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Gwen’s Take: How to moderate a debate

bio-ifill
Co-Anchor & Managing Editor
BY   September 23, 2016 at 9:13 AM EST
Gwen Ifill moderates the 2008 vice-presidential debate with Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. Photo by Don Emmert/Getty Images

Gwen Ifill moderates the 2008 vice-presidential debate with Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. Photo by Don Emmert/Getty Images

This column is not what you think it is going to be. Because I have moderated two general election debates — in 2004 and 2008 — I know better than to carp from the sidelines. I am confident in my accomplishment of having had Queen Latifah portray me on Saturday Night Live both years.

Safe to say, that record is safe.

READ MORE: Gwen’s Take: The high dive

But that hasn’t stopped the requests that have poured in every day for a month, as news outlets from around the world have asked my opinion on debate moderation.

I’ve saved my answers for you, dear Takers:

BE A JOURNALIST

This will not be a problem for the five smart people the Commission on Presidential Debates has selected as moderators this year (with no small blessing from the candidates.)

Moderating a debate means spending more time with briefing books than with your children. It means writing, and rewriting, and rephrasing. It means finding a way to be alert enough to notice when your question goes unanswered and nimble enough to decide what you will do about that on the spot.

It means finding a way to be alert enough to notice when your question goes unanswered and nimble enough to decide what you will do about that on the spot.

For me, in 2004, it meant stepping out of the way when neither debating candidate — John Edwards nor Dick Cheney — had a clue what to say when I asked them what they would do about the rise in HIV infection among black women in the U.S.

Essentially, Cheney replied: “That’s interesting” and no more. Edwards launched into a rehearsed speech about AIDS in Africa. Except I had not asked about AIDS in Africa.

My response? To move on and allow voters to decide if the candidates’ ignorance on the issue mattered to them. Chasing candidates around the table for answers they did not have seemed a waste of precious time.

For years, people who watched that debate wrote me, emailed me and stopped me in public to thank me for that question. Mission accomplished.

ALWAYS HAVE A FOLLOW UP

So much of the pre-debate debate has centered on whether the moderator should bird dog the candidate when they skirt the question, or to be honest, when they skirt the truth.

RELATED: Watch and interact with every presidential debate since 1960

That’s the wrong debate. What every moderator wants to be able to do is pull a “Tim Russert.” The late Meet the Press moderator earned his reputation for being a tough interlocutor, because he studied. He anticipated the rote, scripted answer to come, and always had a “so how do you pay for that?” follow-up in his hip pocket.

You can’t always use it in a debate with rigid rules and timing, but it is the moderator’s responsibility to anticipate the questions well enough to add clarity if needed.

HOMEWORK GOES BOTH WAYS

It goes without saying that gaming the moderators is part of the deal. Have you ever seen a basketball game where the players protest what they consider a bad call by jawboning the ref? How often have you seen that change the referee’s decision?

It works that way in presidential debates too. Candidates research the moderators’ work extensively. In 2008, they questioned me over a book I hadn’t even finished writing. They raise questions about the party affiliations of the questioners. They try to put the imprint of bias on the forehead of anyone on the other side of the podium.

And guess what? That’s OK. But one thing voters should never lose sight of is this: the answers matter more than the questions. You’re voting for president, not moderator. If someone is complaining about the question or the questioner rather than providing an answer, they’re usually trying to change the subject.

IGNORE THE ARMCHAIR EXPERTS

A word for the moderators: Everybody thinks they can do your job. Interest groups insist you ask their question. (In 2004, one group pasted my face on a billboard, to implore me to talk about education.) Other journalists will hector you about the “only right way” to do the job.

Ignore them. Most of them (and in fact, only one of this year’s moderators — the great Martha Raddatz) have never done this particular thing before. Primary debates don’t count. One-on-one interviews with candidates don’t count. Backstage chit-chat doesn’t count.

Suffice to say this is as tough a job as I have ever had, and I wish only the best for the moderators who will take the stage.

You have to work on your questions, keep track of the time each candidate gets and whose turn it is for a follow-up. Oh, and you have to listen to the answers. Upwards of 60 million people will be watching — probably a whole lot more this year.

Suffice to say this is as tough a job as I have ever had, and I wish only the best for the moderators who will take the stage. If they are like I was, they long ago stopped reading social media or opening their mail.

But for viewers settling in with their pre-debate popcorn and wine, my only advice is watch carefully and give those hardworking moderators a break.

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