Presidential Debates Mirror Civil Discord

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

As presidential debate moderators go, they didn’t stack up to the likes of revered Walter Cronkite.

Moderators of the 2020 Donald Trump and Joe Biden debates were critiqued, criticized, chastised and lampooned.

Gone are the days when such moderators were unquestionably beyond reproach and in charge of the debates. Those who served as moderators were lofty media figures of their time.

The first televised presidential debate (of four) in 1960 between Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon was moderated by Howard K. Smith of CBS. Twenty-nine media figures have filled that role, including esteemed broadcasters Edwin Newman, Pauline Frederick, Barbara Walters, Bill Moyers, Jim Lehrer, Bernard Shaw and Tom Brokaw, to name a few. Cronkite served on a panel during one of the debates, but not as moderator.

Played by the rules

Those debates largely were cordial and played by the rules, respecting time limits. Not until 2020 would one of those debates be described as an undisciplined brawl.

Three presidential debates were scheduled for 2020. But one was canceled, leading the candidates, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, to schedule competing town hall meetings on the date of the canceled presidential debate that had viewers switching from one channel to the other. Trump was on NBC and Biden on ABC.

The first 2020 presidential debate on Sept. 29 in Cleveland was moderated by Chris Wallace of Fox News. It went so badly, the headline on an article by conservativedailynews.com read: “Chris Wallace Lost the First Presidential Debate.”

Even Wallace admitted it was a disaster, largely because President Trump refused to stop talking when his time was up and because he repeatedly interrupted when Wallace tried to ask questions.

A train wreck

Media reports described the debate as “off the rails,” “chaos,” “unwatchable,” “a train wreck,” a “hot mess” and a “shoutfest” overwhelmed by interruptions and disregard for the moderator, largely by the president.

Wallace is the anchor of “Fox News Sunday” and the son of legendary “60 Minutes” reporter Mike Wallace. He also moderated a 2016 presidential debate between Trump and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

After the debate, Wallace appeared on “Bill Hemmer Reports” to reflect on that debate.  His first reaction, said Wallace, was “this is great” because the explosive interaction between Trump and Biden suggested “we were gonna have a real debate here.”

 Bitter frustration quickly set in, with Wallace holding up a copy of the debate rule book that both sides had accepted but were ignoring. 

Interrupted 145 times

“It became clear, and clearer over time that this was something different and that the president was determined to try to butt in or throw Joe Biden off…. I saw another Fox analysis that indicates the president interrupted either Biden’s answers or my questions a total of 145 times, which is way more than one a minute. And he bears the primary responsibility for what happened on Tuesday night.”

Wallace said he had prepared for a serious debate. “I had baked this beautiful, delicious cake and frankly, the president put his foot in it,” so that the American people “didn’t get the debate they wanted and that they deserved. And that’s a loss for the country.”

The second presidential debate on Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tennessee, was different, in part because new rules imposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates included a mute button on each candidate’s microphone to prevent interruptions and enforce time limits.

Moderator declared winner

“Moderator Kristen Welker Won the Presidential Debate,” declared the headline on a huffpost.com story about the second presidential debate. An NBC News correspondent, Welker “did an exceptional job that received wide praise,” wrote Alanna Vagianos. “She asked tough, substantive questions while ensuring that the debate moved at a productive pace. Many colleagues applauded her for being respectful, but not backing down from fact-checking both candidates on big issues.”

Wallace admitted on Fox News, “I’m jealous,” according to a report on The Daily Beast. NPR said it was “a real debate.”

“Kristen Welker is putting on a master class in how to moderate a presidential debate,” tweeted Philip Rucker, the Washington Post’s White House bureau chief. She is the second Black woman to moderate a presidential debate solo.

Complaints

But that does not mean Welker went unscathed. Before the debate, Trump described Welker as “extraordinarily unfair,” “a radical left Democrat” and “a very biased person.” He was genial toward her during the debate.

Though the Oct. 15 dueling town hall meetings don’t qualify as presidential debates, they drew their share of heat and controversy.

“Savannah Guthrie, George Stephanopoulos Draw Praise, Hate After Trump-Biden Town Halls,” read the headline on a story by Cydney Henderson in USA Today.

NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie hosted Trump’s town hall meeting in Miami, Florida, “which proved to be contentious from the start as moderator and candidate sparred over questions on COVID-19 and white supremacy,” wrote Henderson.

Moderator debates candidate

Trump “pretty much debated Savannah Guthrie,” Fox News host Sean Hannity said. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani called Guthrie “hostile, argumentative and contradictory.”

The Guardian praised Guthrie for “keeping Trump in check” and a tight rein on the meeting, but she was criticized for monopolizing time intended for questions from the audience.

“While many of the voters asked carefully crafted questions that were focused on Trump’s policy stances concerning hot topics….., Guthrie took it upon herself to interrupt and even steer the question in a different direction,” wrote Jordon Davidson of thefederalist.com.

Conspiracy theory

Guthrie and Trump clashed when she asked the president about his retweet of a conspiracy theory that Biden orchestrated to have Seal Team Six killed to cover up the fake death of Osama Bin Laden. It was described by Kathryn Watson of CBS News.

“Why would you send a lie like that to your followers?” asked Guthrie. “I know nothing about it,” Trump said. “You retweeted it,” Guthrie pointed out. “That was a retweet, that was an opinion of somebody, and that was a retweet. I’ll put it out there, people can decide for themselves, I don’t take a position,” the president responded.

“I don’t get that,” Guthrie countered. “You’re the president — you’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever.” Guthrie was accused of “grilling” the president.

“Totally crazy”

Later, Trump retaliated, saying that Guthrie had gone “totally crazy” during the interview. “Everyone thought it was so inappropriate. Savannah – it was like her face, the anger, the craziness.” He called Guthrie “unfair.”

Simultaneously, in contrast to the Guthrie “grilling” in Miami, the Biden town hall meeting moderated by ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos in Philadelphia was called a “smoochfest.” It featured no ill-tempered outbursts or answers running long beyond the time allowed.

USA Today reported the Biden-Stephanopoulos back-and-forth was calm in comparison with their counterparts. Stephanopoulos took some flack, though, for allegedly taking it easy on Biden. Giulianii said: “Stephanopoulos let Biden speak endlessly and never interrupted him.”

Pressing questions

Stephanopoulos turned questions almost immediately over to the audience, but periodically interjected questions, such as pointing out that Biden did not call for social distancing and mandatory face masks early in the pandemic. Several times, Stephanopoulos asked to “press you” on topics, including the economy, the supreme court, fracking and the Green New Deal. Overall, the tone was professional and cordial, as in the Walter Cronkite days.

Those addicted to political debates no doubt tuned into the vice presidential debate Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City, Utah, moderated by Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today. The debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris proved to be as difficult to control as it was for Wallace to control the Trump/Biden debate.

Page had trouble keeping Pence and Harris within their allotted speaking times and often resorted to saying “thank you” as a prod to stop them, without success as they continued to talk over her.

Scolding

Practically scolding the candidates, Page said at one point: “Your campaigns agreed to the rules for tonight’s debate…. I’m here to enforce them, which involves moving from one topic to another, giving roughly equal time to both of you, which I’m trying very hard to do right here.”

Civil discord, it is said, is a result of the contentious polarization that divides Americans. The presidential and vice presidential debates mirrored that breakdown.

There was a time when being asked to moderate a presidential debate was considered a high honor, a sign of respect for those who achieved eminence in journalism. Today, it’s a job that should come with hazard pay.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional Journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

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