Moderator Candy Crowley’s follow-up questions at Tuesday’s debate are already upsetting both campaigns

Time | The New York Times
The Obama and Romney campaigns signed an agreement that at Tuesday’s debate, “The moderator will not ask follow-up questions or comment on either the questions asked by the audience or the answers of the candidates during the debate or otherwise intervene in the debate except to acknowledge the questioners from the audience or enforce the time limits, and invite candidate comments during the two-minute response period.” Time obtained the memo (embedded below), which lays out the terms for the town-hall-style debate agreed to by the campaigns and the Commission on Presidential Debates.

The moderator has a different idea. CNN’s Candy Crowley told Suzanne Malveaux last week that moderators “need to take control” at times.

In an interview with The Huffington Post’s Jack Mirkinson last week, Crowley said, “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.”

Crowley told USA Today’s Martha T. Moore, “This is about their questions, but you also want to use your knowledge to make (the candidates’ responses) not the two-minute answers that they’re practicing in their headquarters right now.”

Crowley didn’t agree to the terms set by the campaigns, Mark Halperin writes. Both camps “agreed with the Commission that they wished to avoid a repeat of what occurred four years ago.”

In 2008, NBC News’ Tom Brokaw moderated the town hall session between Obama and Republican nominee John McCain, and the two campaigns and the organizers felt that Brokaw redirected the topics too severely from the audience queries and asked too many of his own questions, limiting the number of citizens who got a chance at the microphone. Appearing on NBC News “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Brokaw said, “[I]t’s tricky for the moderator. I said that Candy Crowley ought to get combat gear after I went through that four years ago.” Brokaw told TIME, “I am satisfied citizens in the hall and online got a fair hearing.” Brokaw also said that while there was some press criticism of the job he did, he heard no complaints directly from the campaigns and a Commission official praised the debate to him as “good television.”

The commission promised the campaigns it would “discuss the matter with Crowley and reconfirm her function.”

In a feature in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, Crowley described her debate objective as “Surprise me.”

Don’t make it so that I know what you’re going to say. That is what I most want out of both these guys. Sit back, drop your 12 points and surprise me with an answer.

Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren questioned the candidates’ anxiety:

What are they both afraid of? A surprise question? a tough question? or worse, a follow up question that challenges them? That is exactly what the American people want in a debate and yes, Candy Crowley can do that. Both candidates need to be ready for anything and capable of answering anything.

…if a candidate fears what Candy might ask at a debate, what happens when the candidate faces world leaders?

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza agreed:

Moderators matter. Journalism may not be the most popular profession these days but it is absolutely true that years of practice — like Crowley has had — trying to draw politicians out beyond their comfort zones is a skill. Not everyone can do it. …

Does anyone doubt that last week’s debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan wasn’t improved — and made more edifying for the “regular” viewer — by moderator Martha Raddatz bringing her knowledge to the table and interjecting herself in the debate?

Crowley will be the first woman to moderate a presidential debate in 20 years. Carole Simpson, who was the last woman to do so, expressed frustration that Crowley’s role would be “the girl with the microphone,” moderating a Town Hall format as Simpson did. Crowley was selected after three teenage girls from New Jersey petitioned the CPD to choose a woman.

More debate prep: David Carr says the first presidential debate’s killer ratings were a “mind-blowing level of tune-in“:

Credit live event television, the last remaining civic common in an atomized world. While ratings for almost everything on television have sunk, big spectacles that hold some promise of spontaneity — N.F.L. games, the Olympics and various singing competitions — continue to thrive.

Full memo of understanding acquired by Mark Halperin at Time magazine:

Related: Who controls presidential debates, journalists or campaigns? | Presidential Debate Commission co-chair blames TV networks for lack of diversity among moderators | Journalists praise Martha Raddatz as moderator of Vice Presidential debate | Jim Lehrer on criticism of his recurring debate-moderator role: ‘It’s a rough, rough world’

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  • Clayton Burns

    Obama is struggling because he can’t remember from one minute to the next what Romney is saying, and he can’t combine what he hears with his rebuttal data. His problem has been well focused by an alert media.
    Romney is in a bind because of elemental incoherence. He is everybody to everyone at all times, unless some sharp questioners dig into his explanations, in which case collapse is imminent.
    The media have the whip hand. They can let these two losers debate in a high school auditorium if they choose. With no national media coverage.
    If they would rather be wimps, then they should let this ramshackle commission walk all over them.
    My minimum is a firm (not senile) moderator, with a small interviewing panel of journalists and academics who would get the opportunity to ask some tough questions. That would mean two hour (non-rambling) debates.
    We are going to learn quite a bit about the candidates in the next debate, but we are going to find out more about the American media.
    Either stand up for the public, or receive the contempt you deserve.