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The Challenge of Selecting Presidential Debate Moderators

Why must debate moderators always be Washington TV journalists? They're trained to ask questions and probe evasions, but do they focus on the right topics? The lack of diversity is best measured not by ancestry or gender, but by life experience.
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Who should get to moderate a presidential debate? The recent announcement of moderators for the upcoming Obama-Romney and Biden-Ryan debates plants this question in the public arena. Legitimate concerns are being raised about the lack of racial and ethnic diversity among the four journalists selected for the honor. Less legitimately, there is whining about the moderators' supposed "far left" political leanings. One thing is certain: when it comes to debate moderators, you can't please all the people all the time.

First let's dispense with the political nonsense. Rush Limbaugh and his ilk have already begun slagging the moderators as Trotskyites who intend to pummel Romney and Ryan while not laying a glove on Obama and Biden. But look at who the moderators are: Jim Lehrer of PBS; Candy Crowley of CNN; Bob Schieffer of CBS; and Martha Raddatz of ABC. As respected Washington journalists, they flourish by knowing how to navigate the treacherous shoals of partisan politics. Flame-throwers these four are not, or they wouldn't have been invited.

All too obviously, Limbaugh's goal is to work the ref in advance, in the hope of provoking the moderators to overcompensate once the red light goes on. Note to moderators: tune out all such noise. Limbaugh's allegations make no sense, not only because these individuals have a reputation for being apolitical, but because the campaigns themselves hold veto power over who moderates. If Romney and Ryan feel disadvantaged by any of the names on this list, why haven't they complained about it?

The diversity issue is more complex. The shortage of female moderators came into focus this summer via the efforts of three New Jersey high school students, who reminded the nation that no woman has moderated a presidential debate since Carole Simpson in 1992. (Gwen Ifill moderated the vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008). Although the debate commission declined to meet with the young women when they brought their crusade to Washington, the activists ultimately got what they wanted: this year Candy Crowley becomes the first female moderator in 20 years.

Tavis Smiley and others argue that in multicultural 2012 America, there is no excuse for not having a moderator of color. Officials at the Hispanic TV network Univision make a similar point. Smiley, Univision and the others are right to stress the need for variety among moderators, and my guess is that we will see a broader representation four years hence. At the same time, I sympathize with Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, when she cites "debate arithmetic" in explaining the racial composition of this year's moderators. With four people standing in for more than three hundred million, how can demographic balance possibly be achieved?

Beyond race and ethnicity lies an even deeper question, one that does not get asked enough: why must debate moderators always be Washington television journalists? The lack of diversity among moderators is best measured not by ancestry or gender, but by life experience. Lehrer, Crowley, Schieffer and Raddatz are all Beltway insiders who have followed similar professional paths. They all work in the same profession, in the same town, within the same rarefied socioeconomic hive. As members in good standing of the Washington media-political axis, they are likely to have more in common with the candidates than with average voters.

According to conventional wisdom, journalists make good moderators because they are trained to ask questions and probe evasions. But do they focus on the right topics? Are their concerns too Washington-centric? Are they sufficiently willing to challenge evasions and misstatements? Are they overly concerned with their own careers?

Certainly there are practical reasons for picking TV professionals as debate moderators: hosting a live telecast watched by tens of millions of viewers requires technical expertise that amateurs lack. This is why, in the United States and throughout the world, debate moderators are virtually always television journalists.

But other models do exist. In Asia, academics have functioned as debate moderators and panelists. Along with journalists, perhaps we should consider including law school deans and professors as questioners. Or policy experts from relevant areas, as in last November's fascinating national security-themed "think tank" forum among the Republican presidential candidates. Or stage a debate in which college students pose the topics.

For now, any such innovations must remain a pipe dream. Back in the real world, what can we say about this year's crop of moderators?

• JIM LEHRER, first presidential debate, 3 October: For Lehrer this debate constitutes a victory lap. Because it will likely be his last, let's take a moment to salute Lehrer's service to the institution of presidential debates. He has been a questioner in 11 presidential and vice presidential debates, consistently keeping the focus on the candidates, without a whiff of political favoritism. Lehrer has also been a devoted student of debates, analyzing how they function and how they might be improved. Thanks to the series of interviews he has recorded with presidential and vice presidential debaters, the Lehrer legacy includes an invaluable historical archive for which scholars will forever be grateful.

• MARTHA RADDATZ, vice-presidential debate, 11 October: I first became aware of Raddatz -- then Martha Bradlee -- when she was a local reporter at Boston's WCVB in the 1980s. Now as then, Raddatz comes across as an intelligent, disciplined and unbiased reporter who is not afraid to step outside her comfort zone. The choice of Raddatz as debate moderator is unconventional, but she makes a promising prospect. Of all the moderators, she is the one I suspect the campaigns will regard -- and fear -- as a wild card.

• CANDY CROWLEY, second presidential debate, 16 October: Crowley's TV persona brings to mind the tough-as-nails heroines of old Hollywood movies, the kind of characters played by Rosalind Russell and Bette Davis. Crowley exudes a world-weary air of having heard every stripe of political blather a million times over -- she's a natural skeptic, which is a useful quality in a debate moderator. Of the four 2012 moderators, Crowley faces the most difficult task, because she will be in charge of the town hall. This means her chief function is to facilitate questions from the studio audience; if history is any guide, the campaigns will keep her on a short leash.

• BOB SCHIEFFER, third presidential debate, 22 October: At this point in his career, Schieffer is like everybody's favorite uncle. He has nothing to prove, and his avuncular mien gives him latitude to ask just about anything he sees fit. It bears mention that Schieffer performed admirably as moderator of the final Obama-McCain debate; by far this was the best of the 2008 series.

Moderating a presidential debate may be a career capper, but it is also a delicate, demanding and difficult job. Long before the first question has been asked, these four journalists are finding that out.

This column is cross-posted on the Presidential Debate Blog.

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