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Debate Moderators Are Awful. Let’s Get Rid Of Them


Seth MacFarlane had a good idea this week:

I kind of like rowdy debate crowds. There were a couple of debates during the Republican primary where the crowd seemed half-drunk. That’s how politics should be done. Still, they can be distracting. Yet if he throws in the so-called moderators out as well, he’s got a deal!

In mediated political debates, journalists are supposed to moderate and control what topics are covered, how questions are framed, and what assumptions are built into topics. Some do it better than others, of course, but too often the moderators — from smug local journalists to Candy Crowley — become part of the story.

They rarely have the chops to ask good policy questions or follow up on dumb policy answers. With politicians they support, they won’t push back much on even the most erroneous or outlandish claims. But if they don’t like a candidate, they’ll push back, no matter how uninformed about the matter at hand they may be. This is related to another point of confusion: they seem to believe it’s their job to argue with candidates rather than facilitate discussions among candidates.

Many of these moderators ask questions full of incorrect assumptions, mistaking their job of reporting on a given topic for being significantly knowledgeable on the same. The ideological agendas various journalists advance show that the media are not neutral parties.

To take just one example, reporters love to push pro-life candidates about every angle of their views on the sanctity of life, posing increasingly difficult questions. But when was the last time you heard a pro-choice politician asked much of anything about his views, much less if he thinks the right to abortion extends to killing a child because she’s a girl?

The Feigned Matt Lauer Outrage

Remember all the way back to earlier this month, when Matt Lauer did a better-than-adequate job moderating a candidate forum. Hillary Clinton had a rough night while Donald Trump did fine. Her supporters in the media launched an all-out attack on Lauer. “Matt Lauer’s Pathetic Interview of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Is the Scariest Thing I’ve Seen in This Campaign,” read the headline of one typical and totally not hyperbolic piece arguing that Lauer went easy on Trump and hard on Clinton. I’m not sure anyone viewed this as much more than an attempt to send a warning shot to future moderators that they had better do more to help Clinton and hurt Trump.

Or as David Burge put it:

For what it’s worth, Tim Carney points out that the media have been far too compliant with the Clinton campaign’s attempts to work them.

Many in media have not had a banner couple of weeks since the Lauer forum. To take the example of just one newspaper, the Washington Post editorial page called for less scrutiny of Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, and one of their political reporters demanded that mainstream journalists not pay any attention to Clinton’s alleged health problems. Her physical collapse at a 9/11 memorial event — the campaign claimed she was unable to control her body because of dehydration and pneumonia — occurred just days later.

The Call For ‘Fact’ ‘Checking’

Some reporters and media critics thought they figured out a magic bullet to stop Trump and help Clinton. What if the moderators would take on more of a “fact” “checking” role?

The New York Times called for moderators to be more hostile to Trump.
Margaret Sullivan at the Washington Post came up with a list of five things that debate moderators must do, including:

2. Be well-prepared enough to assert the truth in real time. Wallace, who’ll moderate the last debate — just two weeks before the election — has already said that he doesn’t see his role as fact-checking, otherwise known as calling the candidates on their lies.

“I’m not there to truth-squad,” he told his colleague Howard Kurtz. That was surprising because Wallace can be a very tough and effective interviewer; I hope he’ll change his mind about that. If journalists aren’t interested in being part of the truth squad, they should find another sport.

They can get some help with this, through some real-time fact-checking by the networks airing the debates. We’ve seen some from cable networks during the campaign in those bottom-of-the-screen captions known as chyrons. (“He’s not,” said one of them when Trump insisted President Obama was the founder of ISIS.) More of this, please!

She’s not joking. She meant that. And what a particularly bad example to choose. “Fact” “checking” one candidate’s rhetorical flourishes with an autistic literalism is just about the worst thing the media could do.

Recall Crowley’s epic misfire during a debate in 2012 when she “fact” “checked” an issue in real time in a manner that greatly helped President Obama out of a jam only to realize later that she’d messed up. The issue related to whether the Obama administration had admitted that the Benghazi attack was terrorism or whether they had claimed it was a spontaneous protest in response to an American-made video critical of Islam. It took the Obama administration a week and a half to even begin to admit publicly what they knew right away — that it was a coordinated terror attack.

They did this after sending out State Department employees to insist that all the best evidence was that this was just a run-of-the-mill protest that got carried away. Romney was critical of this dance. Crowley weighed in to give the impression that President Obama had come clean about the terrorism right away, using the loophole that he’d made a vague reference to terror during an announcement the day after Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans had been killed.

This is why you don’t “fact” “check” in real time, whether to pretend that you don’t understand what Trump’s point about Obama being the founder of ISIS is or whether you’re just kind of confused about the timeline of shenanigans post-Benghazi.

Here’s a Better Plan: No Moderators

Of the moderators chosen for upcoming debates, some are fine and some are Martha Raddatz, arguably the worst debate moderator of the previous cycle. CNN’s Anderson Cooper proved adept at moderating Democratic debates — perhaps the best moderator of any of this cycle’s primary debates — but his hostility to those he disagrees with could very well pose a serious problem.

Everyone’s nervously continuing to work the moderators. Hollywood Reporter just ran a piece headlined: “Don’t Get Lauer’d: Nervous Networks Prep for Presidential Debates.”

Just get rid of the moderators altogether! They’re wildly confused about their role — see this Ron Fournier tweet for a particularly egregious, if funny, example:

Fournier kept at it for several more tweets, insisting that journalists should be boxers in a ring against politicians. Try to imagine a group of people less qualified or less trusted to do that.

In general, American trust in mass media has sunk to a historic low, according to Gallup. Only 32 percent say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust. For Republicans, the trust plummets even further to 14 percent, down precipitously from 32 percent the previous year. And check out these numbers:

The only person or group listed in that poll who has lower favorability ratings than the media is Vladimir Putin. Americans despise the media more than Trump, more than Clinton, even more than Canada.

The media have absolutely shot their already-on-the-ropes credibility this cycle by removing any pretense of objectivity. In what world are these people “moderating” anything, much less an important debate? In what world should that happen?

Remember the examples cited above, where moderators were supposed to say Obama didn’t literally start ISIS and that Trump gave a tepid “Yeah, I guess so” and a few other conflicted public remarks about the Iraq War? This would make more sense if it were a one-sided forum. But not for a debate.

In a debate, the opponent has the opportunity to call out whatever he or she wants to. And a skilled debater can use such opportunities to his or her advantage. There is no need for one candidate to be in a ring fighting both another candidate and a referee raring to go. Donald Trump is a big boy. Hillary Clinton is a big girl. They can more than handle each other face to face without running to Lester Holt or Chris Wallace and asking for help.

If more than a few journalists showed an ability to be impartial or to moderate discussions, there would be use in having them on stage. As it is, the candidates should just agree to some basic rules about topics and time limits, and then go for it.

It would be entertaining, it would be instructive, and it would frankly add a level of difficulty to the pseudo-events we call debates.

If it was good enough for President Lincoln and his opponents, it should be good enough for us. Let’s do this, for the good of the country.