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Who Moderates The Moderators?

The great faith-based debate is over, and the reviews are in: It was a blowout of Bentsen-Quayle proportions. The back-to-back performances of Barack Obama and John McCain may have been judged roughly even, but in the battle of Pastor Rick Warren versus George Stephanopoulos, Charlie Gibson, Chris Matthews, Wolf Blitzer, Gwen Ifill, Bob Schieffer, Brit Hume, Judy Woodruff, Tim Russert’s Ghost, Jim Lehrer, and just about every other full-time network or cable news employee to ever moderate a presidential forum, there was no contest. Sam Donaldson, you’re no Rick Warren.

The minister's apparently mind-boggling feat involved asking simple-sounding questions that prompted the candidates to think out loud, explain basic political principles, and--mostly--to eschew canned swipes at rivals. The results created a rare appearance of concord between the media-bias wars’ dueling sides: Warren’s questions themselves went largely hailed by voices on both the right ("Rick Warren should moderate one of the fall presidential debates," declared William Kristol) and at least a few on the bloggy left ("Warren did a decent job of moderating the candidates, and he did ask questions the media won’t ask," wrote a MyDD poster, before sniping at McCain's alleged "cone of silence" cheating). It was a far cry from the big primary-season debates, full of those ticking-time-bomb and raise-your-hand-if queries so effectively skewered in the September Atlantic by James Fallows. Fallows watched tapes of all 47 debates in short succession and wound up comparing the late efforts to later episodes of "The Sopranos," "violent and dehumanizing, but ... the culmination of a long process."

As an aspirant to Billy Graham's crown as the nation's bipartisan religious advisor, Warren would be happy to accept the interpretation that his performance demonstrated a sui generis talent for bridging divides and speaking respectfully about differences in a "Sopranos" nation. But, in fact, the difference between Saturday’s forum and ordinary campaign-season events says little about Warren or his church. Rather, it has everything to do with the people who’ll be playing the moderator role in the full-dress gatherings this fall: reporters.

Since the debut of televised presidential debates in 1960, the job of questioning candidates and refereeing exchanges has been handled exclusively by figures from the news media. Their professional imperatives are simple: Be tough, break news, and do it fast. That’s an appropriate mission for a 20-inch A1 story or a lead segment on the evening news. But in a political-forum setting, the quest for a scoop--and the sloganeering defensiveness it engenders on the part of the candidates--has led to gatherings long on cant and short on illumination.

By contrast, the enjoyable thing about Warren's twin interviews was the way the pastor asked the candidates to walk through their positions. Instead of asking, for instance, why Obama had voted a certain way on the FISA bill, he lobbed one out about where the balance between security and freedom lies. The effect was less like a reporter chasing his mark down some Senate hallway ("Senator! Can you explain your relationship with Mr. Ayres?") than like a dinner party conversation between a thoughtful guest and his relatively charitable host. It’s a pity the event was structured as a pair of tête-à-tête suppers rather than a single meal.

Dinner party host, in fact, isn’t a bad archetype for the ideal debate moderator, someone who keeps the conversation flowing, mediates disagreements, and shows some affection by opening up a pricey bottle of wine. A nice table for three--whether it’s presided over by a California minister, a Hollywood party host, or some big-city social doyenne with a reputation for bringing bright guests to her well-appointed table--would make for a far better evening than the awkward joint questionings we’re used to. No wonder Sally Quinn, who was a famous hostess before she was a columnist about faith issues, praised the debate, concluding that "the one sure winner was Warren, who overnight changed the face of evangelicals in this country from the cartoon caricature of rigid, right-wing fundamentalists to one of open-minded, intelligent, concerned citizens."

Open-minded, intelligent, concerned citizens: sounds like a good model for a moderator. In her party-planning guide, The Party, Quinn chalks up her dinner-conversation skills to her training as a reporter, which she says enabled her to chat anybody up about anything. Maybe. But the bigger problem is that the sort of questioning learned in a career of reporting on deadline--"Mr. Mayor, why wasn’t the Sanitation Commissioner's conflict of interest disclosed on time?"--are not the sort of queries that get the ball rolling on an interesting conversation between two non-reporters.

Even the great inquisitorial moments in presidential debates represent a reporter engaging a single candidate, not two would-be presidents engaging one another. When George H.W. Bush said in a 1988 debate that he was "haunted" by urban poverty, Peter Jennings followed up by asking, "If it haunts you so, why over the eight years of the Reagan-Bush administration have so many programs designed to help the inner cities been eliminated or cut?" Great question. It would have been just as great, though, in a one-on-one interview. The on-stage presence of Michael Dukakis was irrelevant, at best. Just because pols don't like to submit to hard-hitting interviews in campaign season is no reason for something billed as a debate, an opportunity to watch aspirants explain or criticize one another’s important positions, to necessarily morph into parallel grillings or desperate searches for "gotcha" moments. Or, in more typical cases, parallel recitations of canned questions and canned answers.

The idea of reporters moderating or playing panelist in presidential debates has taken some hits over the years, largely on the grounds of the media participants' alleged insiderly self-importance. "Somehow the encounter is not so much to elicit information from the questioned but to display the erudition of the questioner," Mary McGrory wrote in 1992. Still, I'd wager the questions wouldn’t be much different were they to come from a competent and humble City Hall reporter plucked at random from some non-Beltway daily. (In fact, when The Des Moines Register hosted its own debate, the most memorable exchange concerned a silly effort to play gotcha about why Obama had former advisors to Bill Clinton on his team. Lincoln-Douglas, it was not.) No one's city editor ever yelled at them for not making the Councilman seem thoughtful enough in his answer to some big philosophical question. They're out there to get scoops, which in debates means gaffes, flip-flops on narrow specifics, scripted zingers, and other inanities.

This is not to say that Warren's performance was ideal. When asking about the "soft" humanitarian issues favored by his brand of evangelicals, he sounded awfully naïve, as if he were searching for a pat on the back for orphans rather than seeking serious-minded thoughts about issues. Worse, the parallel-questions format of his sit-downs, and perhaps his own inclinations, meant he didn’t follow up at all, let alone on obvious misrepresentations such as McCain's absurd claim that the Bush-era explosion in the national deficit has only to do with spending increases, rather than the tax cuts the Arizonan once opposed.

Of course, that's the kind of falsehood reporters are trained to jump all over. But for the most part, that doesn’t happen, a casualty of debate rules, candidate filibustering, or media stars' anxiety about seeming to play favorites. Instead, for the most part, the calling-BS job is left to the rival candidate, who tends to do so in the most hyperventilating manner possible. Reporters' prosecutorial questioning, on the other hand, tends to involve pre-planned efforts at causing a stumble, not the sort of real-time demolitions of rhetorical fibs that might actually move a conversation forward. With reporters thus unable to do that major piece of debate-work for which their training has prepared them, wouldn’t an attentive dinner host--evangelical or otherwise--prove better at steering a conversation towards important differences and significant truths?

Michael Schaffer is the author of the upcoming One Nation Under Dog.

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