Politics

What It’s Like to Moderate a Presidential Debate

In a word: terrifying.

Empty podium in front of a blue screen with the Constitution written in white.
For a broadcast journalist, there is no bigger challenge than moderating a debate. Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

When I was chosen to moderate the second debate in Mexico’s presidential election in 2018, the first thing I did was look up Martha Raddatz. I reached out to a mutual friend Cecilia Vega of ABC News, who was kind enough to put us in touch. Over the years, very few journalists have had the honor of moderating a presidential debate in the United States (in Mexico, even fewer: Our first televised debate happened in 1994, three and a half decades after the U.S.). In an exclusive club, Raddatz has been, by all accounts, one of the very best. In 2012, she moderated the spirited debate between then–Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan. Then, four years later, alongside Anderson Cooper, Raddatz expertly navigated the very contentious second debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

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Raddatz began our conversation with a simple question. “Are you terrified?” she asked. When I told her that the opportunity to moderate a debate, especially in an election of such consequence, was a dream come true, she repeated the question. “Yes, but are you terrified?” she asked again. When I told her I was, she took a beat. “Great,” she said. “You should be.”

Over the next few weeks, I understood just how right Raddatz was. The moderators for this year’s three U.S. presidential debates—Chris Wallace of Fox News, Steve Scully of C-SPAN, and Kristen Welker of NBC News—are probably terrified as well, or at least they should be.

Simply put: For a broadcast journalist, there is no bigger challenge. I have never felt such constant pressure. I spoke with professional athletes to ask them how to handle the spotlight and the realization that, for two hours, live, tens of millions of people would be watching—and judging. Javier Hernández, a Mexican footballer, gave me an unnerving piece of advice. “Just enjoy it,” he said. Easier said than done. I gave up coffee for three months, and still I could barely sleep. One day, I think I dreamt of Post-it notes on the wall and possible follow-ups. Moderating a presidential debate is indeed a terrifying experience, and anyone who says otherwise either hasn’t done it or, as Raddatz also told me, “is lying.”

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It is also an extraordinary experience. And at least for me, a career-defining moment, not only because of the implications of what transpired but also because it helped me define the kind of journalist I wanted to be.

The most important question facing presidential debate moderators is how far they are willing to go to get a straight answer. This question, of course, lies at the center of the journalistic craft itself, but during a debate, it becomes more complex and, if done right, potentially more meaningful. Should moderators ask follow-up questions if the candidate refuses to give an honest answer or tries to hide behind their always reliable talking points? How active should moderators be? Should they interrupt or interject if the candidate is trying to stall? Should a moderator fact-check the candidates, like Candy Crowley did, brilliantly, in 2012?

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Some say moderators should show utmost restraint. In the weeks prior to the debate in Mexico, my co-moderator and I had a chance to have a conversation with the late, great Jim Lehrer, the dean of debate moderators in the United States. From 1988 to 2012, Lehrer moderated 11 presidential debates and one vice presidential debate. In our phone conversation, Lehrer, who died earlier this year, recommended we stay above the fray, asking follow-up questions but being cautious. “It’s not about you,” he told us, advice he had often given.

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Under normal conditions or perhaps in a different era, it would be impossible to argue against Lehrer’s guidance. Normally, a moderator should be almost invisible, steering the conversation toward productive dialogue and pointing out inconsistencies only when needed. But these are not normal times. Public discourse in the United States and elsewhere has been contaminated by misinformation and outright lies. Objective truth has become nebulous, and some politicians, the president of the United States among them, won’t hesitate to lie in front of millions. What is a debate moderator to do then?

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I got the answer from Chilean journalist Daniel Matamala. An expert debate moderator, Matamala is forceful, direct, and not afraid to push, as Chilean President Sebastián Piñera learned in a contentious debate in 2017. When we met him in Mexico City during our arduous prep sessions, Matamala told us a story. In Chile, he said, there were three kinds of journalists. Those who had grown up during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship had been too afraid to ask questions because they feared repercussions. Those who had seen the country’s transition to democracy were braver but still cautious, lest they endanger the consolidation of Chile’s still fragile institutions. And then there were those who, like Matamala, had become journalists in a completely free society, where the only priority was to get at the truth. “We are not scared to interrupt a politician if need be, or correct them,” he told me. “That is our job”.

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A couple of months later, when it was my turn in the moderator’s chair, I took Matamala’s advice to heart. During a testy exchange with presidential candidate José Antonio Meade, I asked whether then-President Enrique Peña Nieto had been wrong to welcome presidential candidate Donald Trump to Mexico in August 2016. Meade, who had been part of Peña Nieto’s team, refused to give me a straight answer. I pushed back, interrupting to get an explanation. It was indeed terrifying. But it was also exhilarating. “It’s not a lot of fun. But if you make it to the other end, it’s really exciting,” Jim Lehrer once said. It’s true: The moment it all ended, all I wanted was to do it all over again.

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In the weeks after the debate, when the adrenaline had died down and I began drinking (lots of) coffee again, I often went back to the experience. There are a couple questions I wish I had asked and one I wish I had framed in a slightly different way. But I don’t regret pushing back on politicians, fact-checking them when needed, asking follow-ups, or relying on the most important word on a moderator’s arsenal: “how?” (if a politician can’t explain, in detail, how he’s going to do something, why would he deserve a try at the helm?). I’d rather be remembered as the journalist who interrupts rambling or disingenuous politicians than the one who lets them run out the clock.

Matamala is right: That’s our job. I trust this year’s moderators feel the same way.

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