Rules of Engagement

How Debate Moderators Can Avoid Becoming Road Kill

In this season of debate-as-prize-fight, moderators have often gotten hit the hardest. Here are some tricks to staying out of the way.
ERIC GAY/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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