CBS's Bob Schieffer was the first debate moderator not to drive conservative viewers to yell at their televisions in frustration. Of course, the bar was set very low. Two of the previous moderators were so overtly biased in favor of the Democrats that Mr. Schieffer's refusal to insert himself into the debate was refreshing. The lesson from Boca Raton is that an absentee moderator is better than an activist one.
President Obama performed so poorly in the first debate with PBS' Jim Lehrer that the entire campaign's momentum shifted in Mitt Romney's favor. The next two moderators sought to do something about that. "Jim Lehrer and Bob Schieffer were what you expect -- they let the debate happen," said Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the Media Research Center (MRC). "The two women, who were new to the game, listened to criticism and did it differently."
One of those women, CNN's Candy Crowley, moderated the town-hall style debate at Hofstra University last week. She refused to abide by the long-agreed-upon rule banning follow-up questions so that she could have an enlarged role. Ms. Crowley showed her cards when she backed up Mr. Obama's bogus claim that he immediately labeled the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, as a terrorist assault.
By MRC's calculation, Ms. Crowley's selection of voters' questions skewed heavily left. Not including her own follow-ups, the anchor picked 54 percent of topics that reflected a pro-Democratic or anti-Republican agenda compared to 27 percent biased in the other direction (the rest were neutral). Since 1992, moderators have called on voters with a liberal agenda twice as often as those with a conservative one.
ABC's Martha Raddatz, who moderated the vice-presidential debate, drew Republican outrage when she refused to stop Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. from repeatedly interrupting Paul Ryan. Instead, the foreign affairs correspondent, who was close enough to Mr. Obama to have him as a guest at her first wedding, asked loaded questions. Out of her 48 discrete questions and follow-ups, 40 percent were pro-Obama and only 25 percent pro-Romney, according to the MRC.
All four moderators failed to grant equal time so the Republicans could make their points. CNN's debate clock showed the Obama-Biden ticket enjoyed 9-and-a-half minutes of extra airtime. That's the equivalent of 19 thirty-second TV ads running in prime time on every network and cable news outlet, which would have cost Democrats more than $10 million.
The Commission on Presidential Debates, which makes all the final decisions on moderators, format and location, is shrouded in mystery. Sources say Fox News asked the commission to consider Brit Hume, Bret Baier or Chris Wallace as debate moderators, but the network was shut out completely.
So what can the GOP do? "Every four years people say, 'We don't want to do this again,' then they go back to the same old debate commission," said Dorrance Smith, the former executive producer of ABC's "This Week" and "Nightline" and media adviser to President George H.W. Bush. "So it's the same set and the same moderators -- it's 'Groundhog Day.' Rather than be retrograde TV, the process needs to grow up and modernize for 2016."
After Nov. 6, Republicans should reconsider their participation in a game rigged in their opponents' favor.
Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times.
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