Presidential debates honcho: 'Very hard to find' good moderators

The Washington Post | CBS News | The Huffington Post

| McClatchy
Earlier this week, three New Jersey high school students tried to drop off a petition asking the Commission on Presidential Debates to appoint a woman to moderate one of this fall's presidential debates. Building security didn't let them in the Washington, D.C. headquarters.

The body's executive director, Janet Brown, tells former Washington Post reporter Annie Groer that the students didn't make an appointment. Curiously, she didn't quite say it that way to CBS News' Leigh Ann Caldwell, who interviewed her before the students showed up:

Brown also says she's unsure if she will meet with the teens Tuesday, but [petitioner Sammi] Siegal said they have been guaranteed a meeting with at least a staff member.

Brown also told Groer that great debate moderators don't grow on trees:

Each debate will cover six topics lasting 15 minutes, picked by the moderator and announced ahead of time. That places a big burden on the moderator to use the time wisely to craft a good exchange. You can lob up names of accomplished journalists ‘til the cows come home, but it’s very hard to find someone who can do that.

If only there were some sort of organization that identified and developed journalists who feel comfortable in front of cameras!

One person Brown does have faith in is Jim Lehrer, who's moderated eight presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate since the last time a woman soloed as moderator. That was in 1992, when Carole Simpson held down a town hall in Richmond, Va.

Simpson told The Huffington Post that the gig didn't give her much leeway in crafting good exchanges:

"I was told in my earpiece by a producer, 'Go interview the lady in the green dress on the left, and now the man in the red sweater.' I had no control over the questions that were asked, or who asked, or in what order. I was like a traffic cop.

Lehrer compared being asked to moderate a debate to being drafted:

“Sheer public service,” he called it, never mind that he has said he’d never do another one.

With no disrespect intended to one of the finest broadcast journalists this nation has produced, if the answer to the debate commission's question is so often "Jim Lehrer," couldn't its query stand some review?

Debate moderators will be announced this month. Journalism prof Alan Schroeder told McClatchy's Kaz Komolafe he thinks the petition will contribute to the commission choosing a female moderator. Will it be one of these 15 women?

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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