PBS' Jim Lehrer came in for widespread criticism last week for failing to control the first presidential debate. Now, moderator Martha Raddatz is confronting partisan criticism in the lead-up to Thursday night's vice presidential debate, the first and only direct confrontation between Republican Paul Ryan and Democrat Joe Biden.
The standards by which Raddatz will be judged are not exactly clear. Professional observers who pay close attention give advice that's seemingly contradictory: Don't cause any waves, but do challenge any clearly misleading statements. No one remembers the first modern presidential debate, the televised clash between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, for its moderator, CBS' Howard K. Smith. Instead, it was memorable for Kennedy's seeming vigor in contrast to Nixon's 5 o'clock shadow and pallor.
Evan Thomas, former Washington bureau chief for Newsweek magazine and author of Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World, says moderators must first do no harm.
"I think the moderator usually should get out of the way and let these folks make their case and not interject too much," Thomas says, "[be]cause I find it annoying when moderators try to be a know-it-all."
But Thomas says the moderator also has to be muscular enough to step in and challenge candidates when they say things that are deeply misleading or untrue.
CNN's Candy Crowley will experience the challenge firsthand next week when she moderates the presidential town hall.
"It is sort of the first line of accountability," Crowley says. "And the best moderators also are the ones who aren't waiting for their turn to speak next, but are listening to the answers."
By listening carefully, she says, they can refine their questions on the fly.
Baylor University communications professor Rich Edwards, president of the American Forensics Association, notes that presidential debates are not like the kind of judged classic debates his organization sponsors.
Yet he says Americans can still glean useful insights about their politicians from watching the presidential forums, particularly when skillful moderators guide the discussion.
When moderators ask sharp-edged questions, however, they can backfire, Edwards says.
Edwards points to a January primary debate in South Carolina staged by CNN. Moderator John King started with a tough question for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
King: "As you know, your ex-wife gave an interview to ABC News and another interview with The Washington Post, and this story has now gone viral on the Internet. In it, she says that you came to her in 1999, at a time when you were having an affair. She says you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage. Would you like to take some time to respond to that?"
Gingrich: "No — but I will ... "
(Gingrich was interrupted by thunderous applause.)
Gingrich: "I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office."
"What Newt Gingrich saw was an opportunity to make the point that the public distrusts the media," Edwards says.
He says it's usually much more difficult to score overall winners or losers for presidential debates than for formal ones graded on defined criteria. Even so, former Gov. Mitt Romney was almost universally deemed the winner of last week's debate.
Lehrer's performance was widely panned, as both Romney and President Obama ignored his specific questions, interrupted him and ran over their time so much that he had to abandon a planned line of debate. The Huffington Post's political team tweeted: "Don't worry, Jim Lehrer, it gets better. #stopbullying" — a not so subtle suggestion that he had been treated like a cowed schoolboy. (Lehrer has defended himself in recent days.)
Yet partisans are assailing moderators for their activities offstage as well. In 2008, PBS' Gwen Ifill took flak because she was writing a book on rising black politicians —including one named Barack Obama. Some conservatives claimed she could not be objective toward the McCain-Palin ticket as a result, though Sen. John McCain defended her professionalism.
This week, the conservative Daily Caller website accused ABC's Raddatz of bias because she married a Harvard law student in 1991 who was an Obama classmate, and the future president attended their wedding. They divorced in 1997, and her ex-husband is now the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. (Raddatz is now married to NPR's Tom Gjelten.)
ABC rejects that objection as laughable, but that's now part of the game.
"Few people ever get mad at a politician — be they a Republican or a Democrat — for running over the media," CNN's Crowley says.
To sum it up: Don't intrude, but hold the candidates' feet to the fire.
"I'm afraid moderators have to be like the presidential candidates we long for," Thomas says. "They have to be really cool, but sharp when it counts; to be laid-back and project an aura of calm, but be able to jump in at just the right moment.
"That's a tall order. I couldn't do it."