Presidential Debate Moderators

AKIE BERMISS: Presidential election years are the World Cup of American politics.  For many people who don’t follow politics 75% of the time, it is the only year in which they really care about who is doing what.  Its when they find out who’s been voting which way or making which claim.  That’s all fine and dandy – well, actually, its terribly depressing for those of us concerned about the state of American political awareness – but for the politics-heads there is something even more exceptional about these election years: it is the one time when we can bring our passion for political discourse out in to public and not be thought of as uncouth.  Politics is everywhere during these election years.  And nowhere is it more potently distilled than when we come to the Presidential debates.


Toward that end, I treasure the Presidential debates.  I think that in a political climate where Super-PACs control the television and airwaves, where political news is watered-down by the blatant biases of our cable news shows and where the national conventions have just become multi-day, hyper-partisan informercials – the Presidential debate is about as close as we ever come to true public political discourse.  One in which the two or more candidates are alone on stage and must field questions from the audience, each other, and most-frequently, the moderator(s).

There is no more treasured non-political position in a political debate, therefore, than that of the moderator.  He or she is the master of ceremonies.  The moderator can choose to have the evening be a civil interlude of question-answering and stump-speeching or they can e an aggressive inquisitor.  They can beat it back to these normally unassailable political giants forcing them to get down to specifics..  It is a rare opportunity.  And, as such, it really was a disappointment to read about the moderators selected for this years’ debates.  You’d think that for an election as historic as 2012’s is likely to be and what with all the many complicated issues before this nation – well, you’d think there’d be a desire to really exploit the Presidential debate to bust the gates of public knowledge wide open.  And, along with that, maybe diverging from the usual debate moderators and bringing in some new blood.  But no.  Take a look at the four appointed moderators here. There is nothing remarkable about this bunch.

What about some diversity for a year when diversity is likely to be at the forefront of most minds?  In a year when the President has enacted an executive order that gives the children of undocumented Mexican immigrants the opportunity to stay in the country if the want to work or go to school, why not have a Mexican (or even just some sort of Hispanic) moderator?

To be honest, I have other axes to grind with this grouping as well.  Of the four of them, only one has truly umblemished credentials in my book – and Lehrer was supposed to be retiring for the whole thing.  Otherwise, its really disappointing.  Schieffer is another one that is well past his prime.  I’m all for respecting age, experience, and wisdom but not at the expense of throwing all the up-and-coming would-be aged, experienced, and wise-ones under the bus.  Particularly stinging is the absence of one of my favorite news/political journalists, Gwen Ifill.  Everytime we come around to some sort of discussion about who should anchor a new show or something, I’m positing Gwen Ifill.  I think she is a fantastic journalist with intelligence, curiosity, and loads of gravitas.  Also she is woman with a mixed cultural background (Caribbean, Hispanic).  Who could better represent a shift away from the staid old models of the past?  I’m not saying it has to be all revolutionary, but maybe ONE of FOUR?!

Certainly Candy Crowly and Martha Raddatz are old hands at this. Its just a shame there’s not one iota of new blood in the selections for moderator.  Especially with, as I said, this being a historic election no matter who wins.  So many social issues are in play right now and I’m not sure you can expect Lehrer or Schieffer to zero-in very much on women’s rights or immigration reforms.  I’m sure they have a light comprehensive knowledge of those topics, but are they going to be able to cross-examine at any length?  Or will it be a single question answered by two snippets of stump-speech that go uncontested?

Obviously, I’ll be watching the debates no matter what.  As I said, news junkies can’t tear themselves away from a good, juicy, much-anticipated debate.  I couldn’t boycott the debates even if I wanted to.  So, instead, it will be just another lame injustice to seethe over in this election year.  Its not SO bad when you really think about it.

But its not great either.  Debate is meant to bring forth the nuance of disagreement and to allow candidates to distinguish themselves as speakers and intellectuals.  When we find ourselves falling away from that an into  a more comfortable play-act debating. So, if it must be these four, then someone should light a fire underneath them to really emphasize the urgency of the times.

HOWARD MEGDAL: My ideal four? Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, Gwen Ifill, Scott Pelley.

End of the day, my issue isn’t with diversity, or lack thereof. I’m happy to let Bob Schieffer do every single debate. He just needs to be a lot better than he was for the 60 Minutes Romney/Ryan interview. That got us exactly no new information.


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