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Too Old To Moderate Debates?

If it really took a petition to get the Commission on Presidential Debates to choose a woman to referee this year’s rolling smackdown between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, then the irony of the moment is that the woman they chose—CNN’s Candy Crowley—did a significantly better job than the man—“dean of moderators” Jim Lehrer of PBS. ABC’s Martha Raddatz, who moderated last week’s vice-presidential debate, did a better job, too. It’s tempting to conclude (from this admittedly slender data set) that moderating presidential debates is yet another one of those 21st-century postindustrial functions that women do, not just as well as men, but in fact better than men. Full Monty dystopia, here we come. Toss Brian Williams a brew while he fires up the Wii.

But I think that's wrong. Or anyway, it's wrong about moderating presidential debates.

I yield to no person, man or woman, in my esteem for the female sex, whose higher-order capabilities in every area (except perhaps barbecuing) reliably match or exceed those of men.  Grrrrl power! and all that. I also anticipate that CBS’s Bob Schieffer will next week fall short of Crowley’s and Raddatz’s performance, just as Lehrer’s did. But should that occur, we won’t really have learned that women make better debate moderators than men. The significant dividing line between Crowley and Raddatz on one side and Lehrer and Schieffer on the other isn’t gender. It’s … um… OK, this a distinction that’s not considered very nice to make.  Indeed, in certain contexts making this distinction is against the law.

All right, I’ll come out with it. The meaningful difference here is age. I know that sounds extremely offensive, but bear with me.

Before I begin, let me be clear. I in no way intend to suggest that Jim Lehrer, who is 78, and Bob Schieffer, who’s a few months shy of 76, are any less good at their day jobs than they were 20 or 30 years ago. They are not. Long may they preside over the NewsHour and Face The Nation. Nor do I mean to suggest that older people in general are any less fit to perform journalism than younger people. If anything, it’s the opposite. Being myself 54, I am of course obliged by economic self-interest to think so. But the demonstrable fact is that accumulated knowledge and skill in this ever-younger field make employees (assuming they had talent in the first place) more valuable even as their accumulated raises make them more expensive. There are, to be sure, older burnout cases and younger prodigies who contradict this trend, but they are not the majority. If you don’t believe me, compare any recent copy of the Washington Post with any copy from 10 years ago, before financial difficulties required management to start chasing older employees out the door with buyouts. It was a better paper then, and the reason is that it had a deeper institutional memory and in general exhibited more assurance and flair in its writing and reporting. Old people rule.

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I also should stipulate that one important way in which age makes a difference is chronological rather than biological. Because they’re older, Lehrer and Schieffer came up in an era when TV journalists got in people’s faces a whole lot less than they do today. In some ways it was better then (more attention to nuance, less manufactured conflict), and in some ways it wasn’t (more indiscriminate deference, less calling out lies or inconsistencies). Mainly, it was different. And a big part of that difference was that on-air interviews weren’t as tightly paced and elaborately orchestrated and snugly tailored to shrinking attention spans as they are today. That automatically gives an advantage to those, like Raddatz and Crowley, who came up later, because those latter-day skills are increasingly useful—even necessary--as presidential debaters become progressively less inhibited about flouting debate rules and spouting obvious bullshit. (I’m talking about you, Mitt Romney.)

But chronology isn’t the whole story. It is also inescapably true that as a person ages certain capacities are likely to diminish, and that can be relevant to certain specific functions. I would imagine it’s a lot more difficult to be a war correspondent after you hit 70, because the stresses are harder to take. And I think probably it’s harder to moderate presidential debates, because that job, by all accounts, requires far more than the usual level of cranial dexterity and multitasking juju required of a TV interviewer. You have to keep your eye on the clock and you have to consider whether what’s being said on a very broad range of topics is factually accurate and you have to guide Candidate A to responding to this or that point made by Candidate B and then let Candidate B come back with a reply and you have to intervene when they dwell on a topic for too long and you have to at least try to enforce the rules, which as far as I can tell are always incomprehensible. And you have to do all this while looking perfectly calm and collected because since the advent of high-definition television the audience has a view of your every pore. I wouldn’t possess the athleticism to perform this job at 25, much less today. Don’t get me wrong—I have a healthily high opinion of my mind and my journalistic panache. But this specific quiz-kid sort of skill—ulta-rapid delivery, ultra-rapid response, instant-retrieval access to every fact in your brain even as you keep track of five pots bubbling on the stove—has never been my strong suit. It isn’t most people’s. It isn’t most journalists’. It isn’t even most Washington or New York TV journalists’. And I would imagine that among the very small group of people who are really, really good at performing this pressure-cooker task without being glib or wrong or annoying or unfair, or displaying more than the accepted number of facial tics, this is a job that gets a lot harder after you hit, say, 75.  Are there exceptions? I’m sure there are. But they only prove the rule.

Martha Raddatz and Candy Crowley aren’t youngsters. Raddatz will turn 60 next year, and Crowley is nearly 64. There isn’t anybody presiding over this year’s presidential and vice-presidential debates who isn’t AARP-eligible. But Raddatz’s and Crowley’s mental agility is very likely speedier and more limber today than it will be 15 years from now. It is also, I suspect, speedier and more limber than Lehrer’s and Schieffer’s is today. And if I’m wrong and it isn’t, it’s still a cinch that it is speedier and more limber than that of most other men—and women—of Lehrer’s and Schieffer’s ages. I’m not suggesting an age limit. I don’t want to get hauled in before the EEOC. But I do think age is a factor that determines how good a debate moderator you’re likely to be.