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All the President's Moderators

The four journalists who will question Obama and Romney in October weigh in on their preparations, why debates can still swing votes and putting civic duty ahead of ego 9/24/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern

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After months of campaigning, stump speeches, barbed statements and
negative advertising, President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney
(and their respective vice presidential candidates) will finally share the
same stages in October to duke it out in person. Moderating the debates will be
four television journalists, chosen for one of the highest honors of their careers.

But as much as The Newsroom's Will McAvoy might want it to be, as a moderator,
the debate is not about you.

Unlike the fictional character on the HBO drama series, who spent an episode in
season one showing off a bombastic new format for a presidential primary debate,
the journalists moderating 2012's proceedings know they are not the story. Like
with a skilled referee, it's best if you don't notice they are there.

"My advice always to anybody who moderates is to spend a lot of time in front of
the mirror saying 'This is not about me. This is not about me,'" says PBS NewsHour
executive editor Jim Lehrer. "The opportunity to kind of show off, so to speak,
is enormous. You have millions of people watching. There you are with the
president of the United States and the Republican nominee for president of the
United States."

But Lehrer, who will moderate his 12th presidential or vice presidential debate
on Oct. 3, cautions against getting too keen on the spotlight.

"This is not an opportunity for a moderator to demonstrate his or her expertise,
his or her toughness, his or her anything, other than the ability to facilitate a
meaningful exchange between the candidates
about things that matter," Lehrer adds. "It is
not a way to audition for a better job. In fact,
the more invisible the moderator is, the more
successful the moderator is."

That's the task facing Lehrer; Bob Schieffer,
CBS News chief Washington correspondent
and moderator of Face the Nation;
Martha Raddatz, ABC News senior foreign
affairs correspondent; and Candy Crowley,
CNN chief political correspondent and anchor
of State of the Union. Of course, if debates
function the way
they are supposed to,
as an actual exchange
of ideas and a fruitful
back-and-forth between
the candidates, the moderator's
job shouldn't be
more than facilitator.

"My theory on all of
this is moderators are
there basically to keep time," says Schieffer. "I'll pose a question, and then if I'm not
heard from until I say 'Gentlemen, time's up,'
that will be fine with me. But my guess is it
won't work that way, I'll have to prod both of
them at various points."

0924 Cover story Viewership chart

Keep Your Day Job (in Mind)

A journalist's job as debate moderator differs
from their day job, where they are used to being the center of attention anchoring
shows or as correspondents looking to break news.

"When I'm moderating Face the Nation, I'm trying to get news. I'm trying to find
out how to advance the story," Schieffer says. "This is different."

"You're not functioning as a journalist in a purer sense, you're functioning as
a moderator of a presidential debate, which is a step and a process that is one of
the most important things we do as an American democratic society," Lehrer adds.

Moderators prepare in a similar way to a big interview, however, starting with
reading as much as they possibly can on the candidates and on the key policy
issues that are the focus of their debate.

"I drove 800 miles last weekend and I listened to every possible podcast,
books on tape about different subjects that could relate to the debate," says
Raddatz. "There's not a moment that I'm not trying to fill my brain with something
about this."

Each of the moderators say they are spending time reaching out to policy experts
and think-tank employees -- though no one involved with a campaign or political party -- as well as fellow
journalists to pick their brains for
suggestions on topics and questions.
They receive plenty of input
from others -- solicited or not.

"I can assure you that I do not
lack for suggestions that come into my email box constantly," says Crowley.

More important than crafting questions, Lehrer says, is building a base of
knowledge to be able to react to what is happening onstage and ask follow-ups --
in that way, it's Journalism 101.

"The key to all preparation for these debates is to get enough information in my
head in such a way that I'm comfortable enough to be able to listen to the answers
and not be all hung up on fancy questions and all of that sort of stuff," Lehrer adds.

0924 Cover story MeetModerators chart

Weighing the Stakes

The duty of a moderator to press the candidates to really answer a question—
and call them out on it if their opponent doesn't first is not lost on this group
in such a close election. With just 8% of likely voters undecided, according to a
University of Connecticut/Hartford Courant poll released Sept. 20, the moderators
believe the debates could play a crucial role.

"The debates are really the last vehicle that can actually cause people who have
made up their mind to change their minds in some cases,"
Schieffer says. "Whether it will or not, I don't know."

Of course, when candidates have been stumping on the
campaign trail and on television for months, or more than a
year as in Romney's case, the chance that either of them will
say something unexpected is unlikely. But the debates offer
a high-profile opportunity to reinforce a message or correct
a previous misstep.

"Do I think [the debates] can change minds? I do. Do I
know that they will? I don't," Crowley says. "But I think that
it's less like this debate will change minds than this series of
events will change minds. I think those big a-ha moments
are less likely than the over-time watching of these things."

For casual voters who may just be tuning in to the election
post-conventions, the debates also offer a crash course in the
candidates' differences in a forum where they have not been
seen before and away from the sound bites of the 24-hour
news cycle.

"The debates are incredibly important because you see in
one 90-minute session as much as you can," Raddatz says. "You don't have to hop around day-to-day."

A Captive Audience

Despite the fact that most voters have already chosen
sides, the moderators expect many -- 50 or 60 million
viewers, if history holds -- will still be watching
come October.

"The electorate, 80% are definitely with the guy they
picked," Crowley says. "But that doesn't mean that 80% has
lost interest."

With the Romney campaign suffering a setback last week
over the leak of a video shot at a party for wealthy donors earlier this year, and Obama's
subsequent response to it, a debate offers the chance for candidates to take each other
on in person, instead of through spokespeople, statements and negative ads.

"There will be a lot of attention on the first one because it is the first time the
two candidates will be on the same stage at the same time talking about the same
thing," Lehrer says.

And if not out of civic duty, there's another reason millions of Americans will
watch the debates: With all of the major broadcast and cable news networks carrying
them, additional TV pickings will be slim.

"I think they'll still watch. For one reason, there will be nothing else to watch,"
Schieffer says. "It's on all the networks. There really is not much competition."

E-mail comments to
amorabito@nbmedia.com and follow
her on Twitter: @andreamorabito

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