To the editor:
In presidential election cycles, there has been experienced at times an “October Surprise.”
In this election, we may have witnessed an early occurrence on Sept. 29 with the first of three presidential debates. Certainly, I was surprised by what transpired, and the various commentaries, on that event.
In my own struggle to make sense of what happened that night, I searched out a transcript of the debate, which helped me understand something disturbing about what was going on. For most of the audience, attention has been focused on President Trump’s frequent interruptions, speaking out of turn, if you will. Yet when examining more closely the recorded proceedings in contrast to the “live action,” my attention was drawn to the conduct of the moderator Chris Wallace.
Early in the “debate,” Wallace’s questions were, quite honestly, not simply questions about President Trump’s policy position or program on a certain issue. Rather his “question” was preceded by asserting his perspective as fact, a statement that represented a challenge or accusation toward President Trump and the Trump administration.
The emergence of this pattern, and Trump’s recognition of it, spurred the President’s stating that he thought he was in a debate with Joe Biden, but that he was apparently in a debate now with Wallace as well. President Trump at that point began to operate from the reality that he was going to have to challenge Biden’s responses, as Wallace was not going to do that, as Wallace reserved cross examination for Trump alone, like a not-silent partner to Biden in the debate.
This strange twist of moderator conduct by Wallace continued throughout the evening, as he repeatedly jumped in with a challenge of something President Trump said, while no such insertions of challenge were made to former Vice-President Biden’s responses. Wallace’s “questions” to President Trump were a version of the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”
This debate was intended to be an opportunity to hear from the candidates regarding their policy perspectives, what they have done, and what they plan to do. The job of the moderator is simply to ask a question and let the candidates respond. The audience then evaluates and decides what to believe, what is true and correct, and what is not.
“Fact checking” by the moderator is out of bounds, a violation of the supposed purpose of the debate setting. The candidates may challenge one another in exchange of views, but the moderator has no place entering into that aspect of the event.
Perhaps Wallace is so used to being an interviewer who may properly challenge the responses of his subject that he was unable to embrace the role of a debate moderator. Some may remember the Obama-Romney debate in 2012 when moderator Candy Crowley inserted into the exchange her declaration of what she believed to be “the fact” of the matter, essentially siding in that case with President Obama’s claim on the question.
She was declaring mid-debate what was true and what was not — according to her judgment, injecting herself and her presumptions into the debate. Her conduct was entirely inappropriate — and what she injected as fact later turned out not to be true at all. Wallace’s was an epic failure in this regard compared to Crowley’s performance as a moderator.
President Trump has spent four years dealing with “reporters” like Wallace, who overwhelmingly ask questions in press conferences that are more statements of their own view and an accusation toward Trump, rather than an honest question seeking information or expression of his program and policy position.
He has weathered this experience as “coming with the territory”, while Biden has been mostly hiding out in the campaign, not taking questions at all from reporters, or for only a very few minutes. And the questions he gets have rarely challenged him or his view at all. Rather the questions he gets tend to be a matter of “leading the witness” in testimony against his opponent, intended to guide him to say something negative about Trump that they themselves would like to say.
I pray the next debate will have a moderator who will behave as a moderator should: just ask a plain question about an issue and let the candidates speak without comment from the moderator.