For this presidential debate cycle, the country has been focused on who will be able to stand at the candidate lecterns. Yet there is an equally important component to having a successful debate: the skill of the moderator(s) that facilitate that informative discussion.
While the prevailing party or the Commission on Presidential Debates set the dates, the candidates, moderators, the general format and topics to be discussed, the debate moderator(s) are in charge of running the debate. They pre-select the questions, ask the questions to the candidates, engage the audience which keeps it lively and interesting. And they do this all on behalf of the audience and the primary objective – “a structure where we want to give everyone a fair shake to communicate their vision to the American people.”[i]
Dylan Byers (formerly at Politico and now at NBC) said, “The cardinal rule of debate moderation is this: it isn’t about the moderator.” Amen! When the moderator is skilled, fair, equitable, and objective, the candidates will have an interesting and informative discourse about the relevant issues of the day.
But here’s the interesting part: moderators only get mentioned when they haven’t done a good job. It’s assumed that they will facilitate a fabulous event; however, that is not always the case.
Here are a dozen ways the moderators have failed the audience from the last three election cycles:
1) Start Stupid. Anyone who has given a speech or moderated a panel knows that you have to start strong. You have only a few moments to grab the public’s attention so they will be willing to curl up with a bag of popcorn and listen to what the candidates have to say. It also sets the tone for the rest of the event.
October 2015, 3rd Republican primary debate: Moderator Carl Quintanilla “cutely asked each candidate, as though they were in a job interview, to admit to a weakness of character or somesuch. It was a gimmicky and rather puerile inquiry, of course, and predictably few of the contenders even bothered to address it.”[ii] The moderators never recovered control of the debate (as you will see further in this article!).
January 2012, last Republican primary debate before the South Carolina primary: Moderator John King opened with a pointed question to Newt Gingrich about whether he had been asked to enter into an open marriage. Gingrich, in typical form, spent three minutes scolding King for choosing to open a Presidential debate with such a deeply personal subject. [iii]
“The incident resulted in a great amount of applause for Gingrich, and was widely broadcast on YouTube. It was also credited with raising Gingrich’s support in South Carolina, leading to his win in that state’s primary two days later.”[iv]
2) Fail to Start on Time. October 2015, 3rd Republican Primary Debate inexplicably started 15 minutes late: “Before the candidates even took the stage at Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate, the network hosting the debate was getting pilloried on social media. As the 8 o’clock Eastern start time came and went, CNBC’s pre-debate pundits kept droning on. And on. And on. It wasn’t clear why. There was no countdown clock on the screen or indication of when the show might begin.”[v]
3) Screw Up the Introductions. February 2016, 8th Republican Primary Debate: As the moderators called out the candidates one by one, Ben Carson failed to hear his name called, so he waited patiently as other candidates walked on. He didn’t even see the show producer behind him motion for him to go forward. “It was quite possibly the most awkward debate introduction in American history…The order got so botched that the debate seemed poised to start without Ohio Gov. John Kasich even being introduced. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie volunteered to do the introduction himself.”[vi]
A sample tweet sums it up nicely: “If they can’t go out in the correct order, how can they stand up to Putin?”
4) Forget to Follow the Established Process. Larry King moderated the October 2012 third party candidate debate. “Twenty minutes and three questions into the debate, the candidates pointed out they hadn’t yet been given the chance to deliver their opening statements. Oops. While some on Twitter didn’t mind the loss of ‘generic’ opening speeches, others saw the mishap as evidence of the debate’s irrelevance.”[vii] King’s response? “It was not in my notes about an opening statement, so I apologize. … I’m a Jewish guy from Brooklyn; we do what we’re told.”[viii]
5) Ask Bad Questions. It is the sole purview of the debate moderators to formulate, sequence, and ask the best, most appropriate, thought-provoking questions that they can squeeze into a limited time. In preparation, the moderators should agonize over the exact wording, timing, and tone of each and every question. According to journalist Jacob Leibenluft, “Moderators are often given carte blanche as to what they’ll ask candidates…[with] ‘near-absolute control’ over the questions.[ix] So it’s surprising (and downright distracting) when there are inappropriate, embarrassing, and/or irrelevant questions that pop up. Some examples:
- Ask Irrelevant Questions. April 2008, final Democratic Primary debate: Moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, “front-loaded the debate with questions that many viewers said they considered irrelevant when measured against the faltering economy or the Iraq war, like why Senator Barack Obama did not wear an American flag pin on his lapel…The media post-mortem…boiled over in more than 17,600 comments posted on the ABC website alone…
Only after half of the 90-minute debate had been concluded did the moderators turn to questions concerning Iraq, Iran, the housing crisis and affirmative action…After digesting much of what had been sent forth in the blogosphere on Thursday morning, [Stephanopoulos said] he would have approached one critical aspect of his job differently. ‘I could imagine moving up some of the questions,’ he said.”[x]
- Ask the Same Boring Questions. Same debate: Time’s Joe Klein, was more annoyed by the “lack of nuance.” “I was as dismayed with the second half of the debate–the ‘substantive’ part–as I was with the first. The ABC moderators clearly didn’t spend much time thinking about creative substantive gambits. They asked banal, lapidary questions, rather than trying to break new ground. They asked the same old Iraq troop withdrawal question, rather than using skillful interrogation…as a way to dig deeper toward the heart of the issue.”[xi]
- Ask Blatantly Biased Questions: October 2016 Republican Primary Debate: Right out of the gate, Moderator John Harwood asked Donald Trump, “You have done very well in this campaign so far by promising to build another and make another country pay for it, send 11 million people out of the country, cut taxes $10 trillion without increasing the deficit, and make Americans better off because your greatness will replace the stupidity and incompetence of others. Let’s be honest. Is this a comic book version of a presidential candidate?”
“No, it’s not a comic book version,” Trump fired back. “And by the way, I don’t like the way you phrased the question.”[xii]
- Ask Combative Questions. Same debate: “After a series of combative, arguably undermining, questions posed by the moderators to the Republican contenders, Cruz neatly and rather brilliantly summarized what sounded perilously close to a reasonable complaint:
‘The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. This is not a cage match. And, you look at the questions – Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen? How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?’ he concluded to loud applause.”[xiii]
- Gratuitous Audience Q&A. A growing trend for presidential debates is to solicit questions from the audience or social media. Don’t fool yourselves. These questions are vetted too – and can backfire as what happened in the November 2007 Democratic Primary debate. Maria Luisa, a UNLV student, asked Hillary Clinton whether she preferred “diamonds or pearls,” although she was prepared to ask a pre-approved query about the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.
Luisa said, “CNN ran out of time and used me to ‘close’ the debate with the pearls/diamonds question. Seconds later this girl comes up to me and says, ‘you gave our school a bad reputation.’ Well, I had to explain to her that every question from the audience was pre-planned and censored. That’s what the media does. See, the media chose what they wanted, not what the people or audience really wanted.”
Yet there are two sides to every story: Sam Feist, the executive producer of the debate, said that the student was asked to choose another question because the candidates had already spent about ten minutes discussing Yucca Mountain. “My understanding is that the [diamond v. pearls] question was her other [vetted] question,” Feist said.[xiv]
6) Fail to Know Your Stuff. Moderators should have a sufficient depth of understanding of the topics and the line of questioning in order to skillfully facilitate a discussion of the issues. October 2015 Republican Primary debate: Moderator Becky Quick “got blindsided when she asked Trump about something he supposedly said about Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg’s immigration policies, and Trump told her he never said it.
‘So where did that come from?’ Quick pleaded lamely.
‘I don’t know. You people write this stuff,’ Trump retorted, to laughter.
As Quick pointed out 20 minutes later, it came from the immigration policy paper on Trump’s own website.”[xv]
7) Stay Shallow. When a candidate fails to connect the answer to a question which the audience truly cares about, a skilled moderator will dig deeper and ask a follow-up question. December 2007 Republican Primary debate: the New York Times reported, “We were a bit disappointed that the moderator, Carolyn Washburn…decided to forego asking questions about the two I’s [immigration & Iraq], asserting that Iowans already know enough about the candidates’ positions on those issues. But do they? Can they parse what Mr. Romney’s saying in his ad about Mr. Huckabee on immigration? Shouldn’t Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Romney be allowed to say more about their differing views?
Wouldn’t voters like to hear a little bit about what Senator John McCain has to say about reports of possible success for the so-called surge (troop buildup) in Iraq and what that means for the country, let alone the campaign?…We wished for challenges to some of the statements made, too, or follow-up.”[xvi]
8) Debate the Candidates. Although moderators should dig deeper and ask provocative follow-up questions, they should not argue with the candidates about their answers. October 2012 Presidential debate: moderator Candy Crowley corrected Mitt Romney for his assertion that President Barack Obama did not refer to the consulate attack in Benghazi as an “act of terror.” The resulting exchange about the veracity of his comment continued for about another minute. “Candy Crowley stole the spotlight when she decided, on a whim, to fact-check the candidates.”[xvii] Romney should have been debating Obama – not the moderator. In hindsight, even she “seemed to acknowledge that she had erred. Romney was ‘right in the main’ but ‘picked the wrong word,’ she said on CNN.”[xviii]
Depending on the importance and time available, a skilled moderator could intervene and ask another candidate if he or she agreed with that statement. Or, “throw him a lifeline” as Moderator Max Frankel did during the 1976 Presidential debate when Ford said that Eastern Europe was not under the Soviet Union’s domination. The moderator followed up with an incredulous “Did I hear that right?” Unfortunately, Ford ignored the signal and gave a longer, more definitive statement of the same view.[xix]
Rest assured, if the candidates don’t get it right, we all know that the media pundits will set us straight in the post-mortem.
9) Perceived Bias. On the day before the 2008 VP debate, it gained wide media attention that Moderator Gwen Ifill had authored a new book The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, which was to be released on the day of the presidential inauguration. Ifill did not inform the debate commission about her book and Fox News’ Washington managing editor Brit Hume claimed Ifill had a “financial stake” in an Obama victory because of the profit she stood to make from her book. John McCain said he was confident Ifill would do “a totally objective job,” but stated, “Does this help that she has written a book that’s favorable to Senator Obama? Probably not.”[xx] Although a national poll held immediately following the vice-presidential debate indicated that 95% of viewers felt Ifill was fair and unbiased.[xxi]
10) Fail to Keep Law and Order. It’s a fine line to enforce the debate rules, encourage a robust debate, and intervene firmly to keep things on track. If too rigid, it’s a smackdown: the debate can feel staged, awkward, and contrived. If too loose, the candidates run wild:
- First Presidential Debate, 2012: moderator Jim Lehrer was widely criticized for frequently allowing the candidates to speak over their time limits.
Fox News wrote, “The only consolation President Barack Obama had for his poor showing during Wednesday’s debate was that moderator Jim Lehrer did even worse.”[xxii] Dan Abrams of ABC News tweeted, “Regardless of who is winning this debate, Jim Lehrer is losing”.[xxiii]
Lehrer defended his performance saying, “I’ve always said this and finally I had a chance to demonstrate it: The moderator should be seen little and heard even less. It is up to the candidates to ask the follow-up questions and challenge one another.”[xxiv]
- September 2016, 1st Presidential Debate: Moderator Lester Holt “let the conversation flow and the candidates go after each other. It’s a strategy many debate moderators prefer but left him vulnerable to criticism that he had lost control of the action. The first subject area that Holt introduced, intended to last for 15 minutes, stretched for nearly 45 minutes. He constantly needed to remind the candidates to stick to time limits, which was tough when they decided to steamroll over him. At one point he said, ‘20 seconds’ when Trump tried to make a point, but it stretched to 55 seconds before Holt could get in another question.”[xxv]
Michael M. Grynbaum of The New York Times described Holt’s performance by stating, “He was silent for minutes at a time, allowing Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump to joust and bicker between themselves—and sometimes talk right over him—prompting some viewers to wonder if Mr. Holt had left the building.”[xxvi]
- Bickering. October 2011, 8th Republican primary debate: Newt Gingrich stated that “maximizing bickering is probably not the road to the White House.” “It’s a good point: The debate was awash in interruptions, accusations, and petty point scoring that made all involved look less than presidential.”[xxvii]
11) Intervene the Exact Same Way. Republican Primary debate, June, 2011: John King was having a difficult time keeping the candidates’ responses under the 30 second limit. “Instead of interrupting the candidates forcefully, King would signal that their time was up by uttering ‘uh’ over and over again or repeatedly saying ‘all right’ or ‘OK.’”[xxviii] While there’s no way to know whether it directly impacted the outcome of the debate, “King did succeed in annoying many people who tuned in to watch the debate.”
12) Unequal Number of Questions and Airtime. Finally, one of the key skills for all debate moderators is the notion of “fairness.” Every single candidate should have roughly the same number of questions asked of him/her, the same type of questions (hardball to softie), and the same amount of time to speak. And when that doesn’t happen it is becomes glaringly obvious:
- October 2007 GOP primary debate: USA Election Polls claimed that Ron Paul was “treated unfairly at the CNBC debate” and then produced statistics: Romney spoke almost 4 times as much as Paul with 23% of the airtime and Paul struggling with only 6%…. “The biggest evidence of such blatant censorship of Ron Paul came when Rudy Giuliani challenged Ron Paul by name saying ‘Where was he on 9/11?’ When a candidate is addressed by name, it is only common courtesy to give him time for a rebuttal. Nope, they did not even give him the courtesy of standing amongst the candidates — always at the edge and having the least amount of speaking time.”[xxix]
- November 2007 Republican debate: the gap got even wider with Rudy Guiliani speaking 20 times for 16:35 minutes or 21% of the total airtime, compared to Tom Tancredo speaking only 7 times for 3:49 minutes or 4%.[xxx] Mike Huckabee was not even given a question to answer until minute 26, while Ron Paul’s first question was given after the first half-hour.[xxxi]
- February 2008 Democratic Primary Debate: Moderator Tim Russert was criticized for “his disproportionately tough questioning of Mrs. Clinton… Among the questions Mr. Russert had asked Mrs. Clinton, but not Mr. Obama, to provide the name of the new Russian leader.”[xxxii]
- August 2011 Republican primary debate: close to an hour into the debate, Santorum raised his hand and said: “I haven’t gotten to say a lot.”[xxxiii]
- October 2011 Republican primary debate: Michele Bachmann “repeatedly and awkwardly lobbied for attention, yelling out ‘Anderson!’ in the direction of moderator Anderson Cooper on multiple occasions.”[xxxiv]
- January 2012 Republican primary debate: it took the booing of the audience to alert the moderator that Ron Paul was ignored in answering a question about abortion.[xxxv]
- October 2015 Republican primary debate: Jeb Bush “complained, “I was asked three questions, I think, or something like that,” Bush said. “It was not a fair debate in that regard.” He added that he wished he had been on the receiving end of questions about issues like entitlement reform and the national debt. “I got fantasy football,” Bush said. “You know, that’s important I guess but probably not as important as other things.”[xxxvi]
- In most of the Republican primary debates, “Trump also got more airtime than anyone else. In an 11-member debate in September, for instance, Trump spoke for nearly 19 minutes—three minutes longer than the next-closest, Jeb Bush; five minutes longer than Carly Fiorina; and nearly twice as long as the likes of John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, and Scott Walker. The pattern continued through the full debate season.”[xxxvii]
One of these missteps isn’t a big deal. However, when you combine several in the same debate, you have a mutiny. If you haven’t already noticed in this article, the October 2015 Republican Primary debate was rife with these issues. “Sensing weakness, the candidates proceeded to run roughshod over the moderators for the duration of the debate, ignoring their instructions to stop talking and adhere to previously agreed-upon time limits.”[xxxviii]
The RNC even pulled NBC out of the next debate: “While debates are meant to include tough questions and contrast candidates’ visions and policies for the future of America, CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of ‘gotcha’ questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates. What took place Wednesday night was not an attempt to give the American people a greater understanding of our candidates’ policies and ideas.”[xxxix]
And that’s what the debates are meant to accomplish: to allow the voters to get to know the candidates and their positions on key issues facing the country. When the moderators fail, their debate fails the audience.
I’ll be watching and reporting on all the debates closely! Stay tuned….the first debate is next Wednesday, June 26th. I’ll be posting my thoughts here!
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For more resources on moderating panel discussions, visit the Knowledge Vault. To have Kristin moderate your next panel, visit the Powerful Panels official website.