By:
September 3, 2020

The Commission on Presidential Debates got it right Wednesday. In more ways than one.

Not only did the commission select a group of fair and respected journalists to moderate the upcoming presidential and vice presidential debates, it got the format right, too. Instead of having several moderators, each debate will just have one moderator, which should allow for more controlled, focused and seamless debates. More on that in a moment, but first, let’s look at the moderators.

The first presidential debate will be Sept. 29 with Fox News’ Chris Wallace as moderator. This is a sensational pick. It immediately puts to rest any accusations that the commission would shy away from Fox News, which is generally seen as a network sympathetic to and even supportive of President Donald Trump. However, Wallace has proven to be a skilled moderator in the past, and is a fair journalist. His performance moderating a 2016 debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton drew mostly positive reviews for his toughness, fairness and balance.

Wallace’s recent interview with Trump — again, tough but fair — helps to offset any accusations that he will take it easy on the president. And his long and distinguished career of fairness also should calm any fears that he will be biased for Joe Biden.

While all debates will be highly anticipated, the first one could be the most impactful. An experienced journalist and seasoned moderator such as Wallace was a perfect choice.

The next debate, on Oct. 7, will be the vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris. USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page will moderate. She has plenty of experience, having covered 10 presidential campaigns and six White House administrations.

She told USA Today’s Joey Garrison, “The debates are a crucial part of making our democracy work, and I am honored to participate.”

The second presidential debate, on Oct. 15, actually will be a town hall and be moderated by C-SPAN’s Steve Scully, who hosts “Washington Journal.” If you’re looking for, truly, the epitome of neutrality, and a straightforward and down-the-middle demeanor, Scully is your guy.

A hat tip to Washingtonian’s Andrew Beaujon, who points out that Scully was recently called “the most patient man on television” by HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” The clip is really funny, but it also shows Scully’s unflappable professionalism and likeliness to moderate a fair debate. In this debate, however, the questions will be posed by citizens from the South Florida area and Scully will facilitate further discussion. Scully, by the way, was a backup moderator in 2016.

The final debate, on Oct. 22, will be moderated by NBC News White House correspondent and “Weekend Today” co-anchor Kristen Welker. Again, another solid choice given her experience covering the White House and presidential politics.

In a note to staff, NBC News president Noah Oppenheim said, “The selection of Kristen as a moderator is a testament to her talent, skill, work ethic and tenacity. As she demonstrated during the November presidential debate, Kristen will ask the tough and necessary questions on behalf of American voters.”

Click here for all the details of the debates, including locations and formats.

Complaints about the moderators

Donald Trump’s campaign is already bellyaching about the choice of moderators. Trump communications director Tim Murtaugh said, “These are not the moderators we would have recommended if the campaign had been allowed to have any input. Some can be identified as clear opponents of President Trump, meaning Joe Biden will actually have a teammate on stage most of the time to help him excuse the radical, leftist agenda he is carrying. One thing is sure: Chris Wallace’s selection ensures that Biden will finally see him face-to-face after dodging his interview requests. That is, if Biden actually shows up.”

It’s unfair and, quite frankly, sad to see the Trump campaign questioning the integrity of the journalists chosen to moderate, especially saying they would be a “teammate” of Biden and “clear opponents” of Trump. That’s highly inappropriate.

The whining from the Trump side is no surprise. Earlier this month, Rudy Giuliani, in a rather overwritten and much-too-long letter that apparently represented the Trump campaign, gave the commission a list of 24 suggested moderators. The commission chose none of them.

Giuliani’s list includes journalists from many right-leaning news outlets, such as Fox News personalities Bret Baier, Bill Hemmer, Shannon Bream and Harris Faulkner; Fox Business’ Susan Li and Maria Bartiromo, who recently did a rather flattering interview with Trump, The Wall Street Journal’s Gerry Baker; The New York Post’s Michael Goodwin; and The Hill’s Saagar Enjeti. There were no big names from CNN or MSNBC, although perhaps Giuliani thought Biden’s side might recommend someone from one of those networks. However, Giuliani’s list did include several reporters from the main networks.

But, an interesting note, Giuliani’s list did include ABC “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir and “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell, but it did not include “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt.

Biden’s response

Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Biden’s side had no issues with the debate moderators. Biden campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates said, “As Joe Biden has said for months — without farcical antics — he looks forward to participating in the debates set by the commission, regardless of who the independently chosen moderators are.”

However, apparently Biden’s camp (and others) did make one suggestion that was rejected: that a real-time fact-check would run on screen during the debates. According to Deadline’s Ted Johnson, Frank J. Fahrenkopf — a co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates— told the National Press Club, “There’s a lot of fact checkers, and the minute the debate is over, you can go on any network or any paper the next morning, and they are all going to be there.”

One moderator

We’ve seen debates, particularly those with lots of candidates on stage, that can benefit from multiple moderators. But in a presidential debate, with just two candidates on stage, one moderator seems like the best way to go. Unlike multiple moderators, just having one means the moderator can more easily set the pace, enforce the rules, extend conversations that need to be extended and move to the most pertinent topics if time starts running short.

In this case, fewer is better — and one moderator is perfect.

Best thing ever (today’s version)

Legendary baseball announcer Vin Scully. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

Iconic baseball broadcaster Vin Scully, at age 92, has joined Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. In a video posted on social media, Scully said, “I’m delighted to see if I can serve you in any way, shape or form.”

Scully said he might chat about a famous date in baseball history, or a player or team.

“And hopefully, nothing controversial,” Scully said. “This is strictly a meeting of friends having some fun talking about our favorite subject. So, pull up a chair and be ready to join me, hopefully, in the very near future as we start our careers together on social media.”

Scully was the announcer for the Dodgers — first in Brooklyn and then Los Angeles — from 1950 until he retired in 2016, the same year he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Over his career, he also called sporting events nationally for CBS and NBC.

By the way, the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke has a column on Scully joining social media.

Scully was mostly greeted with warm wishes and glee. After all, Scully is viewed as one of the classiest and most respected broadcasters ever. But Sports Illustrated’s Jimmy Traina also reflected the sentiment of many when he tweeted, “I say this because I love you, Vin. Don’t do this. Delete your account and go back to living a good life. You don’t need this hell hole.”

A Cain conversation

Will Cain, who recently left ESPN to join “Fox & Friends Weekend,” did an interview with Front Office Sports’ Michael McCarthy. Cain talks about his time at ESPN, why he left, protests in sports and the immediate future of college football.

Cain, who I think it would be fair to say leans conservative, also addressed something I wrote about in Wednesday’s newsletter: the idea of sports stations “sticking to sports.” McCarthy asked Cain if places like ESPN should stick to sports and not bring politics into the conversation.

Cain said the audience of his former ESPN radio show listened to hear about sports. “But,” Cain said, “there are times, and certainly we are in one of those times, where sports and politics are absolutely inextricable. In those situations, what I believe the audience wants is not a left point of view, nor a right point of view. What they want is an open forum to all points of view. When you only give them one, and then when you take the next step and say the other point of view is racist or immoral, you box the audience out. You also tell them they’re not welcome.”

Inside the numbers

Did this year’s unconventional conventions make an impact? Well, if you believe the polls (and I get it if you don’t considering what happened in 2016), they suggest the conventions didn’t change much thinking. CNN’s latest poll shows Biden leading Trump by a 51-43 margin. As FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver tweets, that lines up with a bunch of other polls. (Although, a Monmouth poll shows Biden’s lead in Pennsylvania is shrinking.) And MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki explained how national polling might not reflect how the electoral college could go. But Kornacki also said that national polls showed little change in the past month.

CNN’s polling director Jennifer Agiesta wrote, “The conventions produced few significant changes in how voters view the two candidates on the issues and basic attributes, but some shifts are notable.”

For example, Agiesta wrote, the candidates are about even on the economy whereas that had been where Trump held an advantage in previous polls. In addition, Trump’s numbers have gotten worse when it comes to honesty and trustworthiness and sharing the same values as voters. Biden also is seen by those polled as more likely to keep Americans safe from harm. However, Trump’s approval rating (41%) and disapproval rating (53%) have remained about the same as last month.

Just the facts

A few fact-checking stories that caught my attention this week:

Making moves

Emma Carrasco has been named SVP, Corporate Affairs for NBCUniversal News Group. She will report to chairman Cesar Conde, who told staff that Carrasco will lead various enterprise-wide initiatives and serve as a strategic partner to NBCUniversal’s news organizations to help accelerate priorities. Carrasco joins NBCUniversal from National Geographic Society, where she was SVP, Global Engagement. Prior to that, she was an executive at NPR and is the former director of communications for McDonald’s.

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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