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What Makes a Good Moderator in a Presidential Debate?

A good moderator should moderate, not escalate.

Many Americans felt dismayed that the first 2020 presidential debate at times devolved into a mudslinging contest. Most of the blame has been thrown at President Donald Trump, but a more careful analysis shows that the moderator, Chris Wallace, caused the chaos. With proper moderation, it could have been far more orderly and informative for the American voters. [perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”24″]…a good moderator will be like a good waiter…[/perfectpullquote]

The moderator is not there to influence the election’s outcome but to direct the flow of information for voters to make an educated decision. Ideally, a good moderator will be like a good waiter at a restaurant. If he does his job correctly, you are being served without even noticing his presence.

#1: No Audience Laugh Track

Many presidential debates have allowed for a studio audience to give audible feedback to the candidates: applause, cheering, laughter, and booing. It unconsciously assigns opinions to the viewer. In the early days of television, sitcoms had laugh tracks to tell the viewers at home when to laugh and what to consider funny. While this is fine for entertainment, it is inappropriate for political debate because the format then skews the outcome. Chris Wallace instructed the audience not to cheer or applaud during the debate, which was about the only thing he got right.

#2: Focus on Policies

The moderator’s job is to highlight the political platforms of the candidates. What do they offer the American people? What will they do as president? By being forward-looking and policy-oriented, the moderator enables each candidate to present a positive vision of what they would like to achieve. These goals may be unrealistic or based on lies, but it should be the candidates’ responsibility to expose the flaws in the other’s positions and claims, not the moderator. It works best when the candidates are assigned time slots for questions and responses.

The more mechanical this process is, the better behaved the candidates will be. For instance, in the question segment, the candidates may be given one minute to respond to a claim. The candidate should then see a clock counting down and be signaled when 15 seconds remain. It’s a technique that solves the issues of interruption. It works with kids in kindergarten, and amazingly, it works with politicians too.

#3: Get the Facts Straight

A moderator may make statements of facts as part of his questioning, but such factual claims should be uncontroversial and accepted by all. The greatest sin a moderator can commit is to present a false statement as accurate. Chris Wallace made many mistakes, but the one that most discredited him as a journalist of integrity was that he presented the “fine people” lie as a fact, rather than one of the most discredited hoaxes in U.S. history.

#4: Don’t Be Confrontational

A moderator’s role is to guide the themes and information flow of the debate. It implies that it is not his role to be confrontational toward the candidates. That should be left to the debaters. The worst kind of confrontation a moderator can make is an ultimatum: Either give the “right answer” or be placed in the basket of deplorables.  Wallace violated this practice in the worst possible sense when he gave Trump the ultimatum to condemn white supremacists. This is the equivalent of asking a candidate, “will you stop beating your wife?”

#5: Don’t be Divisive

Merriam-Webster defines the verb “to moderate” as “to lessen the intensity or extremeness of” or “to become less violent, severe, or intense.” These definitions give a good indication of the primary function of a moderator.

Under no circumstances should he be divisive. It is especially true today when the population is more divided than at any time since the American Civil War. Chris Wallace did not moderate the debate. He escalated and polarized it.


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