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Considering the Ethical Obligations of Presidential Debate Moderators

 By Ryan J. Thomas

The 2012 Republican party presidential candidate selection process entailed nationally broadcast debates. The moderators, who were typically professional journalists, were faced with numerous ethical obligations of their own.

Photo: IowaPolitics.com

 

As the seemingly never-ending saga of the 2012 Republican presidential nomination process seemingly draws to a conclusion, one must pause and reflect on the many water-cooler moments the candidates’ debates have yielded. From Rick Perry’s infamous "Oops" moment to Herman Cain answering just about every question with "9-9-9," this debate season has provided an endless supply of fodder for columnists and bloggers, not to mention late night comedy writers. One of the most interesting aspects of the debates, from a media ethics perspective, has been the role of the moderator and the responsibilities it carries.



Case in point: On February 22, CNN’s John King closed the Mesa, Arizona debate by asking the candidates "What is the biggest misconception the public has about you?" Much like the job interview cliché question "What’s your biggest weakness?" and its sure-fire response "Well, I guess I just work too gosh darn hard," it was an opportunity for the candidates to wax lyrical about a strength they possessed that the public had not yet cottoned onto.



Ron Paul saw this as an opportunity to challenge the notion that he is unelectable. Newt Gingrich wished the public knew just how hard he had worked to reform welfare in the 1990s. Rick Santorum asserted his ability to defeat President Obama. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, offered a meandering response replete with platitudes about "restoring America’s promise" and the need for "brighter futures." When King interjected to draw Romney back to the question, Romney replied, "You get to ask the questions you want; I get to give the answers I want." Just as startling was King’s response, a smile and a somewhat resigned "Fair enough."



The question was, admittedly, something of a throwaway, a piece of puffery to close the debate on a high and send everybody home smiling. But is it ethical for a journalist to allow a candidate to essentially decline to answer the provided question and embark on a self-promoting soliloquy? What are the responsibilities of debate moderators anyway?



"Gotcha Questions" and the "Liberal Media Elite"


Let’s consider this in the context of the Republican race. Throughout the primary season, candidate after candidate has flaunted their conservative credentials by railing against the "liberal media elite." In the debates, this has manifested itself with open attacks on debate moderators. Nowhere has this been more explicit than in Newt Gingrich’s journey from also-ran in the summer of 2011 to frontrunner at one point in early 2012. Throughout, Gingrich has made lambasting journalists a hallmark of his campaign.



The examples involving Gingrich are plentiful. Blasting Fox News’ Chris Wallace for his "gotcha questions" after Wallace asked about the viability of Gingrich’s campaign. Telling CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo that he "loves humor disguised as a question" after she asked him to back up a claim he made that the media were reporting economic news inaccurately. Informing Juan Williams that "among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable."  The trend established: Withering comment, withering stare, crescendo of applause, moderator backs down and moves on to the next question, rinse and repeat.



But perhaps the most startling example came in South Carolina, when CNN’s John King asked Gingrich for his response to comments made by his (second) ex-wife that claimed Gingrich sought an "open marriage" between the two of them and his (future) third wife. Gingrich lashed out at the "destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media," and said he was "appalled" that King "would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that." Amid deafening cheers and a standing ovation from the audience, King offered the explanation that "the story did not come from [CNN]" and "was the subject of conversation on the campaign [trail]." This provoked Gingrich’s synthetic rage-by-numbers routine once again, jabbing his finger at King and bemoaning the "elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans."



After the debate was over, King would defend his question, saying, "My old AP training is, you deal with the lead of the day upfront first." A scan of the headlines of the day validates King’s point, while Fox’s Chris Wallace and Neil Cavuto have publicly supported King’s handling of the debate. More disheartening here, however, was King’s original half-hearted explanation of his question, to place the blame on other media institutions rather than offering a full-throated defense of why the question was a matter of public interest.



Should King have stood his ground and maintained that Gingrich’s private conduct was a matter of public interest, given his longstanding opposition to same-sex marriage on the grounds that the definition of marriage comes from God and a Republican party "family values" platform? Should Juan Williams have challenged Gingrich’s (false) assertion that "more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history?" Should any moderator ask any candidate what exactly it is that President Obama is doing that warrants the label "socialist"? This issue, however, is less about the candidates than it is about the journalists, and in that respect it cuts across the political divide.



Considering Moderators’ Responsibilities


Arthur S. Brisbane, public editor of The New York Times, recently asked his readers if the Times should proactively address falsehoods as they arise in the public domain. In other words, instead of running he said/she said stories or even separate fact-checking assessments, should the newspaper correct the record as and when a falsehood, distortion, or otherwise misleading information occurs?  In response, reader after reader asserted that the question was a no-brainer: When falsehood enters the public sphere, journalists have a moral obligation to point it out and provide truth.



Brisbane’s fear was that the newspaper may not be able to do so in a way that is objective and fair. Yet objectivity and fairness are irrelevant here, so long as the process is uniform across the spectrum. Surely it is both objective and fair to hold all candidates and public officials to a simple (and sometimes not-so-simple) standard of telling the truth?



The same principle is as true in a debate context as it is on the printed page. Should the debate moderator correct a falsehood the moment it occurs? Were President Obama to make a false assertion in the fall presidential debates, would it be acceptable for the moderator to correct the President? The answers to these questions are yes and yes. Given the large audiences for these debates, it is unacceptable to allow falsehoods to creep into the body politic unchallenged.



As eloquently stated in Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism, journalism’s first obligation is to the truth and its first loyalty is to citizens. The typical political debate moderator—who is, of course, first and foremost a journalist—should be unafraid of challenging misleading assertions, holding candidates to account for their statements and conduct, and pursuing the public interest ruthlessly. The debate is a forum that, in theory if not necessarily in practice, provides the public with information on people who they may be voting for and who may, in future, exercise significant power over their lives. In that context, a moderator who will pursue truth and the public interest is an important asset to the polity.



Pursuing Truth and the Public Interest


It is easy, of course, to be an armchair critic. We would do well to keep in mind the bear pit of the debate setting, where intersecting factors create a high pressure and often hostile environment. To go back to my earlier example of the Republican debates, let’s set the scene. For one thing, there’s the platoon of candidates (particularly before state primary elections and caucuses have whittled down the field) and trying to fit in responses from all of them within the given time frame. Then there’s the breadth of topics to cover, from the economy to foreign policy to welfare to immigration. We must also acknowledge that the candidates surely must sense the unpopularity of the news media with the audience. And then, of course, there is the audience itself, cheering on every attack against the "liberal media elite." Added up, this is a toxic combination that makes being a debate moderator a seemingly impossible and thankless task.



However, journalism is not supposed to seek popularity. As an institution, it is supposed to possess the thickness of skin to withstand boos and catcalls. Journalists must be able to withstand the pressure from candidates and audiences alike to diligently pursue truth, to which they are obligated, in the interests of the public, to whom they are loyal.



Consider the redoubtable Wolf Blitzer, who provided a teachable moment to his counterparts during a January 26th Republican candidates’ debate in Jacksonville, Florida. After Blitzer asked Gingrich to follow up on comments he made earlier in the week regarding Mitt Romney being insufficiently transparent about his financial affairs, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives dismissed his inquiry as "a nonsense question." Blitzer, however, stood his ground despite boos from the audience, reminding Gingrich that he was the one who made a campaign issue of Romney’s finances and should therefore back up his assertion. When Romney joined the fray to challenge Gingrich to say what he had said behind Romney’s back to his face, Blitzer’s persistence in the face of adversity was rewarded.



Again, this is not about individual journalists, nor is it about individual politicians, but about asking questions about the behavior we expect of journalists in scenarios such as this. Is it to let questions go unanswered, allow lies to be broadcast unchallenged, and permit matters of legitimate public debate go unmentioned? Or is it to be proactive on all of these fronts? I contend that journalists have a much more edifying role to play in these debates than serve as hapless punching bags for embittered candidates. What do you think?



  • Ryan J. Thomas is a doctoral candidate and instructor in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication of Washington State University. His research interests include news media roles and responsibilities and news media coverage of social class and organized labor. He has published in Journalism Studies, Journalism Practice, and New Media and Society as well as Media Ethics.  Thomas may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

 
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