There the moderator sits. A member of the Gang of 500, the Washington journocrats, The Journocracy, appointed to their role by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Oh, the prestige, the honor, the gleeful stab at those who have held them in lesser esteem.
As the debate begins, most moderators believe they will be fair and impartial. But as time rolls on, the moderator’s irrepressible bias slowly emerges.
See, speaking now is the candidate for whom the journalist has a natural affinity. It’s okay if they let the guy ramble on, they think. Using the “my primary duty is to be a facilitator” excuse, they can generously permit the guy to fully explain his position and make a few attacks on the opposition.
But then it’s the other guy’s turn. Ugh, thinks the moderator, some of his positions are just untenable. How can anyone fall for this baloney?
In a normal interview, the journalist would rake the guy over the coals with a passel of hard-nosed questions. But here on the debate stage, the journalist-as-moderator must foster an appearance of a balanced approach. So they begin tensing up, hoping the guy will shut up soon.
Just as we try to watch Sunday morning news shows with an open mind, the other side’s talking points are often like nails on a chalkboard, rife with so many lies, distortions, naivete and meaningless babble. We just want to scream at the stupidity, tell them a thing or two, or change the channel if it becomes too inane to handle.
But journalist-moderator is stuck there on stage, having to smile and listen to stuff they dislike. Sooner or later, they interrupt. They can’t help it. “All right, all right, I think we’ve got that. Now let’s hear the better side.”
Then when their secretly preferred guys speaks, it’s like a soothing balm. Ah, yes. There’s the logic that America needs to hear, they think as their guy goes over the time limit and beyond. The moderator thinks it would be impolite to interrupt while he is on such a roll. The moderator knows where the candidate’s rambling point is leading and will, with cheerful, hearty forbearance, give him a chance to get there—or perhaps sneak in a little prompting word or two to refocus him on the proper argument if he gets lost.
[Recall when Jim Lehrer rescued a momentarily stumped Obama with the key word "balanced," to which Obama looked grateful and spilled out his stump speech on "balanced approach."]
If the other guy attempts to break in or complain, they get the stink eye the first time and then the verbal rebuke the next.
When it’s finally wrong guy’s turn to speak, again with the grating wrong arguments, the moderator feels they are doing the audience a favor by ending such babble. Surely everyone else must feel the same need to cut him short. But to be generous, the moderator permits a few more seconds, endures it all just a tad more to show how reasonable and balanced they are. And then smack! “Let’s move on.”
Yet, there’s an inherent flaw that goes beyond the impatience the liberal journalist will have for the conservative candidate: The seasoned journalist covers politics daily and has heard much of this information before, but many in the television audience are just now tuning in, and most of it is rather new to them.
By not giving equal time, by constantly interrupting one but not the other, is to give the other side a clear advantage. Time is money. If a candidate were to buy four minutes of national wall-to-wall channel television ad time, just how much would it cost them? This may be the only shot a candidate gets to connect with the audience.
The moderators need to get back to benign moderating. If journalists feel incapable of doing it without putting their stamp on it, let’s have non-journalists do it. How about a business man? Or a housewife? Someone who will just moderate and get out of the way and be fair about it.
If the Commission on Presidential Debates had clocks running showing the audience and the candidates the amount of time they are getting, the moderators would have a much better guide than their internal tolerance clocks to ration out the critical time allotted to each candidate to make his case to the American public.