After the first presidential debate — even during it — the media and the public piled on moderator Jim Lehrer for being passive and letting the candidates talk over him. Mock Twitter accounts popped up, including @SilentJimLehrer.
Then at last week’s vice presidential debate, ABC’s Martha Raddatz took the opposite approach, interrupting repeatedly, pursuing answers. Once again, pundits pounced, some calling her partisan, while others praised her.
CNN’s Candy Crowley takes the hot seat for the second presidential debate Tuesday night, and this time controversy surfaced even before the event. Crowley said she never agreed to the campaigns’ rule, that the moderator should not comment on, or ask follow-ups to, the audience questions. And she said she has no intention of sitting by mute.
“Once you begin to worry about what are people going to say about you . . . you’re no longer playing attention to the journalism or the moderator part of it,” Crowley said last week.
The role of the moderator has become a “thing” this season. What was once perceived as an honorific job, or an invisible one like a baseball umpire, is now itself under debate. Analyzing the 2012 political debates has become as much about the moderators and their styles as about the candidates themselves.
The conversations often break along party lines. “Whichever side loses usually blames the moderator,” the New Yorker’s John Cassidy blogged the morning after the vice presidential debate.
Dissection of the moderator “is much more intense this time around than I can recall in 2008 or 2004,” according to CBS’s Bob Schieffer, who moderated presidential debates in the previous two elections and will moderate the third and final 2012 presidential debate on Oct. 22. “With all these blogs, with all the websites, there are just more reporters covering everything now. . . . God knows what it will be like four years from now.”
Jim Madigan of WGBY-TV in Western Massachusetts, who moderated last week’s third debate between Senator Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, has noticed the same growing scrutiny of moderators.
“The stakes are just so high right now that people are looking for every reason to figure out why whatever happens to their candidate happens,” he said “Whether they think they did well, or usually if they think they didn’t do well or didn’t get a fair shake, right away they point — well the moderator was tougher on them with time, or didn’t give them equal time, or interrupted them.”
What is the job about? Just holding the stopwatch? Keeping the candidates on point? Letting them duke it out? “My role there is not only as time-keeper,” Schieffer said, “but also to make sure each one gets an equal shot. If I ask one of them a question, and they go two minutes, and the other goes two minutes, and then the other person decides to filibuster, I know how to stop that. I won’t hesitate. I’ll do it in a polite way. . . . It’s the quality of the discussion that matters. I’ll try to follow the rules, but if they really get into it, and they’re making points, I’m going to give them a chance to do that.”
Schieffer says that on his weekly show, “Face the Nation,” he wants to move the story forward. “I’m trying to find a new top for whatever the big story of the week is. In this case, I think it is my responsibility to help people know the two people who are running for president better. It’s my hope that they would come away from the debate having a better feel and a better understanding of what position these people take on the major issues of the day, but even more than that, having a better feel for who they are. And how they would react in time of crisis.”Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.