News Column

Debates a Study in Moderation

Oct. 5, 2012

Rex W. Huppke

One of the more talked about aspects of the first debate between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama was the role -- or lack thereof -- of moderator Jim Lehrer.

Many -- particularly those upset about what most described as a resounding Romney victory -- felt Lehrer lost control of the debate, allowing the two candidates to wildly exceed their allotted times and routinely wander off topic. But the next two presidential debates should have notably different feels.

On Oct. 16, the debate will be conducted in a town hall format with CNN's Candy Crowley moderating.

"I suspect Obama is probably more comfortable in a town hall type situation, where you can talk to people," said Irving Rein, a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University. "You're going to try to directly answer their questions, so it will probably be more disciplined."

Rein said he enjoyed Wednesday night's debate because it forced the candidates to perform in a less controlled environment.

"On some level, the audience got a better sense of what these people are about," he said. "Sometimes when you get too much control, you don't get the follow-ups and the interplay. I liked that."

The final debate will be Oct. 22, conducted in the same format as the first debate and moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS. Rein said he expects the blowback over how Lehrer handled the first debate might pressure Schieffer into more strictly controlling Romney and Obama.

"I think the voters were well-served in terms of the format (Wednesday) night," Rein said. "But I'd guess the reins will be tighter in the last debate."

Of course, that might also cause backlash, as past debates have been criticized for being too tight or too dominated by the moderator.

"The moderator can set the rules and set the tempo, can loosen the leash if he or she feels like," Rein said. "Certain moderators also want to be the star and ask really long questions. Lehrer's questions were brief and terse. He was not trying to be the star of the show. He was trying to be the facilitator of the discussion. That's his style, and I respect it."



Source: (c)2012 the Chicago Tribune Distributed by MCT Information Services


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