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

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.

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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