There are three stations necessary for a professional political debate: the orators, the moderator and the audience. The role of the orators is to argue their respective positions and attempt to persuade the audience. The audience is meant to listen attentively to the orators’ positions and come to a reasonable conclusion. And the moderator is meant only to assure that the orators receive a fair chance to present their case irrespective of the moderator’s prejudice. This is a quality I find wanting in the moderators of contemporary political debates.
For years, moderators have left their relevant station of being a type of umpire and have entered the debate as a player. Or, they have allowed their own bias to dictate the flow of the debate, granting to one orator more time or preventing them from less heat than the other. In the second presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the moderators (Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC News) were both guilty of these transgressions.
It was very clear that Cooper and Raddatz were partial toward Clinton by allowing her more time as well as pressing Trump on his rebuts. It got so bad that Trump had to draw attention to the bias and complain about her time extensions. When Cooper questioned Trump on his words in the audio recording of his bus ride with Billy Bush, Cooper consistently interrupted Trump’s response to give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to “have you ever done those things.”
But, there is precedence for this sort of conduct. For instance, during the second 2012 Obama v. Romney debate, CNN’s Candy Crowley displayed a blatant and unabashed bias in favor of the President. On multiple occasions, Crowley interrupted Gov. Mitt Romney when he turned his attack on the President and his record, proportioned a larger amount of time to President Obama which pushed Romney to try and extend his own time (prompting a question as whether or not the time-keepers were working,) and prevented Romney from interrupting the President but spared no rebuke when the tables had turned. But this all came to a climax when Romney addressed the President’s late conclusion on the Benghazi attack as “an act of terror,” to which Crowley chimed in with “He did, in fact, sir.”
So, will we see this same conduct from FOX NEWS’ Chris Wallace during the third and final presidential debate of 2016? Though Wallace has been consistently partial to Trump over Clinton, he has already gone on record as saying that a moderator is “not a participant.” He has the understanding that a moderator is “there as a timekeeper” and that “it’s not a TV show that we’re doing.” But will he be able to pull those punches, so to speak, and allow the candidates provide for the fact-checking and arguments? One can only hope.
But there is something that I would like to see; something that America has not seen in many years. There are, of course, different types if debate and the one that I would find the most informative is known as a “gentleman’s” or “Lincoln-Douglas” debate. This is a format in which a topic or two is presented to the debaters and the two “hash out” their respective opinions for the duration of the debate. The role of the moderator in this arrangement is token at best. The moderator presents the subject, assures the orators remain on topic and calls the debate to a close. This allows for us (the audience) to gather a much needed look at the character, intelligence, savvy and quality of our candidates.
Understandably, this kind of format should not be expected from debate number three; but it would be something to look forward to in the future. But this debate, the third and final of this bizarre election year, must be revealing, informative and direct – without any interference from an out-of-kilter, partial, “trigger-happy” moderator, all too ready to throw in his “two-cents” where the orators have already gathered a wealth of information.