President Trump is considering boycotting the 2020 TV debates because he thinks all the debate moderators are biased against him. And he’s right. As human beings, we all have biases (at least 175 of them!) that overtly, subliminally, and subconsciously influence our behaviors with every human being on the planet – even Trump!
Recently, Doug Wead, an informal adviser to the President, sent Trump a memo arguing that his complaints about the fairness of moderators at the 2020 debates is “fully justified.” Howard Kurtz reports that “the Wead effort raises the philosophical question of whether journalists can separate personal opinions that might fall to the liberal side from the performance of their jobs, especially on a presidential debate stage.” [Note: I have not seen this memo.]
I don’t think “bias” is the most accurate word to characterize Trump’s frustration. Trump is arguing that the moderators cannot be impartial – that they cannot skillfully facilitate a fair, equitable, and objective robust conversation. At least not to his liking.
Sure, almost all of the debate moderators selected by the DNC, RNC and the Commission on Presidential Debates are sourced from journalistic sources: News anchors, opinion journalists, and news editors seem to be the most prevalent. I presume that is because they are seasoned TV professionals with great interviewing skills. As broadcasters AND as citizens, I am sure they have opinions. We ALL do. But that doesn’t mean they drag them on to the debate stage!
1. Managing Airtime. One of the key skills for all debate moderators is the notion of “fairness.” Every single candidate should have roughly the same number of questions asked of him/her, the same type of questions (hardball to softie), and the same amount of time to speak. And when that doesn’t happen, it becomes glaringly obvious. There are five ways a candidate gets airtime – and ALL of them are in the hands of the moderator:
Almost ALL of the debate moderators lean toward the center stage/top candidates whereas “fringe” or other party candidates are given far less airtime. Just ask Andrew Yang. If we look back to 2016, “Trump also got more airtime than anyone else [during most of the Republican primary debates]. In an 11-member debate in September, for instance, Trump spoke for nearly 19 minutes—three minutes longer than the next-closest, Jeb Bush; five minutes longer than Carly Fiorina; and nearly twice as long as the likes of John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, and Scott Walker. The pattern continued through the full debate season.”
Yep. That is bias in action. Give more airtime to those candidates who are polling higher than others – even though the primary objective of the debates is to provide “a structure where we want to give everyone a fair shake to communicate their vision to the American people.”
2. Selecting Topics. There are myriad issues the American public wants to hear about – but there is only so much time they are willing to sit and watch a debate. [I think 2 hours is just right.] Some topics are to be expected: Healthcare (addressed as the LAST topic in the last debate – no new ground there!), race relations, immigration, gun control….and the list goes on. Yes indeed, the moderators heavily influence the topics that will be discussed…and how they will be raised.
3. Asking Questions. There is a difference between tough questions, leading, and loaded questions. A skilled moderator will ask insightful and provocative questions, using clear, factual language that avoids any overt biases. A manipulative moderator asks leading questions – a question that suggests the particular answer or contains the information the moderator is looking to have confirmed – often using inflammatory words. For example, Don Lemon in this year’s 2nd Democractic Debate asked: “Senator Klobuchar, what do you say to those Trump voters who prioritize the economy over the president’s bigotry?”
Trump’s response via Twitter: “CNN’s Don Lemon, the dumbest man on television, insinuated last night while asking a debate ‘question’ that I was a racist, when in fact I am ‘the least racist person in the world.’ Perhaps someone should explain to Don that he is supposed to be neutral, unbiased & fair or is he too dumb (stupid} to understand that?”
A loaded question, on the other hand, is one that contains a controversial or unjustified assumption that often presumes guilt. Trump is most concerned about these types of questions. Consider the very first question of the October 2016 Republican Primary Debate posed by Moderator John Harwood to Trump: “You have done very well in this campaign so far by promising to build another wall and make another country pay for it, send 11 million people out of the country, cut taxes $10 trillion without increasing the deficit, and make Americans better off because your greatness will replace the stupidity and incompetence of others. Let’s be honest. Is this a comic book version of a presidential candidate?”
“No, it’s not a comic book version,” Trump fired back. “And by the way, I don’t like the way you phrased the question.” No kidding.
4. Managing the Conversation. It’s a fine line to enforce the debate rules, encourage robust debate, and intervene firmly to keep things on track. If too rigid, it’s a smackdown: the debate can feel staged, awkward, and contrived. When too loose, the candidates run wild which is what happened during the first Presidential Debate in September 2016: Moderator Lester Holt “let the conversation flow and the candidates go after each other. It’s a strategy many debate moderators prefer but left him vulnerable to criticism that he had lost control of the action. The first subject area that Holt introduced, intended to last for 15 minutes, stretched for nearly 45 minutes. He constantly needed to remind the candidates to stick to time limits, which was tough when they decided to steamroll over him. At one point he said, ‘20 seconds’ when Trump tried to make a point, but it stretched to 55 seconds before Holt could get in another question.”
Michael M. Grynbaum of The New York Times described Holt’s performance by stating, “He was silent for minutes at a time, allowing Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump to joust and bicker between themselves—and sometimes talk right over him—prompting some viewers to wonder if Mr. Holt had left the building.”
I too would be wary if the moderator wasn’t doing their job managing the conversation.
5. Following Up. Although moderators should dig deeper and ask provocative follow-up questions, they should remain objective and not argue with the candidates about their answers. The most visible case of this happened during the October 2012 Presidential debate when moderator Candy Crowley corrected Mitt Romney for his assertion that President Barack Obama did not refer to the consulate attack in Benghazi as an “act of terror.” The resulting exchange about the veracity of his comment continued for about another minute. “Candy Crowley stole the spotlight when she decided, on a whim, to fact-check the candidates.” Obviously, Trump would not appreciate any stealing of the spotlight.
6. Showing Up. Last but not least, the moderators’ reputation can bring biases to the table. Washington Post reporter Callum Borchers said in 2016, “In case you haven’t noticed, Donald Trump has some concerns about the debate moderators. Monday on Fox News, he claimed, without evidence, that NBC’s Lester Holt is a Democrat (Update: Time magazine checked the voter roll in New York. Turns out Holt is a registered Republican). Trump told CNBC last week that CNN’s Anderson Cooper will be “very biased.”
Whether or not debate moderators bring their personal biases to the dais on debate day is not known. In a land where one is not guilty until proven innocent, beware of labels. The moderators just might do a good job.
Here’s another idea: the Commission could bring in professional debate moderators who have the skills to facilitate a fair, equitable, and objective robust conversation – and don’t have the baggage of a political footprint. Just sayin’.
For more information, check out my website at www.RulesAnalyst.com. Book me now to comment (live, Zoom, or pre-recorded interviews) on the next debate by calling me at 480.399.8489 or set up a time to talk here.