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.”