Debate moderators mistake neutrality for objectivity

Michael Jensen

The 2016 presidential race is one of the most dramatic in recent history. With Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death on Saturday, an already crazy race took yet another chaotic turn. Americans must choose the next president wisely, because their decision will likely shape the future of the Supreme Court, and the country, for decades to come. Journalists have a responsibility to hold politicians accountable so voters can make informed decisions. Unfortunately, skittish journalists haven’t been doing this during presidential debates, and their timidity is jeopardizing the democratic process. 

Conventional wisdom is that moderators should stay above the fray, passively guiding the dialogue between candidates. Adjunct law professor Paul Burka said he believes moderators shouldn’t create unnecessary drama or allow their personal biases to enter the debate. 

“I have always regarded the role of a moderator to be that of a neutral party,” Burka said. “The moderator’s job is to be a facilitator to keep the dialogue flowing. It’s not [the moderator’s] job to bring an agenda to the discussion.”

But when the dialogue between candidates ceases to be productive, the media has an obligation to bring them back to earth. It’s impossible to have a substantive debate without strong moderators and rigorous fact-checking. The hot mess that was Saturday night’s Republican debate allowed candidates to enter a surreal no-facts zone which eventually devolved into an ugly brawl. 

Early in the debate, moderator John Dickerson corrected Ted Cruz about a Supreme Court nomination and the crowd actually booed. Dickerson sheepishly backed off and never regained control of the debate. The ensuing chaos was quite entertaining but hardly a productive exchange of ideas. Ben Carson fabricated a Joseph Stalin quote, two Cuban-Americans fearmongered over immigration and Donald Trump delighted in bullying Jeb Bush. The moderators meekly protested at points but were steamrolled by the belligerent candidates and unruly audience. 

Challenging politicians can be dangerous, and the media’s reluctance to do so is understandable. Megyn Kelly publicly confronted Trump about his past misogynistic comments while moderating a debate. In retaliation for her perceived unfairness, Trump repeatedly attacked her personally and threatened to boycott a future Fox News debate if she wasn’t removed as a moderator. With the support of her network, Kelly stood her ground and did her job, going after the other candidates with the same fearlessness she did with Trump. It was a rare example of journalistic integrity in an election cycle that sorely needs it.  

Questioning authority will never be easy, but robust democracy cannot survive without journalists who do just that. When moderators are too afraid of appearing biased to challenge politicians, voters cannot make informed decisions. The truth is not always neutral, and the people deserve to hear it.

Jensen is a neuroscience junior from The Woodlands.