Why the Trump Factor Makes Picking a Debate Moderator a Delicate Job

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With less than a month left before Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump face off in the first of three general election debates, the presidential debate commission is in the midst of the delicate task of picking moderators.

What’s different this cycle is that Trump has said in an interview that he will “demand fair moderators” and that certain figures would be “unacceptable,” and he’s unabashed in singling out reporters and TV personalities by name for attacks. Recent example: Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.

It’s a task that is challenging in most years, but perhaps even more so this cycle, given the polarizing tenor of the race as well as predictions that the first debate on Sept. 26 could garner record viewership.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, which organizes and sponsors the general election match-ups, is not expected to announce its lineup of moderators until after Labor Day. In the past three cycles, the commission has announced the list of moderators in early- to mid- August.

Mike McCurry, the co-chairman of the commission, said that the task of selecting the list of four news media figures to serve in the roles has always been “delicate.” In addition to the Sept. 26 debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., the commission has debates scheduled for Oct. 9 at Washington University in St. Louis and on Oct. 19 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A vice presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 4 at Longwood University in Farmville, Va.


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Given that they are in the midst of the process, McCurry said that he couldn’t say much about who is being considered, but he said that the moderators will be recognizable figures but also those who focus the attention on the candidates and not themselves.

“We don’t want the moderator to be the story,” McCurry said.

He quoted Bob Schieffer, a moderator in past cycles, as saying, “People don’t go to the ballgame to see the umpires, but the players.”

The commission — a bipartisan, non-profit entity set up to sponsor the general election debates starting in 1988 — does not give the campaigns a yea or nay on moderators, McCurry says. Instead, they are paring down a list of more than 100 personalities, seeing how they performed in challenging interviews or at past debates. McCurry, co-chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr., executive director Janet Brown and the debate producers then consult with the board of directors to get their input. The board includes past moderators such as Charles Gibson and Jim Lehrer.

David Bohrman, media consultant and former Washington bureau chief for CNN, said that “personality focus is going to make it complicated for the committee, because there is a sense that Trump might say no. What if one of the candidates says no — then what? I don’t know the answer. The fear of ‘no’ has delayed the selection process.”

Whoever gets the assignment will have one of the highest-profile assignments of their careers, but one fraught with the potential for backlash. Candy Crowley moderated the second presidential debate in 2012, and faced criticism from Republicans after she corrected Mitt Romney for claiming that President Obama refused for two weeks to call the attacks on Benghazi, Libya an “act of terror.” She defended her fact-check as well within the bounds of the role of a moderator.

“More attention than ever is focused on the moderators — unfairly, in many cases — and there is a lot more ‘working the refs’ in advance of the debates than there used to be in the past,” said Alan Schroeder, professor at Northeastern University and author of “Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail.”

“What people need to remember is that the journalists who are chosen as moderators must walk a very careful line. It’s a complicated assignment, one for which the moderators receive no pay. The journalists who accept the job do so out of civic duty. And because they are journalists, they have every incentive to approach the task with fairness and neutrality — their reputation is at stake.”

A Morning Consult poll showed that CNN’s Anderson Cooper topped the list of registered voters’ preferences as debate moderator. He was chosen by 34%, with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly next at 25% and Fox News’ Chris Wallace at 22%. CBS News’ Bob Schieffer, who moderated the third presidential debate in 2012, was the choice of 17%.

McCurry said that they are mindful of diversity and younger demographics, but he acknowledged that “everyone has got their ideas on who the best people would be.”

There’s been a petition to the commission to select Jon Stewart as debate moderator, and even McCurry notes that the former “Daily Show” host is often the choice when college groups are queried, along with Stephen Colbert. As out-of-the-box as the idea is, it’d be tough to keep the focus on the candidates, rather than the comedians.

The commission also doesn’t have to really worry about ratings for the commercial-free telecast. Even though Trump raised objections to the scheduling of some debates on nights with NFL football games, there is anticipation that the first debate could shatter ratings records. Schroeder says he “would not be surprised to see audiences in the 80-100 million range, instead of the usual 50-70 million.”

Bohrman noted that it will be a match up of two personas with high negatives in the polls, and who are engaging in hard-edged attacks.

“I think people of every political belief want to see this debate — how they come across, how they react to each other, and what they have to say,” Bohrman said.

That said, the role of the moderator is important, especially in keeping the debate moving. When he was at ABC News, he was involved in the hours and hours of planning with Peter Jennings when Jennings was a panelist at a debate in 1988, and later when CNN sponsored primary debates in the 2008 cycle. He said that the selection of topics and sequence of questions “was almost like of trail of breadcrumbs, if you do it right.”

“A debate that comes to life on its own is better than just a series of questions and answers,” he said.

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  1. steve says:

    Questions I don’t want to hear (more or less) unless they are asked to both candidates –

    1. “Tell me about you sex life or personal affairs or inappropriate comments?”
    2. Leading questions like “Why do you hate one group and love another?”
    3. “Why are you a racist?”
    4. Similar personal attacks questions asked by moderators that are obviously biased

    Questions I do want to hear discussed (sticking to the issues) some of which involve –

    Terrorism, illegal immigration, vetting and enforcing the law including homeland and foreign security
    Economy and improving opportunities and realistic plans for jobs, taxes, trade, keeping jobs in the U.S.
    Education opportunities for all from grade school, to middle school, high school, and college/university
    Health care plans including for veterans and resolving current problems with the VA
    Military investment including in new technology and computer protection in the information age
    Energy investment with appropriate priorities that include keeping jobs in the united states
    Enforcing the law and supporting police that do their jobs and addressing drug problems in this country
    Addressing social security and elderly rights as well as domestic abuse and opportunities for minorities
    Discussing investing in research with chronic illnesses and promoting healthy people and environments
    Foreign policy, supporting our allies including israel and dealing with russia, china, north korea, etx

    Furthermore, both candidates should be asked the same questions to avoid tailoring and leading answers that will only bring up bias and distract from the issues. The debates should enlighten and not be a partisan for either candidate.

  2. Marie Craig says:

    While the search for the ideal non-partisan moderator is all well and good, how about some real political discourse?
    Open the debates to Jill Stein and Gary Johnson as well.

  3. Joel Robbins says:

    Questions I want asked—and answered–during the upcoming debates between Clinton and Trump:
    1. Congress and its bipartisan politics have led to gridlock and a disgruntled electorate. The old saying is power corrupts. During America’s history, more than a hundred congressmen have help power more than 35 years. The Congress feared excessive power in the executive branch and the States ratified a constitutional amendment in 1951 limiting presidents to two terms, 8 years. Would you favor a constitutional amendment limiting representatives and senators’ terms?
    2. Many of our social programs appear to be enabling the lazy. Plus programs allowing tax evasion, tax forgiveness, cheap mortgages, bogus SSI recipients and questionable lawsuits are fostering specialty law firms and costing the government billions. How can you end this?
    3. During World War II our grandparents and parents faced rationing of steel, butter, tires, wool, and bought war bonds to support the war. Now when America goes to war the life of most citizens doesn’t change and we run up trillions of dollars in debt. Do you think we should have a pay-as-you-go policy concerning wars to keep from increasing the federal deficit?
    4. What do you say to people who earn their money and stick to their budget so that they can pay their fair share of taxes without looking for loopholes, pay their bills, and not go bankrupt, when the government almost never stays within its budget and runs up a massive debt each year?
    5. Only millionaires seem to be running for the presidency. Both of you are worth millions. Ivy League or graduates from Eastern universities seem to be overly represented in the federal government. Secretary Clinton attended Wellesley and Yale and Mr. Trump matriculated at Fordham and University of Pennsylvania. Both of you are also from one American city, New York, which does not represent the values and opinions of all the states and cities in the nation. How can you convince voters that we’re not creating an oligarchy, where the nation is ruled by the rich and/or graduates from East Coast universities?
    6. America has conducted several ill-advised and nation-destabilizing wars. The citizens weren’t taxed or asked to agree or disagree with these actions. If Americans had had to pay higher taxes or face rationing of goods, do you think they would have rebelled and told their representatives to avoid these costly (in money and military lives) wars?
    7. Both candidates have banks and big money to thank for their successes–Trump in real estate loans and Clinton through political speeches. How can either of you assure voters you are willing to bite the hand that feeds you to give back power and good jobs to the average American?
    8. Congress has been spending more on defense that the next 10 nations combined. That includes China, Russia, France, England, India and five other nations. Recently it was exposed that the Army spent $8,000 for a $500 gear. The F-35 aircraft is another one of the recent embarrassing programs. Has Department of Defense contracts become just another entitlement program, not for the needy, but for those who are war profiteers?
    9. America has invaded sovereign countries to take out enemies without declaring war. Do you agree with this tactic? If so, should we allow other countries to do the same in the United States?
    10. Transparency in government has been an issue for decades. Voters ask for it and politicians try to avoid it. Mr. Trump won’t release his taxes to prove some of the claims he has made about campaign donations, personal contributions to charities and his net worth. Secretary Clinton won’t publish transcripts of speeches to Wall Street firms that garnered her thousands of dollars. She erased thousands of emails before giving her computer to the FBI, which isn’t the standard operating procedure during FBI investigations. How can you prove to voters that you will change and become more transparent in your actions if you’re elected President?
    11. Presidents since Reagan have increased our debt from 1 trillion dollars to 20 trillion. Because of this and other actions, many countries are abandoning the US Dollar as a stable banking currency. How will you reverse this trend?

  4. The “careful line” simply that you not lie and propagandize for the democrat – a TALL ORDER for liberals that, frankly, they can’t fill.

  5. I hope who ever they choose sticks to issues and not insults. I finally quit watching the Republican debates because it seemed the moderators wanted to see these sparks fly. It does no one any good if we can’t get past the rancor that this elections has generated and get to the issues and how they plan to deal with them.

  6. Rick Stewart says:

    I was delighted to find this article, particularly because it calls a spade a spade when it says the CPD is a bi-partisan organization. Normally, journalists fall for the CPD claim of non-partisan (which claim can be soundly proven false with mere facts, such as their official announcement, in writing, when they formed the organization).

    Let me also suggest the problem is much bigger than the CPD would like to claim. All the people who have not been bamboozled by the Republican/Democratic monopoly on the debates know the CPD is simply not an honest broker. Educating the media has been slow – they only wake up once every four years to think about it – but the CPD should simply never be allowed to sponsor any debate again, ever.

    The CPD is a scourge on democracy, and since 1988 even the educated media has not known how to eliminate them. Honest citizens, thanks to social media, have now taken on the task. Anyone journalist or other public figure who is willing to risk accepting the job of moderator or panelist will immediately be identified as a stooge of the two parties, and will lose complete credibility with a fair share of the population – the ones who know there will be more than two choices on their ballot come November 8th.

    The days of the CPD are numbered. The only question is – will they escape 2016?

    • Rick Stewart says:

      The CPD is also having a hard time finding anyone to be a ‘National Debate Sponsor.’

      Which is odd, since this honor is absolutely free (easy to prove – in 2012 most of them admitted it in writing). I asked to be considered, but never heard back from the CPD.

      Check the CPD’s webpage and notice there are absolutey no ‘National Debate Sponsors’ for 2016. There are also three empty spots in 2012, because three of them fled in horror after they found out how corrupt the CPD was.

      The CPD’s house of cards is falling down around them, but few in the media seem to notice. Or perhaps they don’t care. Or perhaps they have just given up on democracy in our time, as most of the rest of the population has.

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