Panel reflects on the progress of presidential debates, role of moderator

“As sacred as the votes themselves” is how Jim Lehrer, twelve-time moderator, appraised the televised presidential debates on September 14 in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. Lehrer, PBS News Hour former executive executive editor and news anchor, was one of four panelists in the first session of Notre Dame’s 2016 Forum “Debating Our Future.” The others included Bob Schieffer, three-time presidential debate moderator and former host of CBS’s Face the Nation; Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates; and Dorothy Ridings, former president of the League of Women Voters.

“It has been a remarkable story of creating a new organization that has no ties to the campaigns, the parties, PACs, or anything else,” Brown remarked about the origins of the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Every four years, the commission is responsible for organizing the debates, the most widely-viewed political programming in the United States. Such high stakes leave many curious about the impartiality of the commission, but Lehrer assured the audience that the committee has never tried to interfere with his questions.

“The neutrality and independence of it is extremely important in brokering the interests of the media, the campaigns, the public,” Brown added.

While having the candidates agree to debate is expected in today’s world, negotiating with the campaigns was not always as easy.

“The candidates did not see them as an imperative. They saw them as something that could be avoided with impunity, and that’s what they did,” Brown explained.

Even after the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960 made television history, the debate’s role was not yet cemented as part of the election cycle. The public’s widespread expectation that even incumbents debate their challengers had not yet become established tradition, and candidates thought there was a lot to lose. Lehrer referenced Al Gore, whose unsettled reactions while Bush was speaking in a 2000 debate turned viewers off in droves.

“The language of politics … has as much to do with body as with words,” said Lehrer.

The panelists agreed that since the presidential debate made its comeback in 1976, the debates have become progressively better through a more relaxed format. In the early debates, Lehrer reminisced, “The candidates were not allowed to speak to one another. In many cases, they didn’t even look at each other.”

Schieffer opined that by the time of the debates in the election cycle, voters worry less about policy and more about character. He says voters really want to find out: “Who would I be most comfortable with in times of crisis?” “Do they have the right stuff?” “Do they have the courage and the poise to carry out the awesome responsibilities of the president?”

“Now you’ve got candidates free to engage, free to ask questions,” Lehrer was glad to report, but that also means “free not to shut up.” He continued, “The better the debates have gotten, the harder it is to moderate.”

In addition to journalists with live broadcast experience and familiarity with the candidates and issues, Brown said, the commission seeks moderators “who’ll understand, for better or for worse, their names are not on the ballot. They are there to facilitate, not compete.”

Unlike in the primary debates sponsored by networks, the fall presidential debate moderators are “chosen as independent journalists,” Brown explained. “They are there representing the public,” she elaborated, and with that comes high expectations of impartiality.

While Schieffer described himself as “one who thinks there is no such thing as objectivity” for journalists, he did say it is necessary to be fair. Lehrer agreed with Schieffer about fairness, emphasizing, “it is not that hard if it is a professional responsibility.”

When the conversation moved to a discussion of whether or not the moderator should serve as a fact-checker, Lehrer and Schieffer again came to consensus. Schieffer made clear that “the role of the moderator is to be the referee, it’s not to be the judge.”

“The chief fact checker should be the candidates themselves,” he continued, suggesting it would be unfair to both candidates to step in too soon.

Despite the enormous pressure each panelist said they have faced in bringing the debates to American public over the years, they all emphasized how integral the debates have become to the democratic process.

“They did a great job of really telling students why it’s important not only to vote, but [also to] inform your vote,” junior Sarah Tomas Morgan, who works with ND Votes told the Rover.  

Schieffer used his own closing remarks to remind the audience, “It’s incumbent on all of us to find out as much as we can about the people who are going to sit in that Oval Office. I think it’s not only our responsibility to our children; I think it’s almost our responsibility to the world.”

Julia McKeon is a freshman is studying political science and theology. She has a peculiar loyalty to “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. To find out why, contact her at