There may be no more thankless job in all of political journalism right now than moderating a debate. The candidates giddily use you as a punching bag—Ted Cruz bashed the media at his last debate as compulsively as a rabbit pressing a lever for food pellets – the producers are always screaming in your ear about commercial breaks and everyone on Twitter is making fun of your hair. Sure, you get the added airtime in front of record audiences, the manna on which television personalities survive, but the tradeoff is almost universal derision. You’re always the bad guy. The nadir arrived at the Republican debate on CNBC in October. The CNBC moderators Carl Quintanilla, John Harwood and Becky Quick were universally derided even though the debate was the most profitable night in the network’s history. Republicans were so furious with the tone of the questions that they actively revolted against the moderators both during the debate and after. And viewers half the time couldn’t even figure out who was talking.
Disgust with the moderators seems to be, frankly, the only thing you can really get Republicans to agree on.
This must have been particularly stressful for “Face the Nation” host John Dickerson,slated to host the next debate—for the Democrats—on CBS just a couple of weeks later. America had its knives out, and he was next. Which is why it was so impressive that Dickerson, the day after the Paris shootings, elicited more praise from the pundits and viewers than any of the candidates. Politico called him the “clear winner” of the night, and he received plaudits from both sides of the political aisle. The hosannas were so universal that it is generally assumed Dickerson will end up hosting one of the general election debates next year.
Now, Dickerson was moderating a Democratic debate, with fewer candidates on stage and fewer Cheap Heat points to be made by hammering the media. He’ll face more of a challenge on February 13, when he moderates a Republican debate in South Carolina. (Though there may be fewer candidates then.) But it’s undeniable that Dickerson watched the technique of the CNBC moderators, and the response to them, and adjusted accordingly. The Fox Business debate, which came a few days later and also was much better received (particularly Wall Street Journal editor in chief Gerard Baker), did the same. With Tuesday’s debate in Las Vegas just around the corner, here are some lessons the CNN moderators can learn from Dickerson and the Fox Business folk. Here’s what they did right.
1. Ask the candidates whether you agree with a person’s assertion rather than a person’s personality
One of the ugliest moments of the CNBC debate was when Harwood asked Mike Huckabee if he thought Donald Trump had the “moral authority’ to unite the country.
The question was rightly booed because it was seen as overly personal—Harwood’s is basically asking Huckabee if he thinks Trump is a horrible sinner. This attempt to display a contrast between candidates only made Harwood look shifty and crude. Contrast this with the distinction Dickerson was able to draw between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, which, as an added bonus, actually told viewers a little bit about the candidates’ positions. “You said Senator Sanders took a vote on [gun] immunity you don’t like," Dickerson began a question to Hillary Clinton. "If he can be tattooed by a single vote and that ruins all future opinions by him on this issue, why then isn’t he right that your vote on Iraq tattoos you forever for your judgment?" That is how you draw a contrast: You take the expectation one candidate has for another (“Bernie Sanders is wrong on guns because of one bad gun vote”) and apply it to themselves (“Why are you not wrong on war because of your Iraq vote?”). It doesn’t require the candidates to make a moral or character judgment about each other. It just draw the contrasts that debates are supposed to show us.
2. Social media, in the right hands, is a useful tool
Moderators surely hate having to draw questions from Twitter – this is their show, their time to shine – but sometimes the crowd mind is better at thinking on its feet, as when CBS correspondent Nancy Cordes took a key followup question from Twitter, and it actually inspired Hillary Clinton to make some news.
Twitter doesn’t have to be all boxers/briefs questions or cat GIFs. The real-time nature of the service complements a live debate perfectly. It’s just another tool.
3. Excessive modesty (and politeness) is no vice
Dickerson is perhaps the most level-headed, almost milquetoast of the current cast of political correspondents; he’s so formal and studios and self-effacing that it’s easy to make a little fun of him about it.
But in a debate, this is usually the most effective tone. Dickerson’s almost apologetic, “hey, I’m just doing my job here” personal style is perfect for a debate because it keeps him out of it. Dickerson, an old print guy whose was essentially raised in journalism (his mother Nancy Dickerson was CBS’s first female political correspondent in 1960; Dickerson has written a wonderful book about her) seems to legitimately see himself a conduit for the public in a way almost no Brand-Called-Me journalists do anymore. Whether that helps “Face the Nation”’s ratings or not, it’s a great way to get real answers from candidates during a debate without them turning the questions back on you. Harwood looked like he was trying to win a contest with his questions; Dickerson basically tried to get out of the questions’ way.
4. Be firmly, smilingly schoolmarmish with the rules, as if they're out of your hands
The arbitrary rules set down for debates are silly – when you’re electing the leader of the free world, the notion of a buzzer or a 15-second rebuttal period can seem ridiculous – but they are, in fact, necessary: This is still a television program after all. Whereas the time restraints and need to keep the conversation on track totally befuddled the CNBC moderators, Dickerson, in his quiet way, was like an affable schoolteacher who was as sad about the time restraints as you kids are but hey, we all gotta get home on time and I don’t want to make the Principal angry. When you’re trying to move someone along, an apologetic sorry-it’s-out-of-my-hands, “if we don’t stay on time, the machine breaks down,” as Dickerson put it, gets everyone on the same page. It’s like being a patient, but insistent, parent.
You could also do what Baker did and just blow through the “here comes a commercial” music all together.
5. Don’t worry about “creating a moment.” Let the candidates do that on their own
The ratings for the debates have been so high that there’s a temptation to turn this all into pure entertainment, a death match. CNN’s debate promos, both for the Reagan debate back in September and this upcoming one, are selling this fundamental building block of a democratic society as prizefights. But efforts to deliver the promised product often backfire. Harwood was left naked when the candidates refused to take his rhetorical bait; Harwood ultimately felt like that kid at the playground who kept trying to goad two bigger kids into punching each other. Like tax men and baseball umpires, debate moderators are never going to be popular. But they don’t have to be universally hated either. Ask Harwood. Just make sure to be polite about it.