Types of Debate Moderator Biases with Presidential Debate Examples

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Now that the presidential debate season is over, I’ve been thinking about all the comments about “moderator bias.”  These accusations are based on some observable actions or behaviors – either before or during the debate –  that favors or discounts a candidate. 

Some accusations are factually legitimate, while others are not.  Regardless, biases are reflected in the viewer’s perceptions and accounting for that behavior.  So it is wise to be aware of the potential biases and how they may affect viewer confidence in the debate process:

Types of Debate Moderator Biases

Before the debate, there are three alleged actions that can be construed into a potential bias toward or against a candidate:

  1. Resume.  Based on where they work (or where they have worked), they must lean to one or the other candidate.  Chris Wallace works for Fox News, so he must be biased in support of Trump. Kristen Welker works at NBC, so she must be biased in support of Biden.
  2. Affiliation.  Since they are a registered Democrat or Republican, they must be supportive of that candidate. Chris Wallace is a registered Democrat. Susan Page isn’t affiliated with any party nor is Welker (although she was a registered Democrat) – yet she was called out for being a “radical Democrat.”
  3. Behaviors.  The actions moderators take can be construed to introduce bias toward or against one candidate or another:
    1. C-SPAN’s Steve Scully sent a tweet to Anthony Scaramucci soliciting advice about Trump. Scully claimed he was hacked, and then days later, he said he wasn’t.  It all became a moot point when the second presidential debate was canceled.
    2. Some questioned USA Today journalist and VP debate moderator Susan Page because she is writing a biography on U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

During the debate, the moderator should be fair and equitable.  But sometimes, bias can show up:

  1. Selecting Topics. The debate moderators are allowed to pick the topics – presumably what the American public wants to know more about.  Does bias occur in the selection process?  Probably.  That’s why the Democratic National Committee pushed for more moderator diversity during the primary debates!
  2. Naming Topics.  The debate moderators are allowed to pick – and thereby frame the context – of their topics.  Most are generic (the Supreme Court, Covid-19, the Economy etc.).  Wallace was chastised for selecting “Race and Violence in our Cities” – inferring that “race” begets “violence.”
  3. Asking Questions. 
    1. The number of questions – should be equal.  Each candidate should be asked the same sheer number of questions.
    2. The tone of the questions – are they “soft” easy questions to answer or “hard” tough questions?  A good moderator will ask both, with an equal amount of both served to all.
    3. The framing of the questions – the way that the questions are worded can show an implied bias.  Many questions start with a bit of a preamble to provide context to the question.  It is in this preamble (especially in the adjectives that are used to describe the context) where I find the bias comes out.  For example, Conservative commentators accused Welker of framing questions – particularly around Hunter Biden’s laptop and immigration  – in ways that favored Biden.  The Federalist slammed Wallace for his “dumb questions.”
  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 where Wallace “failed spectacularly at maintaining a modicum of order.”  Fox News reported that he said, “I hope to remain as invisible as possible…I’m trying to get them to engage…to focus on the key issues…to give people at home a sense of why they want to vote for one versus the other… If I’ve done my job right, at the end of the night, people will say, ‘That was a great debate, who was the moderator?’”  Well, Chris, after that debate, we were all talking about YOU!
  5. Following Up.  Ninety minutes goes by quickly, so the moderator has to make some snap decisions about when to follow up on a question or line of thinking, and when to let it go.  Yet again, the sheer number of follow-ups needs to be balanced so that one candidate doesn’t get preferential treatment or singled out:
    1. The moderator might probe deeper to ask a follow-up question.  This is entirely the moderator’s prerogative, and even that choice can be seen as biased, favoring one candidate over another.
    2. A candidate can ask, plead or demand airtime to follow up on what the opposing candidate has said.  Again, the moderator is the gatekeeper of the airspace, but that’s easier said than done.  How do you tell a president, vice president or senator to shut up?  And how often do you say, “Thank you, we need to move on” to each candidate?  Or “interrupt” a candidate to keep it on track?  According to the Daily Mail, “Tallies kept by Fox News and the GOP during the debate claimed she interrupted Trump far more than she did Biden, the former by 24-2 and the latter by 41-8.”
  6. Airtime.  When all is said and done, you want each candidate to have the same amount of time. (Personally, I think the moderators are being fed some kind of indicator of the stats, but I have no verification of this).   Interestingly enough, both VP candidates had nearly identical speaking time, even though many viewers initially came across with the impression that Pence talked far more.  Political editor Samantha Maiden complained, “This moderator [Page] has some sort of unconscious bias where she shuts down (Kamala Harris) right away and then just lets (Mike Pence) sail on when he goes overtime.”

We all have unconscious biases, but these are overt – and controllable to a large extent.  People are going to see what they want to see; however, moderators should take all precautions to appear as non-partial as possible.

For more resources on moderating panel discussions, visit the Knowledge Vault. To have Kristin moderate your next panel, visit the Powerful Panels official website.

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Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
Award-winning author Kristin Arnold is an expert panel moderator and professional meeting facilitator.
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