Moderator for all: Who frames the presidential debates?


University of Denver students stand in for US President Barack Obama, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and moderator Jim Lehrer during a dress rehearsal for Wednesday's presidential debate at Denver University on Oct. 2, 2012.


Win McNamee

Wednesday will mark the first of three debates between presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and incumbent Barack Obama. The two will square off in Colorado at the University of Denver on issues of domestic policy.

Aside from the candidates themselves, the person who has the most control over how the debates will proceed is the moderator.

But, according to a Poynter article published Monday, not all debates are created equal. For one thing, Wednesday's debate — hosted by Jim Lehrer, executive editor of the PBS NewsHour — awards freedom to the moderator to guide the discussion, while the debate that follows it on Oct. 16 — moderated by CNN anchor and chief political correspondent Candy Crowley — will adhere to a town hall format, taking questions directly from voters. The website of the Commission on Presidential Debates says that the third and final debate will return to the traditional format.

Carole Simpson, a former ABC News anchor who was the first woman ever to moderate a presidential debate, in 1992, told Poynter that's a problem. "She’ll be the girl with the microphone,” Simpson said. Simpson recently reflected on her own experience as that "girl," and the appointment of two women to moderate a presidential and vice-presidential debate this year, in a post for the Atlantic.

"The Commission has marginalized them — not by leaving them out of the process this time, but by the assignments they've been given," Simpson wrote. Of her own experience in 1992, Simpson said, "I could not ask my own questions. I was simply the figure you see at so many forums — a character I've come to think of as "the lady with the microphone" — albeit one who was an anchor for a major television network."

Presidential debates are sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that has been planning the debates since 1988. But, as Simpson points out, the commission itself is far from representative of the US population.

"Of the 17 members most are male and white. Only two women serve on the Commission. Perhaps a problem?" Simpson wrote in the Atlantic.

The commission's Republican co-chair, Frank Fahrenkopf, acknowledged a lack of diversity among moderators, but blamed television networks for the failing, according to Poynter.

“The television industry has not done a very good job with diversity with regard to really having women, or blacks or Hispanics in leading situations,” Fahrenkopf told Poynter in a phone interview.

He continued:

“So, we try to make sure that we have women represented … 2008 and 2004 had a black represented [when PBS’ Gwen Ifill moderated vice presidential debates]. We have not had a Hispanic yet; we looked very hard to try to find a Hispanic that met the qualifications. I know that we disappointed the Hispanic community, but you can only do so much of this. I mean, should there be a Jewish moderator? Should there be an Arabic moderator? You can only do so much of this, and so we just do our best.”

Fahrenkopf told Poynter that the commission selects primarily from a pool of experienced television journalists "who knows it’s not about them, but the candidates and the public."

But it appears some of those faces, if credible, are too familiar. Moderators have taken direct heat ahead of their appearances, according to a Monday New York Times article. Lehrer, who has moderated presidential debates 11 times previously, "was outraged by suggestions that he was a “safe” and uninspired choice to moderate the first of four debates.... Too predictable, too old, too white," the Times wrote.

Crowley, in spite of Simpson's claims that she will be marginalized as the lady with the mic at her town hall debate, appears to be prepping as intensely as her counterparts.

"Ms. Crowley jots thoughts and potential questions down on blue index cards, which litter her office and home," the Times reported.

Wednesday's match, moderated by Lehrer, will focus heavily on the economy, as well as governance and health care. That debate will be followed by an Oct. 16 engagement in New York — moderated by Crowley — focused on domestic and international issues. A final Oct. 22 debate in Florida, moderated by veteran CBS correspondent Bob Schieffer, will concentrate on foreign policy.

The debates will be broadcast live by a number of television networks, including C-SPAN, ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC, as well as all cable news channels including CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. They will also, for the first time, be live-streamed online via YouTube.

Who do you think should moderate the presidential debates? Which debate format do you think is most effective? What are the most important questions? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.