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Trump-Biden debate moderators face a huge challenge

(CNN)Complaining about debate moderators has now become part of the game, the same way we argue about officiating in sports. According to a report by the Annenberg Debate Reform Working Group, which was created to figure out how to increase the value of presidential general election debates, there are four main areas of criticism aimed at presidential debate moderators. I'll address these and provide some workable tips that can be used by this year's group.

Todd Graham
Todd Graham

Chris Wallace from Fox News, Steve Scully from C-SPAN, and Kristen Welker from NBC News will run the three presidential debates between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden, while Susan Page from USA Today takes the helm in the vice-presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris.

Favoritism/bias:

All the moderators are pros. This is an area not worth spending much energy on, even though it's the most common complaint, with 41% of those surveyed in the report saying that they are extremely or very concerned about it. Everybody at home loves shouting bias, and they're just wrong. Hearing, "the referees were paid off ... they want our team to lose," is as old as competitions have been around. I've watched every debate for a quarter of a century, and bias in moderators should be the least of our worries.

It's the opposite that I fear might be the case in the upcoming debates. Moderators could be so worried about being perceived as biased that they oversteer and go in the other direction, toward "fairness." I know that sounds like a good thing, but hear me out, because the notion of "fairness" in debates can actually turn into another, very different, form of bias. It's called the fallacy of false equivalence—also called false balance or bothsidesism. And I believe that's the area this year's moderators must fight against.

If they think, "Well, I've given Trump a hard question about a topic where he clearly seems to be wrong, therefore I must find something about Biden that is marginally questionable and grill him on that issue with equal fervor..." then that's when the moderators will actually be demonstrating an unintentional bias of false equivalence. And the debate format lends itself to making this mistake. Moderators present questions for each candidate back and forth with equal time. While on its face that sounds fair, the problem arises if candidates are given especially sharp or critical questions, but their transgressions (or policies) are not equally flawed. It appears to the audience that "they both do it, so it's a wash," when in fact one candidate is much worse than the other.

Not controlling the candidates:

This usually happens when candidates either interrupt their opponent or speak over their allotted time. History demonstrates that unless the moderators take control immediately, both Trump and Biden will interrupt each other so much that the debates will become a race to the bottom.
As for going overtime, having a bell (an airhorn would actually be awesome) that goes off, and keeps ringing until the candidate shuts up is the best solution. Otherwise, it's up to the moderators to verbally cut them off, and they will often let one candidate get away with more rule-breaking, not because the moderators are biased but because they don't know how to handle aggressive debaters for 90 minutes. And Trump will inevitably attempt to manipulate the moderators. It's actually a strength of his. A "nice" moderator will get bullied. Here, patience is not a virtue.

Overstepping bounds:

Howard K. Smith, who moderated the first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, set the standard of "staying out of the way." However, candidates have become more aggressive in their tactics, especially lying. Trump may have set a record during his debates against Hillary Clinton.
Frank Fahrenkopf, co-founder and current co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, recently said that moderators shouldn't be fact checkers, so the best way for moderators to adapt to this is to frontload the questions. Quote the candidates, put the facts out there, etc. while asking the questions. Then it appears less like you are correcting the candidate after they've answered, and you've set up natural follow up questions such as "where is your proof for that" and "do you have any specific examples to support that claim" (which are crucial) if one of the candidates persists with falsehoods. Don't leave it solely up to the candidates to fact check, as that gives an insurmountable advantage to whoever lies the most, forcing their opponent to waste precious speaking time correcting false statements.

Not the right questions/failing to address important issues:

You can't please everybody, but the format this year, allowing the first debate topics to be released one week in advance, is helpful. Chris Wallace has already announced his topics, and the other moderators can decide which areas to include based off the first debate. The topics are: The Trump and Biden Records, the Supreme Court, Covid-19, the economy, race and violence in our cities, and the integrity of the election.

One more thing that I'd add from my own observation as a bonus concern:

Experience matters. When it comes to success or failure, moderators may determine the outcome of the presidential debates. Time and again, moderators without experience have failed in their goal of running a smooth and informative debate. The moderators have ruined more than one presidential debate.
It greatly concerns me that Wallace is the only moderator with experience in handling a debate solo (in 2016). He was terrible when he first began moderating in 2011, making all the mistakes in the book. Heck, he even found new ways to bungle that debate by being snarky, sarcastic, and trying to one-up Newt Gingrich. But Wallace learned, adjusted, improved over time, and was outstanding during the 2016 campaign.
Indeed, Scully and Page have never moderated a presidential or vice presidential debate in any form, and Welker's only done it once as part of a team during the primaries last November. I think selecting neophytes was a risky move from the Commission on Presidential Debates. It places way too much pressure on beginners in what might be the most significant debates this century. The novice moderators will have to overcome history if they want to perform well.

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