Q of the Week: Who Should Moderate the Debates?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Critics pounced on Today Show host Matt Lauer for his handling of NBC’s Commander in Chief forum featuring Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, foreshadowing the level of scrutiny the moderators will face during this fall’s presidential debates. The scheduled moderators are Anderson Cooper of CNN, Lester Holt of NBC, Martha Raddatz of ABC, and Chris Wallace of Fox News—and they’re already feeling the heat.

So, this week we asked readers to offer their thoughts on who might make the best presidential debate moderator and why. Several readers suggested MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. Here’s Marguerite Beaudoin’s reasoning:

It is my opinion that Rachel Maddow would be a great moderator, despite the fact that she is a Democrat. She is capable of conducting herself in an unbiased and professional manner and can “handle” both of them without doubt.

Here’s Maddow in action:

There was also a lot of support for Democracy Now! host and producer Amy Goodman. Why? Reader Lisa McDaniels picked Goodman because she’s “smart, has an amazing breadth and depth of knowledge, is even-tempered, is independent/not owned by corporate media, and looks like a real human being, not an air-brushed celebrity.”

A particularly great suggestion came from reader Steven Durham, who really wishes Judge Judy could moderate the presidential debates:

She would destroy Trump for having no substance; she would destroy Clinton for her terrible campaigning skills; and she’d be entertaining, which is what the American voter apparently needs in order to be engaged.

Reader Joe Bookman suggested The Atlantic’s very own Molly Ball: “She is smart, fair, has demonstrated knowledge of the issues as well as the candidates, and is likely not well-known by the candidates themselves.” Another reader, David Murray, described what a talented debate moderator would bring to the stage:

The best moderator, in my opinion, will:

a) Hold the speaker accountable for a clear answer and do not allow a speaker to side-step a question.

b) Prevent speakers from using personal attacks on their opponent and remain solely on the issues and questions. Any form of name calling or derogatory remarks are to be halted and called out (example: “Crooked Hillary”). The moderator must insist on respect for the person.

c) Ensure speakers stay in the time allotment and be firm in cutting them off especially if their response is not addressing the question, is attacking their opponent, or is posturing.

In my opinion, the moderator in these important presidential debates is not a simple bystander, especially with these two candidates. The issues are too great and these two have been skirting them for too long. And if the media is ever to restore any semblance of credibility, the moderators must be strong, clear journalists asking straightforward questions, not allowing the candidates to fudge or skirt an answer. The questions must be precise and to the point. They must be realistic. They must address current, complex issues in a way that allows for clear, concise, and thoughtful responses. The moderator, in my opinion, must seek responses that answer the basic journalist’s framework: 5 Ws and an H.

We need to know how the next president will govern, how he or she will make decisions, how he/she will collaborate, how he/she will reduce the influence of special interests and how he/she will stand up to special interests; how he/she will lift up the poor, improve the safety nets of Americans, and help foster a more just society.

The moderators must be more prepared than the candidates, be firm, be courageous, and be mindful of the American people and not the ratings of a broadcast company.

This next reader, Donald Haskell, also made an interesting point about the unique role of a moderator:

I don’t know enough to respond to the debate moderator choice question, but I believe that the guidelines for a moderator should be quite different from those of a news interviewer. I think that the moderator is tasked with generating a list of questions that challenge the debaters to clarify their positions on a broad range of topics, and it is the debate opponent's responsibility to challenge the response, not the moderator’s (in contrast to the responsibilities of a news interviewer).

Secondly, both, but especially the debate moderator, must exercise control over the process, even if it means using an on/off switch to cut off a debater or interviewee when they exceed the parameters of the event (similar to the minister who redirected Mr Trump at the Flint church).

And finally, props to reader Patricia Heaps for keeping it light: She suggested that Donald Duck should moderate the presidential debates because “this race is a cartoon.”

Gerald Herbert / AP