Moderators must not be afraid to critically question presidential candidates
One of the most refreshing qualities of the vice presidential debate on Thursday was the crosschecking of facts that the candidates performed on each other. It also helped that debate moderator Martha Raddatz was more active than Jim Lehrer during the first presidential debate.
If debates are supposed to inform voters about the two candidates’ positions, more moderators will need to be engaged and ask harder questions. In the last few years, viewers have gotten hooked on “fact-checking.” Fact-checking occurs after a debate by nonpartisan journalists and partisan groups. The Washington Post has been asking Twitter users to tag their questions about statements in debates with #FactCheckThis.
There is nothing wrong with fact-checking — it’s what journalists do. Debate fact-checking is a phenomenon that’s relatively new. Journalists were often just asked to report what was said. Now, there are teams of both partisan and nonpartisan organizations that pick apart what candidates say in debates.
By examining what candidates say and whether or not it’s accurate, the public can benefit. Yet nearly all fact-checking is happening after the candidate has been asked other questions. Sometimes, the debate is already over. While the Associated Press and major newspapers are constantly updating fact-checks throughout debates on social media, the instantaneous fact-checking and scrutiny need to come from the debate moderator.
In the debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan, Raddatz asked follow-up questions and was not afraid to interrupt the candidates. She asked Ryan whether or not he asked for stimulus money, despite previously saying the stimulus was a bad idea. Exposing issues where candidates are hypocritical needs to be done more often.
Part of the problem is the way politicians have been held accountable. Hard-hitting interviews for U.S. politicians are rare. They dodge certain reporters and media outlets. Those familiar with the BBC style of interviewing understand that in other countries, elected representatives are held to a higher standard and asked tougher questions.
In other countries, people who avoid questions are called out. Reporters are not afraid to interrupt, regardless of the importance of the person being interviewed. Candidates are not given enough flexibility to run through a list of points or switch the topic.
While most of Raddatz’s questions were demanding, they weren’t up to the BBC standards. In one of the final questions, she asked, “If you are elected, what could you both give to this country as a man, as a human being, that no one else could?” These types of questions give candidates the ability to go into a scripted, generic answer. Debates should pressure both candidates so the public can better learn the facts.
We’ve already accepted political ads, which routinely misstate or drastically skew facts. Some studies find that these negative, error-ridden ads can affect vote choice. Other research does not reach the same conclusion. Being good citizens should also involve demanding that our politicians are held to a high standard.
Forcing politicians to answer tough questions, and having moderators not be afraid to ask follow-ups and pressure the candidates will help viewers understand the issues better.
Harmen Rockler is a senior newspaper journalism and political science major. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at @LeftofBoston.
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