National Press Club

Presidential debate moderators assess their performances on “The Kalb Report”

January 30, 2013 | By Gil Klein |

Presidential debate moderators Jim Lehrer, Martha Raddatz and Bob Schieffer discuss the debates with veteran journalist Marvin Kalb on "The Kalb Report."

Presidential debate moderators Jim Lehrer, Martha Raddatz and Bob Schieffer discuss the debates with veteran journalist Marvin Kalb on "The Kalb Report."

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Moderating a debate is tricky business for a journalist, the 2012 presidential debate moderators told veteran newsman Marvin Kalb Monday on the most recent edition of “The Kalb Report.”

PBS' Jim Lehrer, ABC's Martha Raddatz and CBS' Bob Schieffer say they wrestle with whether to use reporting skills to press the candidates or to hold back and let the candidates slug it out.

Lehrer, a veteran of 12 presidential debates, moderated the first of three contests between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He said moderating differs from being a journalist interviewing a presidential candidate.

“If Candidate A says something, then it’s up to Candidate B to respond, not the moderator,” Lehrer said. “It is never about the moderator … and it’s not even journalism.”

Raddatz, who moderated the vice presidential debate last year said she saw her role as similar to being a journalist.

“I was chosen because I was a journalist,” she said. “If I ask a question, I want an answer.”

Kalb asked the moderators to sum up the lessons of this round of debates and reflect on how they can be improved. Encouraged by the Commission on Presidential Debates, this program was one of the few times that moderators of presidential debates could gather to examine their effectiveness.

Only CNN’s Candy Crowley, who moderated the second 2012 presidential debate, did not participate due to a family emergency.

The significance of the debates has only grown as the country has become more politically polarized and more people get their news from sources that mirror their political views, said Bob Schieffer of CBS News, a veteran moderator who refereed the last debate of 2012 campaign.

“The debates are the last political events that we have that you can get people from both sides to listen to at the same time and to watch at the same time,” he said. “Republicans will sit through listening to Barack Obama so they can hear what Mitt Romney has to say. And Democrats will do the same. And it’s the last event now that you can say that's true.”

When scholars say that the debates do little to change people’s minds, Lehrer said, “they’re overlooking the obvious.” With 67 million people watching the first debate, he said, most of them are not looking for a mind-changing experience. The debates are “confirming exercises,” he said. A small number of people may be undecided, but for the vast majority watching, the debates serve to rouse and rally supporters, “and that’s hugely important.”

In these debates, the Commission made clear that it was not looking for “gotcha” questions designed just to make a candidate look bad, Lehrer said. They wanted to keep the debates substantive, and for the first time offered a list of topics that they wanted each moderator to try to cover. But the exact nature of the questions and the order they were asked were left up to each moderator.

Raddatz said she didn’t ask "gotcha" questions because she knew there was a line a moderator could not cross. “You don’t want to look like a complete jerk,” she said.

With so many people watching each of the debates last year, the public seems to have an appetite for more of them in the future, two of the three panelists said.

Schieffer said he would like to see six debates with the first coming a week after the last nominating convention. That would get the campaign off to a serious start, he said, and it might change the tone. He suggested that all of the debates should be conducted with the candidates seated at a table with a moderator. The town hall format, he said, with the candidates roaming around the audience is more “show business and acting” than debate.

Raddatz said she liked the town hall debate style and would cap the number at four, as it is now, rather than go to six. “I like the four debates,” she said. “I was done with those debates by the end.”

For some moderators, social media, such as Twitter, played a role. Lehrer said he didn’t bother to look. Schieffer said the Twitter scrutiny made the debates even more intense.

“As much as you want to fight it, Twitter is here to stay,” Raddatz said. “It affected me as a Mom” because so much was so nasty. She wondered how her son, an ardent Twitter fan, would react. But she said her son assured her, “These people have three followers that you're looking at … and they're all living in basements with 75 cats.”

The Kalb Report, now in its 19th season, is a joint project of the Club’s Journalism Institute, The George Washington University, Harvard University, University of Maryland University College (UMUC) and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. It is underwritten by a grant from Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.