‘The Newsroom’ and the Presidential Debates – Part 2: Raddatz Wins Best Moderator
Editor’s Note: Click here to read Part I of this Debate series written by Leslie Gottlieb, seasoned professional in strategic communications.
By Leslie Gottlieb
Now that we have seen 4 televised Presidential and Vice Presidential debates, we can pick the winner. Not between President Obama and Governor Romney, but the winner of the best moderator contest. That prize goes to ABC’s Martha Raddatz. Why? Because I think she came the closest to the concept that the HBO hit series “The Newsroom” set for a new type of Presidential debate. As I stated in the earlier post, I believe the role of the moderator in a televised political debate should be to arbitrate, push back, clarify and illuminate the candidates’ positions and facts for the audience. The role should not be passive. It should be engaged. The moderator may not be an umpire in a World Series but he or she should still be able to call ball “out”.
Here are five criteria I use to judge the moderator in a political debate:
1) Did the moderator set the tone and an understanding of what his or her role will be in the debate?
2) Did the moderator ask hard, specific questions that would elicit clear answers and potential policy differences between the candidates?
3) Did the moderator use the candidates’ record and votes – not just statements – to determine the facts?
4) Did the moderator, push back and follow up and question clear misstatements?
5) Did the moderator help shape the debate by controlling the time and focus the discussion?
While this is not a fully scientific conclusion, based on the transcripts and my recollection here is how the four stacked up. Jim Lehrer, who is a very respected journalist, in this situation was, I believe, the weakest of the four in all 5 areas. His questions were generally vague and open ended and he did little follow up and did not use the candidates’ actual record when it differed with the rhetoric Next in the lineup in my opinion was CBS TV’s Bob Schieffer. Although he got better as the evening progressed—and did ask follow up questions, he let the candidates wander into domestic territory on several occasions although the topic was clearly foreign policy and he did not establish his role up front. He did, however, ask some good follow up questions near the end. Candy Crowley had the toughest challenge since the Town Hall setting made it much more difficult to control. Yet I thought she did well under confrontational circumstances. She did correct the record on terrorism and Libya issue and did push back and try to control the time and focus. Criticized before the Town Hall by both campaigns saying she would not take a passive role she told the Huffington Post before the debates, “ I think it’s always best when these guys engage with each other, but that doesn’t mean I won’t engage with them if that gets us closer to what we need.”
I thought Martha Raddatz was the strongest in in all 5 areas. Her opening remarks set a tone of control and focus. For example, part of her opening stated, “ I’m going to move back and forth between foreign and domestic since that is what a vice president or president would have to do. We will have nine different segments… Then I will encourage a discussion between the candidates with follow-up questions. .
She asked numerous specific, relatively hard hitting questions and followed up when the answers were not specific enough. She was not passive. She pushed for specifics and clarity and many of her questions were more pointed than the other moderators . For example, on the issue of Iran and nuclear weapons she asked, “ Last week former Defense Secretary Bob Gates said a strike on Iran’s facilities would not work and, quote, could prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations. Can the two of you be absolutely clear and specific to the American people how effective would a military strike be? “ Contrast this with Bob Schieffer’s first question: “ It has been one year since the situation in Syria. Should we reassess our policy”
I want to add that I admire all 4 journalists and anchors and believe they were under enormous pressure from many sides. However, we now have a model of an effective moderator that we should look at for future televised debates.
Ultimately, of course Martha Raddatz does not really win. Ultimately the American people will win if we have moderators and guidelines in televised debates that truly enlighten and inform our democratic process.