It's time to rethink the format of presidential debates and Mollie Hemingway has a brilliant idea with regard to moderators: throw the bums out!
In mediated political debates, journalists are supposed to moderate and control what topics are covered, how questions are framed, and what assumptions are built into topics. Some do it better than others, of course, but too often the moderators — from smug local journalists to Candy Crowley — become part of the story.
They rarely have the chops to ask good policy questions or follow up on dumb policy answers. With politicians they support, they won’t push back much on even the most erroneous or outlandish claims.
But if they don’t like a candidate, they’ll push back, no matter how uninformed about the matter at hand they may be. This is related to another point of confusion: they seem to believe it’s their job to argue with candidates rather than facilitate discussions among candidates.
Many of these moderators ask questions full of incorrect assumptions, mistaking their job of reporting on a given topic for being significantly knowledgeable on the same. The ideological agendas various journalists advance show that the media are not neutral parties.
The Republican National Committee's sad little autopsy on the 2012 presidential loss by the GOP (wittily named the Growth and Opportunity Project) batted around the problem of biased debate moderators but never really came up with a good solution. But solution is blindingly simple: don't have moderators. Trump proposed the idea, too.
In what Mollie calls "feigned outrage," the media establishment warned moderators that failure to pull a Candy will result in being eliminated from all the best parties:
Remember all the way back to earlier this month, when Matt Lauer did a better-than-adequate job moderating a candidate forum. Hillary Clinton had a rough night while Donald Trump did fine. Her supporters in the media launched an all-out attack on Lauer. “Matt Lauer’s Pathetic Interview of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Is the Scariest Thing I’ve Seen in This Campaign,” read the headline of one typical and totally not hyperbolic piece arguing that Lauer went easy on Trump and hard on Clinton.
I’m not sure anyone viewed this as much more than an attempt to send a warning shot to future moderators that they had better do more to help Clinton and hurt Trump.
As Mollie points out, the posh media outlets are overtly calling for hostility towards Trump. And the less posh Hollywood Reporter is getting into the act urging "Don't Get Lauer'd," which translates as . . . . well, you know how it translates and so do the moderators.
With the media held is such low esteem these days, it is time to redesign the debate format.
In a debate, the opponent has the opportunity to call out whatever he or she wants to. And a skilled debater can use such opportunities to his or her advantage. There is no need for one candidate to be in a ring fighting both another candidate and a referee raring to go. Donald Trump is a big boy. Hillary Clinton is a big girl. They can more than handle each other face to face without running to Lester Holt or Chris Wallace and asking for help.
If more than a few journalists showed an ability to be impartial or to moderate discussions, there would be use in having them on stage. As it is, the candidates should just agree to some basic rules about topics and time limits, and then go for it.
It would be entertaining, it would be instructive, and it would frankly add a level of difficulty to the pseudo-events we call debates.
If it was good enough for President Lincoln and his opponents, it should be good enough for us. Let’s do this, for the good of the country.