Bob Schieffer of CBS News is about to become the most scrutinized debate moderator in history.
The focus on the moderators this year reveals flaws, not just by the moderators but by the people judging them – from organizers to pundits and the public.
That’s because there’s no definitive “How to be a Great Debate Moderator” handbook. There are some great teachers with experience who’ve advised moderators with simple must-do rules.
I learned from great mentors and experience as a moderator the ingredients for the end result of a great debate that impacts the audience.
Operate the clock. Command the rules. Govern with authority.
Both were the best clock teachers I’ve ever had. They were great classroom teachers who also were great football and basketball officials. They preached the value of the clock for the participants and fans. In Dix’s case, he also was a great baseball manager – a sport without a clock so he really a grasp of reality how to lead with or without a watch.
Sports officials operate the clock supervising a game with other shorter clocks within such as basketball’s shot clock and football’s snap deadline. Debate moderators have those smaller clocks to operate as well such as the two minutes for response, one minute for rebuttal.
Think about the great teachers you’ve had in the past. They were great because they administered priorities with short time periods within a defined period of time.
The 90 minutes of available debate time is the playing field, period. There are no rule changes for a time limit.
Debate moderators have several spinning plates in 90 minutes. How do they keep them from crashing?
Command the rules.
Referees at any level who can process the rules without thinking what the correct rule is have superior command.
Think of great managers and executives you’ve worked for over the years. You might be surprised if you consider how they got things done in a mandated time following rules with perfection or with few minor errors that are easily corrected.
The best sports officials are the ones you never notice. They manage the clock administering the rules correctly.
Debate moderators should be noticed this way too.
Finally, how does a moderator keep the candidates in control?
Manage with authority.
Authority is an intangible and it’s a subjective that can’t be defined by a book or rule. Personality defines authority. Weak and feckless people aren’t leaders and are rarely seen in positions of authority.
People who interact with others using a confident attitude exercises strong authority.
The late Robert Hyland, the long-time general manager of KMOX may be the best example in St. Louis history of someone who managed successfully at a very high level and visibility. He had a superior confident attitude.
Mr. Hyland also was a great moderator of interaction and discussion using one of the above rules. He managed the clock better than any executive I’ve encountered. Phone calls with him were never more than 2-3 minutes. Staff meetings were often 15-20 minutes. He never buried the lead – he told you what he wanted done in the very first sentence.
Review what makes a great moderator:
- Operate the clock
- Command the rules
- Govern with authority
Because of what we’ve seen, the time has come where we do not need a journalist to moderate debates. There are tens of thousands of people who have a much better command of the requirements needed for a great moderator. Are today’s journalists so superior that they can only be the ones considered for debate moderation? I don’t think so – and I worked in the field for years.
Failure by moderators isn’t always their fault.
What’s missing from these debates?
No panelists to ask questions.
The moderators this year have the spotlight on them too much Great officials rarely have the spotlight on them because there are other elements of the game that grasp attention.
Using panelists to ask questions is an element that would take much of the spotlight’s shine off the moderator giving more authority to the questions being answer and thus, giving the candidates a more fair playing field to present their case.
We’ve reached a time when journalists aren't needed to be panelists. There are hundreds of thousands of people more capable than many so-called pundits of asking questions that would impact the audience.
After all, that’s the goal of the debate commission wants to do – engage people and being relevant.
Don’t buy into the argument from pundits, politicians and wannabes that a moderator is biased when one candidate has collective spoken more than the other.
In the last debate, President Obama had four more minutes on camera than Mitt Romney. But Mitt Romney uttered 400 more words.
By consensus, Mitt Romney decisively “won” the first debate with less time. Should Jim Lehrer be blamed for that Romney victory? Romney is proving one thing anyone can master to be a great communicator – less is more and be concise.
By the way, just to have fun with political conspirators about bias, did you know Bob Schieffer’s brother Tom was appointed ambassador to Australia by President George W. Bush? Let’s see if this surfaces from Democrats after tonight’s debate!
The moderators collectively have managed the debates that have lessened the end result for the most important element of the debate – the audience. I’ve seen two cluttered messes but I can wade through all that because I worked first-hand in politics and debates. But for the average voter, especially the undecided ones, I think they’ve come away with little substance and forced to make a judgment based on style.
For that, I blame the debate commission. The town hall forum atmosphere was surreal. Seating about 100 people in a semi-circle on risers less than 30 feet from the candidates resembled a boxing ring.
What we got was a fight. I wonder what odds betmakers were setting who’d win the debate? Oh yes, there is betting on this, not in Vegas, but overseas. English oddsmaker William Hill has Romney at 2/1 as the underdog on voting day Nov. 6.
Was there anything that was good in the first two debates? People are talking about them. Nielsen TV audience measurement shows higher viewership than past years. The debates are engaging people.
Are voters getting any real value?
I think we’re being shortchanged. Let’s hope tonight’s debate gets great moderation so we can forget the first two debates and focus on something that’s actually important and relevant.
Scott Simon is the Executive Producer of ProVergent Media in Creve Coeur and has worked on three political campaigns, prepping five candidates with pre-debate instruction and analysis and moderator of six debates in his 30-year career.