Margaret Sullivan: 5 things the debate moderators must do

By Margaret Sullivan comment

US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Photo / Washington Post
US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Photo / Washington Post

COMMENT

Whatever you may think of Donald Trump's politics, fitness for office and character, you have to admit he's a genius communicator, especially on television.

That's why it comes as no surprise that he floated the idea yesterday that the three scheduled presidential debates feature no interference in the form of a moderator who might inhibit his penchant for fact-challenged showmanship.

Here's how the Republican nominee put it in a CNBC interview: "Let Hillary and I sit there and just debate, because I think the system is being rigged so it's going to be a very unfair debate".

Trump said he fears that the widespread criticism of Matt Lauer, who moderated NBC's recent "Commander in Chief Forum," means that debate moderators will come out loaded for bear. Lauer was thoroughly pummelled - especially for letting Trump go unchallenged when he said he opposed the war in Iraq from the start, which is false.

"Well, now the new person's going to try to be really hard on Trump just to show, you know, the establishment what he can do," Trump said. Brian Stelter of CNN accurately called this out in his newsletter as "working the refs" pre-emptively.

But in making this proposal, Trump inadvertently raises the issue of just how the moderators should approach these debates, which could be immensely important in the election's outcome.

The moderators are NBC News's Lester Holt on September 27, ABC's Martha Raddatz and CNN's Anderson Cooper on October 10 (that one is a town-hall-style debate), and Fox News' Chris Wallace on October 20. None of the four have moderated a general-election presidential debate before. They strike me as generally solid choices.

Here's some unsolicited advice for what they should do in these extraordinarily important debates:

1 Maintain control

Good luck with this, of course, but it's of paramount importance. The moderators have to walk a careful line - they should not become the story, but somebody has to be in charge. If not the moderator, it will be the candidates, particularly Trump, who is so dominant in his demeanour.

2 Be well-prepared enough to assert the truth in real time

Wallace, who'll moderate the last debate - just two weeks before the election - has already said that he doesn't see his role as fact-checking, otherwise known as calling the candidates on their lies.

"I'm not there to truth-squad," he told his colleague Howard Kurtz. That was surprising because Wallace can be a very tough and effective interviewer; I hope he'll change his mind about that. If journalists aren't interested in being part of the truth squad, they should find another sport.

They can get some help with this, through some real-time fact-checking by the networks airing the debates. We've seen some from cable networks during the campaign in those bottom-of-the-screen captions known as chyrons. ("He's not," said one of them when Trump insisted President Barack Obama was the founder of Isis.) More of this, please!

3 Be willing - and able - to stop the candidates in their tracks

Candidates always wander off the subject in an effort to stay on message, and the moderators need to lasso them right back to where they should be.

4 Set clear guidelines at the start and hold the candidates to them

Lauer tried this, to no avail, when he said he didn't want the candidates attacking each other. They both did. Let's try that kind of thing again, with more follow-through and a stiffer spine.

5 Be willing to pursue a logical line of questioning, with repeated follow-up questions

James Fallows of the Atlantic magazine, whose just-published cover story looks ahead to the debates and back to other notable presidential debate moments, says that this kind of persistence shouldn't be confused with tough-talk showboating.

"It's so easy to think that sounding tough is the same as being clear," he told me. "It's important not to mistake hostility of tone for relentlessness of logic."

He noted that Chris Matthews of MSNBC did this well when he interviewed Trump about his abortion beliefs a few months ago. It ended up making news because Matthews pressed Trump until he became more specific: He said women who seek abortions should be subject to "some form of punishment" if the procedure were to be banned.

It's not easy to do this job well, and it may never have been tougher than in this election cycle. But despite Trump's ardent wishes, it's imperative that the moderators rise to the challenge.

- Washington Post

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