Who Moderates the Moderators?

Did Gwen Ifill get to pick the questions for the Biden-Palin debate?

Gwen Ifill

On the eve of Thursday’s vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, conservative commentators questioned the impartiality of moderator Gwen Ifill, whose forthcoming book is subtitled Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. Does a moderator like Ifill get to decide which questions to ask during the debate?

Yes. The moderators have near-absolute control over the script. The official rules for the debate are set out by the Commission on Presidential Debates in the form of a memorandum of understanding between the two campaigns. That memo isn’t released to the public, but a leaked copy of the rules from 2004 can be found here (PDF). While the document touched on how tall the podium would be (“fifty … inches from the stage floor to the outside top of the podium facing the audience”); where the thermostat should be set (“an appropriate temperature according to industry standards”); and whether the candidates could use their own makeup people (yes, they could), it didn’t say all that much about the questions. The document simply stipulated that the moderator should “use his or her best efforts to ensure that the questions are reasonably well balanced in all debates … in terms of addressing a wide range of issues of major public interest facing the United States and the world.”

Moderators typically go about this process by identifying the top headlines in the news and examining polling to determine the most pressing issues of the day. According to an interview she gave to historian Alan Schroeder for his book The Presidential Debates:50 Years of High Risk TV, Ifill came up with her questions in isolation prior to moderating the veep debate in 2004, receiving only some assistance with research from a NewsHour staffer. (A few weeks ago, she added that colleagues, passers-by on the street, and people at her gym have all offered their unsolicited advice as to what she should ask.) Bob Schieffer, who will host the final debate this year, claims to be a bit more solicitous in his process, seeking out the advice of his CBS colleagues, outside journalists, and “people who follow things in Washington” before coming up with his own list of questions three days before the event.

There are exceptions to the moderators’ freedom. Some of the debates may have specific areas of focus, like foreign or domestic policy. But even those constraints end up subject to the discretion of the moderator: At last Friday’s debate, Jim Lehrer asked the candidates several questions about the financial bailout despite the fact that a spokesman for the debates commission told The Hill that the focus would remain on foreign policy.

The process of coming up with debate questions has changed with the advent of the single moderator. Up until 1996, candidates were typically questioned by a panel of journalists. The panelists would often compare notes ahead of time to ensure they weren’t covering the same ground; in the 1976 vice-presidential debate, they went so far as to establish a set order for their queries. Perhaps the most famous moment in a vice-presidential debate was partially the product of planning: The panelists in 1988 agreed beforehand to ensure that one another’s questions were answered completely. As a result, they pressed Dan Quayle about his preparation for the vice presidency—prompting him to compare himself to John F. Kennedy and inspiring Lloyd Bentsen’s famous retort.

For the town-hall debate, which will be moderated next Tuesday by Tom Brokaw, members of the audience will be supplying the questions. In all likelihood, these questions will be screened ahead of time: At the town-hall debate in 2004, about 150 voters were selected by the Gallup organization—with equal numbers of “soft” Bush supporters and Kerry supporters—and asked to write down questions once they arrived at the venue. After screening to ensure that all questions were “appropriate,” then-moderator Charlie Gibson was supposed to select questions at random while ensuring they touched on a wide range of issues. Questioners didn’t know ahead of time if they would be selected to read their questions; if they strayed from what they had submitted beforehand, their microphones were supposed to be cut off. This year, however, the process of screening questions may be a little more complicated since Brokaw will also use questions submitted through MySpace.

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Explainer thanks Anne Bell of the NewsHour on PBS, Diana Carlin of the University of Kansas, Alan Schroeder of Northeastern University, and Scott Warner of the Commission on Presidential Debates.