Moderating presidential debates: harder than it looks

October 2, 2012

It’s enough to make anyone sweat.

There’s the pressure to prepare, the pressure to ask the “right” questions, to be unobtrusive, yet sharp and insistent. There are two would-be presidents hanging on your next utterance and about 60 million people watching your every move. And the whole time, there’s a guy yelling in your earpiece to get to the next question.

Jim Lehrer, the PBS newsman who’ll moderate his 12th presidential debate on Wednesday, compares the experience to “a walk down a knife blade.” He titled his memoir of moderating debates “Tension City” — not just because the candidates are nervous, but because he is, too.

CBS’s Bob Schieffer, who’ll moderate the third Obama-Romney debate later this month, remembers that his hands were trembling before he stepped out to moderate his first (Bush vs. Kerry) in 2004. “First time in 25 years that happened!” he recalled Tuesday. “I never get nervous on TV; I just don’t. But when you realize that something said on that stage may well determine who wins the presidency, well, it’s different, isn’t it?”

A hot seat, yes. The men (or women —two are involved this year) who moderate the major debates have to be part inquisitor, part referee, part timekeeper and part wallpaper.

Gwen Ifill, also of PBS, says the two vice-presidential debates she moderated in 2004 and 2008 were “the hardest thing I’ve ever done, probably.”

The odd thing is, once and future moderators agree, no one is supposed to remember you were there. If they’ve done their jobs right, they say, people will remember the candidates’ answers, not the questions.

As a measure of what can go wrong, there’s the continuing YouTube horror of CNN’s John King getting blown down by Newt Gingrich’s gale-force answer to a question about Gingrich’s marital troubles during a Republican primary debate in January. King was visibly rocked by Gingrich’s response — and the audience’s roaring approval of the response — and tried gamely to recover.

There have been no such moments of candidate-on-moderator verbal pyrotechnics in the presidential debates, in part because the stakes and the format ensure against it. Presidential candidates strive to seem presidential during their prime-time debates, and the two-man format provides adequate time for answers and follow-ups.

By contrast, the primary debates, with six or eight candidates grasping for airtime, are “cattle shows,” says Frank Fahrenkopf, the co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Fahrenkopf suggests that a lack of ego is a huge plus in a moderator: “We’re looking for someone who knows the story is about the candidates and not about them,” he says. The job requires the ability to follow up, experience working on TV, deep knowledge of the campaign and the issues, and a reputation for neutrality and balance, he notes.

It also helps to have someone with enough confidence to tell the future president of the United States that it’s time for him to clam up and let the other guy talk.

Winners and losers of past presidential debates.

Lehrer, the Cal Ripken of debate moderators, makes it look easy. But even he gets anxious.

“The greatest fear of a moderator is that he or she will miss something,” he said Tuesday as final technical adjustments were being made before Wednesday’s event at the University of Denver. “If the candidate says it, and you let it go by, you have a hard time getting them back to clarify or explain. The fear of it is what makes me prepare as hard as I do.”

Moderators start developing questions weeks in advance. They read, ask friends and experts, and get plenty of unsolicited advice from strangers and politicians. Schieffer does his prep the old-fashioned way: He clips newspaper stories and pastes them into the pages of a three-ring binder.

Ifill says she got so absorbed with her debate preparation in 2008 that it led to a broken ankle. Deep in debate prep, she walked out of her home office and didn’t notice that she’d left some of the books she’d been studying on the stairs. She took a tumble and made it to the debate stage three days later on crutches (which were discreetly hidden from the TV cameras).

“As a moderator I tried to practice good journalism — being fair, being objective, and seeking the truth,” said former ABC journalist Carole Simpson, who moderated the 1992 presidential debate among Bill Clinton, President George H.W. Bush and independent Ross Perot. She still caught flak. “People said I was a liberal Democrat, probably because [as] a black woman I had to be one. I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter how well you do the job, you will be blamed for something.”

Simpson said she had only five days’ notice that she would be moderating a town-hall debate, a then-new format in which the moderator directs questions to the candidates from audience members. Although she boned up on the issues and positions of the candidates and was able to ask follow-up questions, the initial questions came from the audience.

“I literally was the lady holding the microphone for the questioners,” said Simpson, who notes that CNN’s Candy Crowley, the only woman moderating a presidential debate this year, will be similarly restricted by the town-hall format. Another female journalist, Martha Raddatz of ABC, will moderate the only vice-presidential debate, on Oct. 11.

The selection of moderators this cycle has drawn criticism from minority groups, including the NAACP, which have objected to the absence of an African American or Latino moderator. Fahrenkopf said his commission is aware of the need for diversity, but “it’s very difficult to strike the balance you want to get,” he said. “We feel we have very experienced people [moderating] this year, all of whom are very solid journalists who are comfortable in their own skin.”

Simpson, however, sees something of a glass ceiling: “The women are limited in their input, but the two men moderating this year will get to ask their own questions directly to the candidates,” she says. “It seems women are best at . . . holding the mike for the people. I do like the town-hall format so the people can participate in the process, but let a man do it next time and let a woman go head-to-head with the candidates asking her own questions.”

Schieffer, who likens the presidential debates to heavyweight championship fights, says the moderator’s job is to “move the story forward. My hope is that people will come away knowing a little bit more about who these [candidates] are and what their positions are.”

As such, “the onus is on them and not us,” he says. “I like to think I have the ability to keep them on point and get them past their talking points, but in the end, they determine what happens.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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