Once I got more experience as a teaching assistant, I stopped asking professors to give me examples of an A paper. I started asking “what gets a B?” instead. In other words, what are the pros and cons of an average student’s paper? I knew most professors had similar ideals for A work but many of them couldn’t articulate the pros and cons found in the average student’s work. If we talked about the standards for average work in advance, it was much easier to evaluate students throughout the spectrum.
I haven’t been a teaching assistant for years, but I thought about these different ways of evaluating people’s work when I started reading reviews of Matt Lauer’s performance as moderator of the Commander-in-Chief forum on Wednesday. If you missed it, James Hohmann of the Washington Post has a good summary of all the reactions. People have an ideal of what debate moderators should do. Lauer is the inverse of professors agreeing on an A. Everyone has different standards for an ideal moderator but they agree that Lauer wasn’t it. Maybe it’s because I spent so much time grading papers, but I have a hard time grading Lauer on a simple pass/fail scale. So if you had to give Lauer a more specific grade, how many points would you give him out of 100?
It’s a weird question, I know. Unless you review media podcasts you probably don’t think about giving journalists a numerical score. People normally think of journalists and media organizations in binary terms (trust / distrust, like / dislike) or ordinal terms (favorite, second favorite, etc.) I’m asking what score you would give Lauer because there are several presidential debates coming up, so it would probably be good to define what counts as a “passing” grade for moderating a debate. If Lauer didn’t press Trump when he lied about always opposing the Iraq War, but he didn’t make any other mistakes, would you have given him a passing grade?
Moderators are graded very differently than other forms of journalism. Part of this is because debates are live. I used the delete key several times while writing this sentence, but live television has no delete key. I once worked at a local television station that declared someone died in a fire, went to commercial break, and then announced that person was alive. Accidentally announcing someone’s death is an embarrassing mistake, but still fixable. If Trump lies during a debate, and the moderator doesn’t challenge him immediately, it’s much harder to apologize to the audience and then go back to challenge Trump after the commercial. It’s impossible to grill Hillary Clinton over her e-mails then ask a softball question about them. Major news interviews, press conferences and debates are created to be a performance. We judge people on whether they can perform in the moment.
I read hundreds of examples of journalistic theatre for my dissertation research. Journalists have been evaluating performances in these presidential events for as long as they have been on the record. Both the theatre and the literal words people said are potential news. Writers can separate the two in to different stories. Television pundits do not separate the literal words from the performance in post-event coverage. (This has always been controversial.) It’s not unusual for a moderator like Matt Lauer to become one of the many stories after a high profile news performance.
Remember that when we read a news story, the interaction that took place between journalists and their sources is usually hidden, so we can’t really form an opinion of it. My favorite example of these negotiations at a high profile level is Bill Clinton answering questions about Monica Lewinsky, a fundraising scandal, and other domestic topics while flying over the Amazon on Air Force One. He wanted to “avoid being hammered by domestic questions” in his press conference with Brazil’s Prime Minister later that day (ABC’s Good Morning America, 10/14/1997, 7 AM broadcast).
Would you be critical of this kind of backroom deal leading to one on-the-record soundbite in a short story? These agreements are the engine that makes day-to-day reporting work. We don’t know much about these negotiations because even if a researcher gives everyone anonymity observing the interaction changes it. When Matt Lauer is interviewing the two main presidential candidates live, it’s a rare theatrical event that draws our attention. We expect journalists to do a more active job moderating the discussion because it’s the rare chance we actually get to see how they ask questions as they ask them.
It’s easy to look back on Matt Lauer’s performance asking questions and point out mistakes. Most pundits used this as a jumping off point to talk about what they thought the ideal moderator should do, what they should avoid doing, and how poor moderators could hurt the public. It’s important to discuss ideals. However, we know people’s definition of an “ideal” debate moderator is extremely subjective. I doubt I could sit down with my neighbors and reach a consensus on the appropriate number of questions to ask about particular topics. It’s even harder to figure out how hard to push a candidate who is giving a deceptive or non-responsive answer. One person’s “holding candidates accountable” is another’s “biased moderator hijacks debate.” Candy Crowley became a partisan lightning rod after challenging Mitt Romney in 2012.
As someone who taught sociology, I’m far less concerned about Matt Lauer’s individual performance than pundits. I don’t care if you want to give him a 55 or a 35 or a 0. They are all failing grades. What I am concerned about is the institution of journalists moderating candidate forums and debates. Can any journalist do well enough to get a passing grade moderating a debate in our current system? It’s easy to assume that Lauer is an individual incompetent and we just need to replace him with a better moderator. However, debates are such rare events that it’s easy to forget what the baseline is for an “average” moderator as we hold out for perfection. We forget that most debate moderators are closer to Lauer than Crowley, because the post-debate scrutiny makes it very hard for the Crowleys to keep their job (Crowley left TV news in 2014.) Hohmann argued “[moderators] are bound to be heavily criticized no matter what they do.” Fox News’ Chris Wallace has already explained why he will choose the more passive facilitator role:
WALLACE: I see myself as a conduit to ask the questions and basically to get the two candidates … to engage. I view it as kind of being a referee in a heavyweight championship fight. If it succeeds when it’s over, people will say, you did a great job. I don’t even remember you ever even being on the stage.
Q: What do you do if they make assertions that you know to be untrue?
WALLACE: That’s not my job. I do not believe it is my job to be a truth squad. It’s up to the other person to catch them on that. … If one of them is filibustering, I’m going to try to break in respectfully and give the other person a chance to talk. But I want it to be about them. I want it to be as much of a debate, people often talk that it’s simultaneous news conferences. I want it to be as much of a debate as possible. Frankly, with these two and the way — as Keith Jackson used to say about football rivals, these two just plain don’t like each other. I suspect I’m not going to have any problem getting them to engage with each other, but I don’t view my role as truth squading and I think that is a step too far. If people want to do it after the debate, fine, it’s not my role. “
Whatever you think of Wallace’s politics, he is offering a coherent theory of what debate moderators should do. Some progressive bloggers have already given Wallace an F, over a month before he takes his turn as debate moderator. On the other hand, staying out of the way as much as possible may be the only viable strategy for any kind of moderator to try and pass journalism’s hardest final exam. When I taught summer school, I only wanted to spend one day’s worth of class on an exam. That meant the final covered everything. I knew it would be a hard final, so I added an extra credit question to pre-emptively weight the grade. If challenging presidential candidates when they lie is so hard that almost every moderator assumes they will fail, we need to change the structure of the debate to let them succeed.
Here’s what I would do. Get a range of voters from across the political spectrum to sit in the debate room, like a jury. They have a green button when they can press when they want the moderator to dig deeper and challenge a candidate. They have a red button to press when they want the moderator to move on. If a majority (or maybe 60 percent) of the panel rings in, everyone gets notified. Moderators get the feedback, the viewing audience gets the feedback, even the candidates get an alarm. I would experiment with letting the panel pick the question topics too. The only way to become a debate moderator is to be a veteran DC journalist. These journalists are relatively experienced in interacting with politicians (it is a skill), but probably have different priorities than the audience.
I think the main advantage of this new debate institution is to diffuse responsibility away from the moderator as auteur. Wallace acknowledged he is responsible for everything: the questions, the follow-ups, when to cut someone off. He and other moderators bear the full responsibility for the performance. If the “jury of voters” decides when to challenge a candidate’s assertion, people will still get mad at the jury when it goes against them. This is actually the point – it would be easier for moderators to pursue the truth if it looks like an independent group is giving them permission to do so. I suspect letting people buzz in is also a more effective way to contain a candidate like Trump, who tend to ignore or attack journalists trying to corral him but is deeply unpopular with the general public.
People live tweet debates already. We are increasingly ready for a debate institution where people buzz in to give live reviews of candidate and moderator performances. Lots of people had feedback for Matt Lauer. Why not create a way to help him and help the country instead of just sitting on the couch saying “I could do better than that?”