My column: How to be a good debate moderator


With a couple of days until the vice presidential debate and a week until the next confrontation between Mitt Romney and President Obama, it’s worth talking honestly about the role of the moderator.

I inserted that adverb because most of what’s been said about Jim Lehrer’s performance – if absence can be called a performance – has been skewed by partisan biases. Republicans argued how wonderful it was, as Peggy Noonan wrote in an otherwise excellent column, that Lehrer was “old school and a pro.” Democrats sputtered about Lehrer being swatted away by Romney, as if his intercession could have aroused the president from his haughty stupor.

I, like many in my profession, admire Lehrer. But, folks, he was awful that night.

Not only did he let both candidates bully him, even if done with patronizing smiles, but Lehrer did not do what a moderator is supposed to do: Moderate.

An effective interlocutor, by definition, presides and participates. If he or she does not, we might as well have a recorded voice ask the questions and a buzzer go off when time is up.

“He didn't think it was about him,” Noonan fawned. “How quaint. He asked questions, allowed a certain amount of leeway to both candidates, which allowed each to reveal himself, and kept things moving,” Noonan wrote, which indicates to me she was blinded by a thousand points of light.

The argument that Lehrer did the right thing by not interceding and that Obama or Romney had the burden of calling the other to account misses a fundamental reality. When opaque numbers ($5 trillion tax cut, $716 billion in Medicare cuts) or random statistics (half of green energy projects went bankrupt) or declarative claims (Obama doubled the deficit) take center stage, most people watching are not knowledgeable enough to know whether these are facts or canards or half-truths.

That’s where the moderator MUST step in, put himself or herself between the candidates and the public, and press the participant on the veracity of the claim or puncture the spin with facts.

You want to know what’s revealing? How candidates react under pressure of having their talking points pierced. Do they continue to stonewall, or do they commit a gaffe and, perhaps, accidentally tell the whole truth?

That’s where the moderator comes in – or should. I’ve moderated dozens of debates in my career – from U.S. Senate contests to County Commission tussles. It is not an easy job. But I have learned many valuable lessons on what to do and not do.

So, I submit for Thursday’s moderator Martha Raddatz, the fearless ABC correspondent, and next week’s presidential debate moderator, Candy Crowley, the first woman ever to preside over such an encounter, three basic rules for those given the honor and responsibility of doing so.

1.     Preparation is everything. I don’t just mean formulate good, topical, relevant questions, ones designed to illuminate….something. That’s a given. But know the topics as well as the participants, if that’s possible, so you can detect if they are trying to bamboozle the audience. If ever knowledge were power, it’s when a moderator possesses it.

2.     Let the candidates engage each other – up to a point. You want to encourage some back and forth on important topics. So if you ask a question to Candidate X about what he or she has said or will do about Topic Y – or sometimes about what Candidate X has said about Candidate Z’s opinion of Topic Y – let them go back and forth on it. I know George Will thinks debates don’t reveal much at the presidential level, but they can. Depth of knowledge. Intellectual dexterity. Temperament under pressure. If the contenders meander off topic, or lapse into Jabberwocky, don’t be afraid to step in and push them back on topic or let the audience know they are uttering nonsense.

3.     Don’t be afraid to get involved. You are in control. That’s implicit in the definition of moderator. Even if it is the president of the United States and his challenger, they are subordinate to you. You have been charged with this important task because the Commission on Presidential Debates believed you could add something. So don't, as Noonan and others might suggest, subtract yourself. Be firm. Make sure they understand when you interrupt that you are doing it for a reason – to re-frame, to correct, to chide, if necessary. That is your job; anything less is Brendan Sullivan status.

In the skewed world in which we live, I don’t expect people to see a debate’s participants or the moderator through anything but the same fractured prism through which they view all political events. But that’s not the moderator’s concern; his or her responsibility is to extract the most information out of the candidates in a digestible form for the voters.

The goal is not to be old-school or new-school, quaint or unruly. And, ultimately, moderators have to realize, that just as the debate performers may be judged harshly afterward, so shall they.