By Katie Wheeler

The presidential debates for the 2012 election season have concluded, and media is abuzz with analysis, critiques, and fact checking. However, there is one aspect of the debates that is of particular interest to me- the moderators. The role of moderators in a presidential debate is an important one. They are in charge of asking the candidates questions, ensuring candidates receive equal amount of time to respond to questions, and keeping the debate civilized.

A Media Ethics magazine article by Ryan J. Thomas discusses moderators in presidential debates. It brings up an interesting question- do moderators have an ethical obligation to ensure truth is being told in debates? Now you may ask, why would they have any ethical obligation? Well, most moderators, and in the case of the three 2012 presidential debate moderators, are journalists. According to the Society of Professional Journalist’s code of ethics, the first ethical obligation of a journalist is to seek the truth and report it. Thomas believes that a moderator is first and foremost a journalist and has an obligation to act in the interest of the public and pursue the truth. This may include holding the candidates accountable and drawing the public’s attention to misleading or incorrect facts.

 So does this ethical obligation apply to the role of moderator in presidential debates?

It’s interesting to look at the performance of the three moderators to see if they might take on this obligation. The first moderator, Jim Lehrer, received criticism for his ability to moderate. Many thought he did a poor job, and a parody Twitter account was created called “Silent Jim Lehrer.” He had trouble just managing the candidates and the timing, leaving pointing out factual errors and holding candidates accountable to seem out of the question.

Candy Crowley, however, had a very different performance. One of the most notable moments of the second presidential debate was when Obama and Romney were arguing over what Obama called the Libya attack in the Rose Garden. Crowley interjected by saying “He [Obama] did in fact call it an ‘act of terror’” and in regard to Romney’s response she said “It did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea of there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.” This is an example of what Thomas was referring to, holding candidates accountable to their remarks and highlighting the truth.

Bob Schieffer, the moderator of the final debate, was like Jim Lehrer in that he didn’t attempt to fact check either candidate as Crowley did. He was praised as a good moderator in terms of keeping the candidates within their time limits and was said to be in between being too passive and too activist. 

Interestingly enough, Crowley was not just praised but also criticized for her fact checking. In addition, some articles accused her of a role that was “too activist.”  This leads me to believe even though Thomas’s argument may make sense, the public doesn’t see the moderator’s role as one of a “truth-bearer.” It seems, based on media coverage, that the American public prefers the moderator to put aside his or her journalistic values and simple serve as a referee in the debates.

I agree with this to a certain extent. I do think while serving as a moderator, journalists aren’t completely first and foremost journalists, but it would be useful to have some sort of accountability during the debates. Watching presidential debates can be frustrating because in many cases the candidates will present conflicting information. Each candidate will be adamant that he or she is right, and viewers have no way of quickly finding out which one is right. I would have appreciated moderators playing a fact-checking role, as it would have made watching the debates more valuable for me.


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