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‘Debating Our Future:’ panel discusses role of moderators, presidential debates at forum

| Thursday, September 15, 2016

If Bob Schieffer could ask Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump one question at a presidential debate this fall, it would be: Why do you think people don’t like you?

“A follow-up question might be ‘Why do you think it is that this is happening?’” Schieffer, former “Face the Nation” host and moderator of three debates, said as his audience applauded. “We’re at a point where our whole political infrastructure has collapsed, frankly, and how is it that the campaign came down to these two candidates? That’s the question that I hear more than any other question, and it might be interesting to ask the candidates, ‘Why do you think it’s come down to you two?’”

Fr. John Jenkins, Janet Brown and Dorothy Ridings speak at Wednesday's forum.Thomas Mologne
Fr. John Jenkins, Janet Brown and Dorothy Ridings speak at Wednesday’s forum.

Former PBS anchor Jim Lehrer, who moderated 12 debates, cut in. “Let the record reflect, I didn’t ask that question,” he said.

The role of moderators in presidential debates — how the Commission on Presidential Debates chooses them, which questions they should ask, how they should approach fact-checking — was a key theme in the first installment of the 2016 Notre Dame Forum, “Debating Our Future,” held Wednesday night at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center (DPAC).

At the Forum, University President Fr. John Jenkins asked a panel comprised of Lehrer and Schieffer, as well as Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, and Dorothy Ridings, former president of the League of Women Voters, questions about the evolution of presidential debates and their function in American politics. Audience members were able to ask their own questions via email.

Brown said televised presidential debates date back to 1960, when John F. Kennedy famously debated Richard Nixon — three election cycles passed before one was held again.

“The candidates did not see them as an imperative,” Brown said. “They saw them as something that could be avoided with impunity, and that’s what they did.”

By 1976, the League of Women Voters had hosted radio debates for years, Ridings added. That year, legislation was passed that allowed non-partisan organizations unconnected to the media, like the League, to sponsor debates that television networks could broadcast.

It was the League of Women Voters that created the criteria a general-election candidate had to meet to participate in the debate, criteria that still stand today: eligibility to run for president under the Constitution, petitioning to be on ballots in enough states to win the electoral college and, most controversially, polling at or above 15 percent nationally. The last requirement usually disqualifies all but the major party candidates — the one exception was John Anderson, an independent candidate who qualified for one debate in 1980.

“There has to be some way, and this is the tough part of all this, of ascertaining who should be on that stage, who really has deserved to be in that place to be heard by an audience that has to make hard choices,” Ridings said.

The League, sometimes accused of disorganization, sponsored debates until 1988, at which point the Commission on Presidential Debates, whose board of directors now includes Jenkins, formed.

“The debates had taken on a level of importance where it should be run by an organization with no other agenda in the general election,” Brown said.

Brown said the Commission looks for moderators who are experienced and fair journalists who are comfortable on live TV.

“They are there to facilitate, not to compete, not to take up a lot of time with hard questions that people don’t know how to answer,” she said.   

For his part, Lehrer said nobody at the Commission tried to influence the questions he asked or the content of the debates. Since moderating his first debate in 1988, he said the format has gone from one with more-or-less scripted questions and answers to one that is more open, in which candidates can freely talk to each other.

“What has happened in this process is being a moderator is becoming increasingly difficult,” he said. “It is really hard work because now, you have candidates with freedom to engage, freedom to ask questions, freedom not to to shut up if you want them to. … The moderator’s got to have a tremendous amount of knowledge, not so that you can write a bunch of questions, but so you can listen, so you can follow up, so you can have a sense of fairness.”  

Schieffer said he tries to come into debates as prepared as possible — for one of the 2012 debates, he interviewed dozens of experts in think tanks, potential debate questions numbering in the hundreds. Both Schieffer and Lehrer, however, stressed the importance of pulling back and letting candidates talk.

“In this new format in particular — the open format — the moderator [has to] be able to listen,” Lehrer said.

Besides a more open format, Lehrer said another major change is the introduction of split screens during the debates, displaying both the candidate talking and the opponent reacting. As Al Gore, unable to get a word in during a 2000 debate against George W. Bush, learned the hard way, body language has become increasingly important.

“I became more keenly aware of it, and candidates have become more keenly aware of it as well,” Lehrer said. “I’ve noticed in the progression of debates that I’ve moderated since then, candidates are very careful about what they do because they know they’re being watched all the time.”

Schieffer said moderating debates taught him that, especially since many have already decided on a candidate by the time the debates roll around, voters want to get to know the candidates as people, something that does not always involve strict policy discussion. It’s the moderator’s job, he said, to make that happen, which is why he asked Bush and John Kerry in 2004 what they learned from the women in their lives.

“Party is important, a person’s positions are important, but the overall question in voters’ minds is, ‘Who I would be most comfortable with in times of crisis?’” Schieffer said.  

In response to an audience question about whether moderators should fact check candidates, Schieffer said he does consider that his job — but not right away.

“It is the responsibility of the moderator to make sure the truth gets out, but the chief fact checker should be the candidates themselves,” he said. “If candidate A says something … you should give the other candidate an opportunity to correct him. If he doesn’t, the moderator should step in and state what the facts are.”

The point of debates, Lehrer said, is for both sides of an issue to be presented in real time.

“These are the only opportunities we have as voters to see the candidates on the same stage, in the same place, at the same time being asked the same questions and so forth,” he said.

Other questions came in: Could Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson participate in a debate even if he hasn’t reached the 15 percent polling threshold? No, Brown said, though the criteria are constantly reassessed. Do debates encourage the development of quips or one-liners? Yes, Lehrer said, though most candidates deny it. How do new media affect the televised debates? No matter how it’s broadcast, the style of the debate will stay important, Lehrer said.

Does race or gender play a role in the selection of moderators or the treatment of candidates during the debates? Brown said the Commission looks for both diversity and experience in its moderators, which feeds into fair treatment for the candidates.

“There is no sense that any candidate is treated any differently than any other candidate,” she said.  

Brown said major-party candidates will never be required to attend a debate, but they have become such an integral part of the election season that skipping one is disadvantageous. 

“The mandate in these debates in public opinion,” Brown said. “People want to see these debates. These audiences are so much larger than they are for any other kind of political programming.”

Asked at the end of the discussion why debates are important, both Brown and Ridings said they exemplify the free exchange of ideas, something leaders they meet from developing countries try to emulate. Schieffer said they allow voters to find out as much about candidates as possible.

Lehrer said the debates are as “sacred” as voting itself.

“That institution … makes it possible for everybody in America at the same time or at any pace they want to now with new technology to see these candidates, the people who will be in this position … the most powerful position in the world,” he said. “You can see them in an environment that is clean, that is fair, that is presented in such a way it’s serious. It’s not there to make you laugh, it’s not there to make you cry. It’s there to make you an informed voter.”  

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About Emily McConville

Emily McConville is a news writer and photographer for the Observer. She is a senior studying history and Italian with a minor in journalism. She is from Louisville, KY and lives off-campus.

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