Neither democracy nor voters are well served when the moderator becomes the focus
Can any single moderator possibly satisfy both candidates plus millions of viewers at home?
Editor’s Note: Melissa K. Miller is an associate professor of political science at Bowling Green State University specializing in American politics. Sam Nelson is a senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and directs Cornell’s debate program
Matt Lauer is the latest news anchor to come under harsh scrutiny for his performance as a moderator. While NBC’s “Commander in Chief Forum” with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was not an actual debate, it clearly exposed the many weaknesses of the moderator-driven format.
There is no question that the four moderators chosen for the upcoming presidential debates – Anderson Cooper, Lester Holt, Martha Raddatz and Chris Wallace – will be under heightened scrutiny in the aftermath of Lauer’s performance.
Unfortunately, the 2016 structure instituted by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) once again gives the moderators a central role in what should be candidate-focused affairs. While one debate will be a town-hall style exchange with voters, the other two give the moderator a thankless and impossible task.
Donald Trump has said he would prefer to debate Hillary Clinton without a moderator taking part, that he believes the criticism of Matt Lauer will game the moderators to rig the debates against him. But there are a host of other reasons why the moderator’s role is problematic that go beyond the recent kerfuffle over Lauer.
Can any single moderator possibly satisfy both candidates plus millions of viewers at home by picking topics deemed universally vital to the choice Americans face on November 8? The CPD gives the moderator sole discretion over the topics to be covered in the debates. No single person will be able to escape justifiable criticism that they emphasized a topic that favored one candidate, ignored a topic to a different candidate’s advantage, or in any other way brought personal bias to the undertaking.
The CPD also gives the moderator the singular power to drive the discussion. After allowing each candidate two minutes to respond to their opening question in each segment, the CPD declares that the “moderator will use the balance of the time in the segment for a deeper discussion of the topic.”
While there is no doubt that the journalists selected for this coveted role are capable of asking probing questions, they also have to make split-second decisions about which candidate to probe, which candidate to call out for inaccuracy, and which candidate to give the last word – all under the watchful eyes of the Clinton and Trump campaigns and their loyal supporters watching at home. We can virtually guarantee that professional and amateur pundits alike will explode with criticism, no matter how the moderator performs.
Neither democracy nor voters are well served when the moderator becomes the focus of attention rather than the candidates, as Matt Lauer did in the aftermath of the Commander in Chief forum. If there was ever a year to rethink the format for presidential debates, 2016 would be it. Yet the CPD opted for business as usual.
We have a simple proposal: Why not simply eliminate the moderator?
A timekeeper – rather than a moderator – could time the opening statements, keep track of the 15-minute segments, alert the candidates when to change topics, and signal them to begin their closing statements.
What if the candidates refuse to change topics? In that case, voters would get a clear picture of each candidate’s willingness to follow protocol – arguably of interest to voters picking the nation’s top diplomat.
What if the candidates simply talk (or shout) over one another for the duration of the debate? Once again, voters would gain insight into how each candidate might handle themselves in a tense negotiation with a fierce rival. This would be valuable information when choosing a president with the skill to negotiate with congressional opponents or international foes.
What if the candidates play loose with the facts or misrepresent their past positions on an issue, and there is no moderator to call them out? No worries – their opponent will undoubtedly raise any necessary red flags in the debate. Indeed, former presidential debate moderator Bob Schieffer has recently argued that “the first fact checker has to be the other candidate.” More controversially, one of the upcoming moderators, Chris Wallace of Fox News, has stated, “I do not believe that it’s my job to be a truth squad. It’s up to the other person to catch them on that.” We agree with both Schieffer and Wallace.
The reality is that regardless of the debate format employed, professional fact-checkers for the campaigns and major media outlets will be checking every utterance for accuracy; some will begin reporting untruths before the broadcast even ends.
An additional concern is the choice of topics for each 15-minute segment, which the CPD allows the moderator to solely pick. In our view, voters themselves are the most logical source of topics for debate. Interestingly, the CPD has charged the Gallup Organization, a highly-respected survey research company, with the job of identifying uncommitted voters for the separate, town-hall style debate. Gallup could also query a representative sample of likely voters to identify topics they themselves feel warrant discussion in the other two debates.
A moderator-free format would offer other benefits. Without question, issues of character are weighing on the minds of voters. Seeing the candidates debate in an unfiltered, unmoderated format offers an excellent opportunity to judge how they might handle themselves under pressure when confronted by their fiercest opponent.
Get our free weekly newsletter
How would Donald Trump react to tough questioning from Hillary Clinton? How would Hillary Clinton deal with direct challenges from Donald Trump? Thanks to the current moderator-driven format, voters will never have a chance to find out.
The focus should be on the candidates, not the moderator. Presidential candidates do not and should not need a referee. Let them stand up for themselves one-on-one to give voters the best possible window on how they would comport themselves as president.
Beginning in 2020, we should all insist that the CPD reject its business-as-usual approach, starting with significantly limiting the role of the moderator.