that was an awkward situation for everyone who was rooting for him.

Crowley-attackers even used the amount of time each candidate spoke as a telling source of bias: Obama spoke for 44 minutes and four seconds during the debate, compared to Romney’s 40 minutes and 50 seconds. However, this prompted CNN to count the actual words spoken by each candidate, and they found that the faster-talking Romney said 7,984 words and Obama 7,506. There are multiple sides to every story, but it is common for people to only see one: if this were not the case, the U.S. would not be such a staunchly two-party system that makes every effort to silence third party candidates.

There is no such thing as objectivity; all humans have ideas, values, experiences etc. that influence the way they behave. Journalists are not exempt from this reality. We should not pretend that there is a single person on this planet that could go into moderating a presidential debate without having a set of pre-existing beliefs. The best that moderators could do is to store their personal beliefs in a little dark space in the back of their mind so that they are able to moderate the debate with as little bias as possible. When Crowley fact-checked Romney, she was not committing “an act of journalistic terror” as Limbaugh stated, she was attempting to move the discussion along when it got stuck somewhere in the “he-said” game again.

Rana Odeh is a DCP Debate Forum freelance writer. She holds a BA in English and Philosophy from UD and is currently a graduate student in the ICP Program at Wright State University.  Reach Rana at RanaOdeh@DaytonCityPaper.com or view her work at RanaOdeh.com

Debate Right

Debate moderators need to be therapeutic professors

By Rob Scott

The ideal presidential debate moderator is like a professor using the Socratic Method with a touch of therapist. The moderator engages in very little discussion and is not the center of attention. The professor/therapist is always neutral and allows the candidates to engage in thoughtful discussion.

In the real world, most moderators do not cut it. A good debate is one that sheds light not just on candidates’ personalities and temperaments, as the first presidential debate did this month, but also on their records and plans for the nation. The debate allows the nation to see each candidate on the same footing without any filters or negative advertising surrounding their images.

A good moderator must see this as an opportunity and show the public the true beliefs and personality of each candidate. The past three debates of this presidential cycle clearly show why debate moderators can and do matter. Also, the debates have shown that not only do moderators matter, but that the style of the debate is just as important.

A debate moderator must be several things. The most important is to be neutral and fair to both sides. Additionally, the moderator should not be engaged in the debate, but rather be the “conductor” controlling the questions, timing responses and controlling each side from jumping into the other side’s argument.

The first presidential debate, PBS’ Jim Lehrer was average. The style was two podiums and questions being asked only from the moderator. He did appear to be neutral and certainly the two sides did not talk over one another. By all accounts, time was more evenly distributed between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in Lehrer’s therapeutic way. However, Lehrer did not question both candidates as a Socratic Method professor would.

The first and only debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan focused on domestic and foreign policy, and was broken down into nine 10-minute segments. ABC’s Martha Raddatz was average. The format was seated and involved a broad range of both domestic and foreign policy issues. This debate was an example of a moderator not being able to control a particular side, namely Vice President Biden. Throughout the vice presidential debate, Biden rudely interrupted Congressman Ryan 87 times. Raddatz, like a teacher, should have chided Biden.

The second presidential debate was moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley. The style was a town hall format with a group of undecided voters asking questions to the candidates, after which the moderator would ask follow-up questions involving both domestic and foreign policy. Crowley was an extremely poor moderator. She became engaged in the debate too much and became a story of her own. Though acting as a professor, she challenged Romney intensely on something he cited regarding President Obama’s response to the Libya attacks. In the end, Crowley was wrong. Regardless, she came across as one-sided and let Obama slide on numerous issues. Additionally, she allowed both candidates to talk over one another, making her moderated debate one of the most contentious in presidential debate history.

The third and final presidential debate is being moderated by CBS’ Bob Schieffer. The style is similar to the first debate, with the candidates being at podiums and taking questions only from the moderator. I expect Schieffer to probably be the best moderator of all this election season. He has the temperament and is well-received by both sides.

Ultimately, a presidential debate moderator’s job is tough and this presidential debate season seems to be no exception.

Rob Scott is a practicing attorney at Oldham & Deitering, LLC. Scott is the Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party and the founder of the Dayton Tea Party. He can be contacted at rob@oldhamdeitering.com or www.gemcitylaw.com.

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