Moderate Debates and Debate Moderators

3 October 2012Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting

Media Advisory

Debate process needs more scrutiny, not less

Jim Lehrer is hopping mad. The New York Times (10/2/12) reports that the PBS anchor “has been seething. He said he was outraged by suggestions that he was a ‘safe’ and uninspired choice to moderate the first of four debates.”

The focus of the Times piece is the fact that people have more ways to express their opinions about the presidential debate moderators:

In the Twitter age, when anyone can immediately render swift and harsh judgment, the stress of hosting an event as politically charged as a presidential debate is heavier than ever.

While the New York Times seems bothered by the “partisan rancor in this hyper-politicized climate,” it’s difficult to see the downside in criticizing the process. In fact, it deserves much more scrutiny.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, which wrested control of the debates from the League of Women Voters in 1988, is a nonprofit–financed largely by corporations–that is basically controlled by the two major political parties. The campaigns hash out secret agreements about every aspect of the debates, and, as the group Open Debates has pointed out for years, the campaigns actually get to vet the moderators.

PBS host Gwen Ifill, host of two past vice presidential debates, skirted this fact in a piece for the Washington Post (9/28/12) about debate “myths,” one of which was the idea that the candidates get to see the questions in advance. But once they’ve chosen the questioners, perhaps they don’t need to.

What’s more, the subject areas to be covered in the first debate are already known, which would appear to be the first time the candidates have ever received this kind of advance notice (U.S. News9/21/12). Jim Lehrer has already announced that he will ask six questions during the first debate–three on the economy, one about healthcare, one about the role of government and one about governing. So the candidates know that in the first debate, they will not be addressing a long list of issues, from immigration to the environment to crime. 

Under other circumstances, journalists would likely express discomfort if politicians had control over which journalists from a particular outlet would be permitted to interview them. NPR, for example, declined an interview with George W. Bush in 2007 because the White House insisted that only Juan Williams could conduct it (Washington Post9/26/07).

According to Politico (9/29/12), Lehrer is praised by journalists and political leaders across the board. His

commitment to fairness, sense of modesty and professional experience–developed over more than five decades in newspaper then television journalism–have earned him the respect of political strategists across the ideological spectrum.

Being praised by “political strategists” could mean you’re exceedingly fair–or that you’ve managed to offend no one in power. The latter is not exactly an admirable trait in a journalist. But it’s the kind of thing that makes it likely that the major-party candidates will let you moderate their presidential debate.

FAIR‘s repeated studies of the NewsHour show that Lehrer’s reputation for moderation is based on a tilt toward conservative sources and a willingness to exclude perspectives that might challenge the elite consensus (Media Advisory5/13/11). When FAIR studied two months of the NewsHour in 2010 (Extra!11/10), we found four times as many oil industry representatives talking about the BP oil spill as environmental experts; none of the segments on the Afghan War included a peace advocate.

Thankfully, there are some alternatives. Democracy Now! is presenting a debate special that will include real-time responses to the questions from candidates shut out by the debate commission: Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party. There will also be a livestream special presented by, offering analysis and commentary that will not be available in the corporate media.

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