Playing the Role of ‘Journalist’ at a ‘Presidential Debate’

Candy Crowley

Candy Crowley (photo: Edward M. Pio Roda / CNN)

CNN reporter Candy Crowley was apparently causing the Obama and Romney campaigns to panic over the weekend. Why? She was telling people she might ask a question at tonight’s presidential debate.

Time‘s Mark Halperin reported (10/14/12) that

has done a series of interviews on her network in which she has suggested that she will assume a broader set of responsibilities. As Crowley put it last week, “Once the table is kind of set by the town-hall questioner, there is then time for me to say, ‘Hey, wait a second, what about X, Y, Z?'”

The campaigns apparently didn’t much care for that XYZ business. According to the memorandum laying out the “rules” for the debate, the moderator of the town hall event would have very limited input in the actual show. As Halperin notes, in 2008 the Obama and McCain campaigns were bothered by moderator Tom Brokaw’s tendency to “redirect” audience questions.

Much of this would be clarified if the process of putting on the presidential debates were more transparent. FAIR joined other groups in an effort led by Open Debates to make the debate contract public and to demand a more accountable structure.

Yesterday, Time‘s Halperin published the debate memorandum, an agreement between the two major party campaigns that lays out their rules for each debate.

Some of the stipulations are familiar. The candidates will not issue challenges for additional debates, or appear in any other debates not sanctioned by the Commission on Presidential Debates. The campaigns agree to the Commission’s rules that effectively shut out out independent candidates from participating.

The memorandum states that the debate moderators were proposed by the Commission and were accepted by the campaigns. This is an important acknowledgment, in that it reminds us that the major parties are basically in control of who’s asking the questions at these debates.

As for the debates themselves, we learn that the candidates have agreed not to ask each other direct questions at any of the debates, which has been a feature of previous contracts.

As for tonight’s debate, the moderator’s role is severely circumscribed. Crowley’s job is to pre-screen audience questions, and to make sure that during the debate the questioner asks precisely the question he/she had submitted in writing. If an audience member does this, the rules require the moderator to cut off the question, and the Commission may also “cut off the microphone of any such audience member.”

After the initial candidate answers, there are brief comment periods. The moderator is to “manage” this process, but “will not rephrase the question or open a new topic.”

The moderator will not ask follow-up questions or comment on either the questions asked by the audience or the answers of the candidates during the debate or otherwise intervene in the debate except to acknowledge the questioners from the audience or enforce the time limits, and invite candidate comments during the 2 minutes response period.

As Paul Farhi reported in the Washington Post (10/15/12), Crowley still seems to think that asking questions is what a journalist is supposed to do:

Crowley left little doubt Monday that she plans to function as a journalist during the debate at Hofstra University in New York. On CNN‘s the Situation Room, she told colleague Wolf Blitzer: “I’m trying to just know what the facts are, what the [candidates’] positions are, so that when something comes up that maybe could use a little further explanation, it might be as simple as: ‘But the question, sir, was oranges and you said apples. Could you answer oranges?’ Or it might be as simple as: ‘But, gee, how does that fit with the following thing?'”

It’s not hard to see that Crowley’s understanding of the job is a little different than what the campaigns have in mind.

Farhi quotes Commission co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf explaining that Crowley is there to “facilitate discussion,” which he sees as

a very broad thing. As long as she stays within her mandate, she’s not breaking any rules. She’s not supposed to be someone who’s arguing with the candidates. She’s not supposed to be an advocate in any way or inject herself into the debate. Beyond that, she’s not bound by whatever the campaigns agreed to.

So as long as she follows the rules–which seem to say she can say very little at all–she’s free to do as she likes. But she shouldn’t “inject herself” into the debate.

No doubt many journalists find these rules too restrictive, if not totally unacceptable. Mark Knoller of CBS tweeted:

No real reporter would agree to forgo followup questions and just call on audience members.

If the debate “rules” are a farce, then reporters should join the call for a more transparent, open presidential debate structure–one that allows journalists to behave like journalists, and would allow debate organizers to set up more inclusive events.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.