As Obama and Romney prepare for tonight's debate, don't forget about the man in the middle

Moderating presidential debates is harder than it looks. You've got two would-be presidents hanging on your every word and 60 million watching

Share

It's enough to make anyone sweat.

There's the pressure to prepare, the pressure to ask the “right” questions, to be unobtrusive, yet sharp and insistent. There are two would-be presidents hanging on your next utterance and about 60 million people watching your every move. And the whole time, there's a guy yelling in your earpiece to get to the next question.

Jim Lehrer, the PBS newsman who'll moderate his 12th presidential debate on Wednesday, compares the experience to “a walk down a knife blade.” He titled his memoir of moderating debates “Tension City” — not just because the candidates are nervous, but because he is, too.

CBS's Bob Schieffer, who'll moderate the third Obama-Romney debate later this month, remembers that his hands were trembling before he stepped out to moderate his first (Bush vs. Kerry) in 2004. “First time in 25 years that happened!” he recalled Tuesday. “I never get nervous on TV; I just don't. But when you realize that something said on that stage may well determine who wins the presidency, well, it's different, isn't it?”

A hot seat, yes. The men (or women _two are involved this year) who moderate the major debates have to be part inquisitor, part referee, part timekeeper and part wallpaper.

Gwen Ifill, also of PBS, says the two vice-presidential debates she moderated in 2004 and 2008 were “the hardest thing I've ever done, probably.”

The odd thing is, once and future moderators agree, no one is supposed to remember you were there. If they've done their jobs right, they say, people will remember the candidates' answers, not the questions.

Zip it, Mr President

As a measure of what can go wrong, there's the continuing YouTube horror of CNN's John King getting blown down by Newt Gingrich's gale-force answer to a question about Gingrich's marital troubles during a Republican primary debate in January. King was visibly rocked by Gingrich's response — and the audience's roaring approval of the response — and tried gamely to recover.

There have been no such moments of candidate-on-moderator verbal pyrotechnics in the presidential debates, in part because the stakes and the format ensure against it. Presidential candidates strive to seem presidential during their prime-time debates, and the two-man format provides adequate time for answers and follow-ups.

By contrast, the primary debates, with six or eight candidates grasping for airtime, are “cattle shows,” says Frank Fahrenkopf, the co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Fahrenkopf suggests that a lack of ego is a huge plus in a moderator: “We're looking for someone who knows the story is about the candidates and not about them,” he says. The job requires the ability to follow up, experience working on TV, deep knowledge of the campaign and the issues, and a reputation for neutrality and balance, he notes.

It also helps to have someone with enough confidence to tell the future president of the United States that it's time for him to clam up and let the other guy talk.

Lehrer, the Cal Ripken of debate moderators, makes it look easy. But even he gets anxious.

“The greatest fear of a moderator is that he or she will miss something,” he said Tuesday as final technical adjustments were being made before Wednesday's event at the University of Denver. “If the candidate says it, and you let it go by, you have a hard time getting them back to clarify or explain. The fear of it is what makes me prepare as hard as I do.”

Preparation

Moderators start developing questions weeks in advance. They read, ask friends and experts, and get plenty of unsolicited advice from strangers and politicians. Schieffer does his prep the old-fashioned way: He clips newspaper stories and pastes them into the pages of a three-ring binder.

Ifill says she got so absorbed with her debate preparation in 2008 that it led to a broken ankle. Deep in debate prep, she walked out of her home office and didn't notice that she'd left some of the books she'd been studying on the stairs. She took a tumble and made it to the debate stage three days later on crutches (which were discreetly hidden from the TV cameras).

“As a moderator I tried to practice good journalism — being fair, being objective, and seeking the truth,” said former ABC journalist Carole Simpson, who moderated the 1992 presidential debate among Bill Clinton, President George H.W. Bush and independent Ross Perot. She still caught flak. “People said I was a liberal Democrat, probably because [as] a black woman I had to be one. I've come to the conclusion that no matter how well you do the job, you will be blamed for something.”

Simpson said she had only five days' notice that she would be moderating a town-hall debate, a then-new format in which the moderator directs questions to the candidates from audience members. Although she boned up on the issues and positions of the candidates and was able to ask follow-up questions, the initial questions came from the audience.

“I literally was the lady holding the microphone for the questioners,” said Simpson, who notes that CNN's Candy Crowley, the only woman moderating a presidential debate this year, will be similarly restricted by the town-hall format. Another female journalist, Martha Raddatz of ABC, will moderate the only vice-presidential debate, on Oct. 11.

Out of the picture

The selection of moderators this cycle has drawn criticism from minority groups, including the NAACP, which have objected to the absence of an African American or Latino moderator. Fahrenkopf said his commission is aware of the need for diversity, but “it's very difficult to strike the balance you want to get,” he said. “We feel we have very experienced people [moderating] this year, all of whom are very solid journalists who are comfortable in their own skin.”

Simpson, however, sees something of a glass ceiling: “The women are limited in their input, but the two men moderating this year will get to ask their own questions directly to the candidates,” she says. “It seems women are best at . . . holding the mike for the people. I do like the town-hall format so the people can participate in the process, but let a man do it next time and let a woman go head-to-head with the candidates asking her own questions.”

Schieffer, who likens the presidential debates to heavyweight championship fights, says the moderator's job is to “move the story forward. My hope is that people will come away knowing a little bit more about who these [candidates] are and what their positions are.”

As such, “the onus is on them and not us,” he says. “I like to think I have the ability to keep them on point and get them past their talking points, but in the end, they determine what happens.”

Paul Farhi writes for The Washington Post

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager - Media Sales - £36,000 OTE

£28000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award-winning company, whi...

Recruitment Genius: C# .NET Developer / Application Support - Junior

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This business has an industry r...

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They make daily deliveries to most foodservice...

Recruitment Genius: Transport Planner

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They make daily deliveries to most foodservice...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A young person in the UK is now twice as likely to be poor as a pensioner  

Britain is no country for the young – in jobs, income or housing

Ben Chu
LaGuardia Airport: a relic from a different, gentler age  

New York's LaGuardia Airport to be rebuilt: It could become the best gateway to America

Simon Calder
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
10 best DSLRs

Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine
Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash