That was the consensus on Monday night when three of the 2012 presidential debate moderators joined Marvin Kalb at the National Press Club for a discussion about the contests, the value of debates and the responsibility of moderators.
Mr. Kalb called the debates the “most watched and consequential event of the entire campaign,” noting only the Super Bowl had more viewers last year.
Former PBS anchor Jim Lehrer, Martha Raddatz of ABC News and CBS News’ Bob Schieffer agreed and talked about their preparation, role and the scrutiny that comes with moderating.
In contrast to Mr. Schieffer and Mr. Lehrer, who have moderated 15 debates between them, Ms. Raddatz’s first debate was last fall’s vice presidential one.
“I did nothing else but study up for this debate,” she said. “It’s like studying for the LSATs or SATs and then taking them in front of 60 million people.”
Mr. Schieffer said the pressure on moderators has never been greater. “There used to be 10 people who wrote about those things. Now there’s 700. Nobody holds back anymore.”
Ms. Raddatz interjected, “Scrutiny thy name is Twitter.”
Mr. Lehrer said he has learned two key lessons from the 12 presidential debates he’s moderated.
“Number one, it isn’t about the questions,” said Mr. Lehrer. “It’s about preparation so you can listen intelligently and make some really quick decisions.”
The second lesson, he said, is that it’s not about the moderator. “It’s not even journalism,” he said. “The debate is among the candidates, and it’s for the candidates, for the public.”
But Ms. Raddatz disagreed—at least on the importance of moderators’ questions.
“I worship these guys; they’re fantastic,” said Ms. Raddatz of Mr. Lehrer and Mr. Schieffer. “But I think we all bring a different style…I did spend a lot of time on questions. I thought that’s what it’s about.”
The point of the debates, she said, is to inform. “You want the American public to know who these people are.”
And the American public may zero in on some things the moderators miss in the heat of the debate.
For example, although Gov. Romney was widely thought to have bested President Obama in the first presidential debate, Mr. Lehrer said he wasn’t aware of the lopsided performances while moderating. “I thought that Romney was doing better than I had ‘expected’ but I wasn’t judging him.” Mr. Lehrer said his sole focus during debates is on the candidate who is speaking.
Ms. Raddatz said she didn’t realize that in the vice presidential debate Paul Ryan was drinking “53 glasses of water” until seeing a sketch about it on Saturday Night Live.
Every debater is different, said Mr. Schieffer. In the 2008 presidential debate he moderated, Sen. McCain would take notes “furiously,” while then-Sen. Obama never wrote anything down.
During the 2011 and 2012 Republican primary debates Gov. Romney always wrote something at the top of his notebook, said Mr. Schieffer. “When I asked him what he wrote, he said ‘dad.’” Gov. Romney said his father was his hero and writing his name helped improve his debate performance.
Do presidential debates make democracy better?
“Yes, a hundred percent,” said Mr. Lehrer, “because they are the only time in the course of a presidential campaign when the candidates are on the same stage at the same time talking about the same things in a comparative way when everyone who’s going to vote in that election can see them in action.”
Ms. Raddatz added, “You have this sense that you are doing something important, that this really matters.”
The moderators discussed whether social media is, for better or worse, altering the political landscape.
“Twitter, as much as you might want to fight it, it’s out there,” said Ms. Raddatz, who admitted she was rattled by some of the criticism, including tweets aimed at her appearance, in the days leading up to her debate.
“I got millions of critical tweets,” said Mr. Lehrer. “I never read any of them…. The bottom line, I felt good about that debate. Twitter was not going to change that.”
When asked if there should be more debates, Mr. Lehrer and Mr. Schieffer said yes.
“The evidence is that the public would watch them,” said Mr. Lehrer. “The people really care.”
That sentiment was echoed by Mr. Kalb in his concluding remarks. “I think these presidential debates are absolutely essential to the democratic process, and they have to go on,” he said.
The Kalb Report series, moderated by Mr. Kalb, is jointly produced by the National Press Club Journalism Institute, the George Washington University, Harvard University, University of Maryland University College and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. The series is underwritten by a grant from Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.