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Marvin Kitman Headshot

Damn the Moderators... Full Speed Ahead

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While Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos are being burned in effigy for their performance in the Philadelphia TV debate last week -- for the crime of putting Obama on the defensive with relentless questioning about recent gaffes, incendiary remarks by his pastor, and association with a Weatherperson -- the subsequent hue and cry in the media raises questions about the debating process that will remain long after the primary votes are counted tomorrow night.

I do not think the ABC News moderator team was deliberately holding Obama's feet to the fire for partisan purposes, as it was suggested the past week by Obamaniks.

Neither do I think they were trying, as Joe Scarborough put it the night and morning after the debate on MSNBC, to achieve the laudatory goal of showing us the inner man as guide to what the candidate might do in the Oval Office. It was the kind of questioning, and I'm paraphrasing Joe here, that might have been useful if the media pre-election asked Bush about his business failures, his alcoholism, and why his Texas Rangers lost so many games in his reign as a managing partner. The Morning Joe's theory is that would have saved us a lot of trouble the last eight years.

No, none of these things.

You have to understand something about these debates, of which Philadelphia was the 21st episode of a reality TV series, which I call "Weapons of Mass Distraction." The offensive episode was not about Obama or Hillary.

The subtext of the debate, ignored by all the pundits and partisans alike, is that it's all about Charlie Gibson and his sidekick Stephy trying to show they can be as tough as Tim Russert and Brian Williams, their arch rivals on NBC News, current leaders in the Torquemada League. It's all about who can tighten the thumbscrews tighter, who can whack the candidates' feet with canes with more gusto. Who can look less like the usual sheep dressed in moderators' clothes in TV presidential debates?

The sheep have been gamboling since CNN -- the so-called "most trusted name in news" (they never say on what planet) began the campaign as entertainment season in June 2007 with the two debates at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire.

Starring Wolf Blitzer as moderator, with what sometimes seemed like a cast of thousands, the Wolfman dominated the debates. He directed questions at the ten Democrats and eight Republicans, like a trainer throwing fish to the performing seals on stage.

Wolf Bluster, as we called him, appeared more knowledgeable on the issues, knowing all the rhetorical answers as well as the questions. He made debates seem all about him, like extended versions of his Situation Room.

The charming, well-traveled, hipper Anderson Cooper in his Gap-style clothing joined the CNN debating the night of the major breakthrough; "You Tube" questions were asked by viewers like you and me.

CNN's Campbell Brown also demonstrated the art of toe kissing by a moderator later on in the season.

What changed everything for me in these snooze fests was seeing Tim Russert in action during the MSNBC round of debates. Brian Williams, who is something of the wet noodle on the team, would deliver the usual hollow, well-enunciated network anchorman fluffy statement wrapped around a question, made famous by his predecessor Tom Brokaw. And then Russert would come in for the kill.

Eyes-bulging, loaded with political smarts, seemingly fearless, Russert is a fire breathing newshound compared to the others on the beat. I sure wouldn't want this dog chewing at my pants leg by not answering his question.

Russert was a tough act for Gibson & Stephy to follow in their debut in prime time. The ABC pair came roaring out of their cage, and didn't let up for the first forty-five minutes. It had greater impact because they were on a commercial entertainment network in prime time hours with a bigger audience than ever saw Russert on MSNBC debates on cable.

And we are just not used to seeing our TV newsmen as real journalists. Sam Donaldson and the old original Dan Rather are history. Too often our TV newsmen look like they are actors who know how to play the role of newsmen.

One can argue that moderators can be suspicious characters because of checkered pasts. Russert, for example, was a flack for Moynihan and Cuomo before discovering a second home on Sunday TV. Stephanopoulos was a top Clinton employee. The potential conflict of interest is always there. Should they be careful about burning bridges and need to return to their roots in public service? In TV, you are only as good as your latest Nielsen ratings.

The larger question not addressed in all the tumultuous uproar is why we need moderators in a debate? Why do we need panels of questioners and other paraphernalia of glorified press conferences and video gimmicks? Why are we making stars of those running the debates? You'd think somebody like Wolf Bluster, for example, was running for office earlier in the season.
The way we have accepted the bastardized version of a real debate since the League of Women Voters invented these so-called "debates" in 1972 is scary.

I suggest that those protesting Charlie and Stephy's partisanship aim their ire at the firmly held conviction that debates need moderators/questioners/videos from the folks at home instead of letting the debaters go at each other unaided, a system of discourse which worked fairly well for centuries before the League of Women Voters invented this impediment to public discourse called "debates."