As debate moderators, will women get more respect?

October 10, 2012

The candidates weren’t kind to Jim Lehrer in the first presidential debate. The veteran moderator was talked over, interrupted, cut off and ignored.

Would they dare to do the same thing to a woman?

Voters and viewers are about to find out. Women, rarely seen in the moderator’s chair, will be refereeing the next two debates. Martha Raddatz of ABC News will moderate Thursday night’s vice-presidential face-off; CNN’s Candy Crowley will be the moderatoron Tuesday when President Obama and Mitt Romney square off a second time.

The past doesn’t offer many clues. Only one woman, Carole Simpson, then of ABC News, has moderated a presidential debate — and that was 20 years ago. Two others, PBS’s Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill, have moderated vice-presidential debates. But here’s a guess from some people who know something about men, women and conversation: Don’t expect a whole lot of restraint.

“I don’t think the candidates will be more deferential to a woman,” Simpson says. “In fact, they may be tougher.”

Simpson says much has changed since she moderated the 1992 debate among George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.

“There was a time . . . when men were afraid to say certain things to women for fear of being charged with sexual harassment or being rude. They were timid. But today, you can see evidence of a backlash to women’s success in many fields. . . . Men have no hesitation taking on a woman who disagrees with him. They don’t use sexual innuendo as much. They attack verbally. And unfortunately, it seems neither women or men care. What I see now is, ‘Game on.’ ”

Isn’t equality grand?

For the record, Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul says the candidate “has a great deal of respect for both Candy Crowley and Martha Raddatz as professional journalists.” Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter had a similar take: “I’m pretty certain that gender won’t play a role in any of this.”

Deference (if any) to a female moderator may be less about respect than about votes. With millions of voters, particularly women, tuning in, appearing rude or abrupt to the moderator might be taken as evidence of hostility, a political statement in itself. The stakes may be even more elevated this year by the Democrats’ promotion of the notion that Republicans are waging a “war on women” designed to limit their reproductive rights and choices.

On the other hand, talking over a woman might be viewed as something else: typical male behavior.

Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown linguistics professor who studies conversational dynamics, says studies repeatedly show that men regularly interrupt or cut off women. People noticed Obama’s and Romney’s dismissive treatment of Lehrer in part, she says, because it was unusual; men at such high and visible levels rarely converse like that.

“You might conclude that if a [female] moderator was treated that way, people won’t notice as much,” she says, “because it’s business as usual.”

What’s more, Raddatz and Crowley may fare poorly in viewers’ eyes if they attempt, as Lehrer did, to move the debate along. “Many people feel more negative toward a woman cutting off a speaker than a guy,” Tannen says. “If a woman talks that way, she’s disliked. [People say,] ‘She’s so aggressive, she’s so intrusive.’ ”

This, of course, has not stopped the career ascent of a great number of female interlocutors, including (to name a dozen) Ifill, Woodruff, Barbara Walters, Christiane Amanpour, Cristina Saralegui, Connie Chung, Greta van Susteren, Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, Diane Rehm, and Crowley and Raddatz. And, oh yeah, Oprah.

The identity of the debate moderator certainly matters to the candidates, says Dee Dee Myers, Clinton’s former press secretary and an adviser on his debate strategy. As part of their preparation, the candidates consider who will be asking the questions and what those questions might be, she said.

A surrogate, playing the role of the moderator in mock debates, tries to ape the questioner’s style, be it Lehrer’s no-nonsense approach or Tom Brokaw’s more folksy tone. “A different person with a different personality could produce a different result,” she said.

Before the 1992 debate, Clinton knew Simpson “a bit” and was comfortable with her, Myers says. Gender dynamics played a small role in the outcome, though not because of Simpson. When a female audience member asked Bush how the recession had affected him personally, he replied in general terms. Clinton, on the other hand, asked the woman if she knew people who’d lost their jobs; she said yes. He then replied: “In my state, when people lose their jobs, there’s a good chance I’ll know them by their names. When the factory closes, I know the people who ran it.”

It demonstrated, Myers says, “differing abilities to connect.”

Rehm, who has hosted a daily interview program on public radio for more than 30 years, says the moderator’s gender won’t matter in the debates.

“I think the questions matter,” she says. “I think who poses them and how they get posed matters. Whether it’s a male or female is the least important part of it.”

Had a woman been in the same situation as Lehrer last week, she says, “the same thing would have happened.”

Rehm says she believes she has been rudely treated by a guest because of her gender only twice in her career. Novelist Tom Clancy gave monosyllabic answers to her questions until a caller berated him on the air for being rude and arrogant to “our Diane.” A recorded interview with Tony Randall in the early 1980s was so demeaning that Rehm declined to put it on the air.

Like Rehm, van Susteren says, Raddatz and Crowley are tough, experienced journalists who won’t back down easily. She regrets, however, that Crowley will moderate a town-hall-style debate, a format in which the moderator directs questions from the audience rather than initiating them.

Simpson said she moderated such a debate in 1992, reducing her “to the lady holding the microphone.”

Van Susteren, a Fox News host, said via e-mail that the format “diminishes a bit [Crowley’s] opportunity to do the questioning. That feels a tad bit like they thought because she is a woman that she could not do the ‘heavy lifting’ of asking all the questions and perhaps she got the ‘girl’s debate’ where others ask questions to ‘help her.’ ”

Van Susteren says that hasn’t been a problem for her. In her years on TV and in 12 years before that as a prosecutor, she says she’s never felt patronized. “The trick? Do your homework.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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