In Depth

Detailing the Presidential Debate Preparations

Much attention was paid to the absence of flagship anchors or anyone representing ABC News when moderators were announced last week for the widely televised three presidential and single vice presidential debates.

“The NewsHour” anchor Jim Lehrer will moderate the first event Friday, Sept. 28, at the University of Mississippi. “The NewsHour” correspondent and “Washington Week” moderator Gwen Ifill will moderate the vice presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 6, at St. Louis’ Washington University. NBC News special correspondent and interim “Meet the Press” moderator Tom Brokaw will preside over the town hall-style presidential forum Thursday, Oct. 7, at Nashville’s Belmont University. “Face the Nation” moderator Bob Schieffer will handle the final presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 15, at Hofstra University in New York.

All will start at 9 p.m. ET and last 90 minutes.

TelevisionWeek National Editor Michele Greppi spoke last week to Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, about issues ranging from how the moderators are selected and other decisions made about format and content are set to what the commission told the campaigns of President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., they could do with a 40-page list of debate demands in 2004.

TelevisionWeek: Let’s start with an obvious question. Choosing a lineup of debate moderators is a thankless task, right?

Frank Fahrenkopf: It’s not as bad as it used to be.
The reason the Commission on Presidential Debates came into being was that in 1984, when the debates were conducted by the League of Women Voters, one side or the other vetoed almost 100 different reporters from participating in the debates. It created a tremendous amount of turmoil, a lot of ill will, and as a result of that, there were two separate studies put together to determine if was a better way to do it. Out of those studies came a recommendation that a commission be created—that’s our commission—that exists for one purpose and one purpose only: to make sure that there are presidential and vice presidential general election debates every four years.

What we did when we took over the debates, starting with 1988, knowing the difficulties that had existed in 1984, was come up with a system we never really had to use, whereby we would give each of the candidates, like a judge gives a lawyer, a peremptory challenge. We would say, all right, on the first debate we’re going to select one of the following three as moderator, and we’d give them three names, and they each could knock off one. But we never really had to do that. We suggested the names and they agreed. In fact, in 1996, they immediately agreed on Jim Lehrer, both sides, both President Clinton and Sen. Dole, doing all of them. If you remember back to 1996, Jim did all three.

In the last two cycles, in 2004 and this year, we didn’t consult the candidates at all. Starting in 2004, we made the determination as a commission that these four individuals were the individuals that we wanted to moderate the debates. We named them. The candidates had no input whatsoever. The same thing this year. There was no consultation with the Obama campaign and no consultation with the McCain campaign.

TVWeek: Does that apply to everything, because during the primary debate season, it’s well known that campaigns have to sign off on details down to which color of Sharpie pen and the size of notepaper.
Mr. Fahrenkopf: It used to be like that in dealing with us, in fact, there was always the debate over when the debates that would take place. But what happened was that four years ago the Bush campaign and the Kerry campaign prepared, on their own, a 40-page document, which went down to all the details that they wanted. They came to the commission and the four moderators—who were Jim Lehrer and Gwen Ifill and Bob Schieffer and Charlie Gibson—and said: “You the commission and you the moderators will sign this document or we won’t do the debates.”
We told them what they could do with their document.

TVWeek: How far up were they supposed to do it?
Mr. Fahrenkopf: [Chuckles] That’s right.

So we refused to sign and we said, “The debates are going to take place on these days at these locations. And we expect that you’ll show up.” And they showed up.

So this year, the proposals that have gone forth—the locations, the dates, the moderators, the formats—have all come forward from us without any discussion whatsoever with the candidates, and we are going to be quite stern with regard to what we recommended.

That’s not to say that if Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain said, “Well, you know what, we would like to stand in one of the debates behind podiums,” we would say, “We’re not going to do that, therefore we’re not going to have the debate.” Around the margins, we’re willing to listen to them and see if they may have some ideas that are really improvements.

TVWeek: They have no thumbs-up, thumbs-down say-so about anything related to the debates, except maybe to say, “Gee, we can’t make that date”?
Mr. Fahrenkopf: These dates have been firm for a year. These universities have put out a lot of time and effort and expense in getting ready.

As I said, we’re going to be sitting down with—we’ve heard from Sen. Obama’s campaign that Rahm Emanuel, the congressman from Illinois, will be his representative, in working with us, and Sen. McCain’s campaign has said that Sen. Lindsay Graham from South Carolina will be representing him. So I expect that some time in the next couple of weeks we will be sitting down with Rep. Emanuel and Sen. Graham and we’ll listen to what they have to say. If there’s something that we think is a good idea, there’s flexibility, but not on the basics.

TVWeek: What kind of feedback have you gotten on the quartet of moderators?
Mr. Fahrenkopf: Absolutely nothing but positive remarks … from the general political realm. Everyone respects the four of them a great deal. With Jim and Bob and Gwen, it was important that they be experienced as moderators because of the change in the format. As you know, with their debates, not the town hall meeting, but the vice presidential and the other two presidential debates, the periods are going to be broken down into eight 10-minute sections. The moderator will present an issue and get them to respond and then get them to have some discussion among themselves, a real debate. We felt it was very, very important to have someone who was very, very experienced, someone who’s used to working with that plug in their ear, listening to someone offstage giving them directions as to equal time and so forth.

Tom Brokaw brings to the town hall meeting, he’s an expert and a real pro, but also from his days at the “Today” show, when he worked with people, made people feel comfortable. These people that come into the studio, these 100 or 125 voters, are paralyzed with fear. So it’s very, very important that it not only be an experienced person in TV but someone who can put people at ease.

That’s why, for example, Charlie Gibson was the moderator four years ago of the town hall meeting. He, of course, was a veteran of “Good Morning America.”
There are different skills we look for.

TVWeek: The average age of this quartet is slightly more than 66. Gwen Ifill at 52 is the only one who qualifies for a demographic that can still be sold to news advertisers. Did the commission have any thoughts about the ages, the aggregate ages, given that youth has been a factor in the primaries?
Mr. Fahrenkopf: We tried to consider everyone, but in trying to make decisions as to people who have the expertise—we’re also looking for people who will not inject themselves into the debate. We want to hear from the two candidates. There are certain personalities on television who are experienced and maybe younger who just don’t fit that mold.
It is a very, very frightening experience for the moderators, too. There may be between 60 million and 100 million people watching. You’ve got to have people who are very, very, very experienced.

We kept coming back to these particular individuals who we felt were the most experienced. We didn’t hold their ages against them.

That’s why we worked so hard to develop the working partnership that we’ve worked out with MySpace, which we think is an avenue where young people, if we’re talking about the young people who normally get their news from the ’Net, can play a part and get involved with the debate process.

TVWeek: Except for the town hall debate, there are going to be questions posed only by these moderators. Was there any thought given to allowing some questions posed by other people who have covered the 2008 campaign?
Mr. Fahrenkopf: No. We switched to the single moderator starting in 1996. Before, there had usually been a moderator and three or four panelists. The difficulty came in that Reporter No. 1, for example, has thought long and hard as to what his or her first question was going to be. They want to ask a good question. They want to show their peers how bright they are. So it’s time for Reporter No. 2’s question, but it may well be that there really needs to be a follow-up to the first question, but Reporter No. 2 doesn’t want to focus on the question from Reporter No. 1, They’ve worked on their own.

In 1992, we did an experiment. The final debate in ’92, which you remember was a three-way debate because [Ross] Perot was involved, was held at Michigan State. For half of the debate, we used a moderator, Jim Lehrer, and a panel of reporters. For the remaining 45 minutes, we used Jim Lehrer alone. We just felt, and a lot of research we’ve done on this over the years showed, the single moderator having the right to follow up, controlling the time designation, seemed to get into more of the issues rather than having the candidates hopscotching from one issue to another.

TVWeek: You decided to dispense with the podiums and have the moderator, who has often sat with his back to the audience, sit between the candidates at a table. This being TV, especially, we think every decision means something. What was the reasoning?
Mr. Fahrenkopf: We did a great deal of research, talking to people in the debate field, in the communications field, and they told us that the nature and tenor of the discussion changes when people are seated together at a table as opposed to standing behind podiums, which tend to be like walls. So again, we started to experiment in 2000 with the vice presidential debate between Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney. They were seated at a table. I think it was one of the best debates that ever was. We continued the experiment into 2004. One of the presidential debates was around a table, as well as the vice presidential debate. We think it tends to make it more conversational, more content, rather than just getting a 15- or 20-second blurb that’s right out of the campaign speeches.

TVWeek: The town hall debate will include questions submitted via the Internet. Will there be any special vetting of those questions beyond the desire to eliminate duplication?

Mr. Fahrenkopf: The commission will not see the questions.
The commission does not in any way indicate what should be asked or what questions should not be asked. Prior to 2004 we didn’t designate one of the presidential debates just for domestic policy or just for foreign policy. Back then, when both were being covered, the general rule was that the offstage director wanted to make, if at all possible, 50% of the debate on domestic policy and 50% on foreign policy.

This year the first debate will focus on domestic policy, the final debate will focus on foreign policy. The town hall meeting will be a split, as much as possible, as will the vice presidential debate.
But as far as questions asked and subjects covered, that’s left totally to the discretion of the journalist who’s the moderator.
What will happen with regard to the Internet questions is that those questions will be delivered to Tom Brokaw. Tom Brokaw will determine what questions will be used.

TVWeek: Speaking of your partnership with MySpace.com on a Web site that will stream and archive the debates and track issues and offer other tools, it appears that MyDebates.org will complement some of the features on your site, Debates.org, including the chance for members of the public to rate the issues that matter most to them. Beyond expanding the potential audience, what do you hope to get out of this partnership?
Mr. Fahrenkopf: You’ve got to go back to what is our purpose. Our purpose is to educate the American public as to where the candidates stand on the important issues, to seem them in, we like to use the word “unvarnished” where they must stand and answer questions without knowing what questions are coming at them, so that they’re not in a campaign mode.
That’s why we do them on college campuses. We always like to get youth involved and get them cranked up.

TVWeek: Are there rules set by the commission on things such as reaction shots?
Mr. Fahrenkopf: Yes. We never show crowd reaction. If you tune into C-SPAN 15 minutes before the debate actually begins you’ll see Chairman [Paul] Kirk and I and [executive director] Janet Brown speaking to the audience, urging them to please not involve themselves in the debate by clapping, by making noise, by whistling, by any overt things. They’re there, they’re very fortunate to be in the presence of the moderator and two people who have worked for many years to become president of the United States, and they shouldn’t intrude.

The last two cycles have been pretty good. The audience has been very well behaved. Back when we first started, I can remember a debate in Los Angeles when I went up on stage and asked the audience to please not involve themselves—this was the Dukakis-Bush debate. Sally Field, the actress, was there. Dukakis said something and people started to clap. She put her two pinkies in her mouth and let out the loudest whistle I ever heard. She turned around and looked at me with a glare that said, “F--- you” or something. We really haven’t had a repeat of that in the last couple of cycles.

TVWeek: The question must be asked: Do you like her? Do you really like her?
Mr. Fahrenkopf: Let me put it this way: I’d never whistle at her. It was really “up yours, buddy.”

TVWeek: What is the most-watched debate in the commission’s history?
Mr. Fahrenkopf: The final debate in ’92 at Michigan State. As I recall, that debate was the most-watched television event at that time, except for the last episode of “M*A*S*H.” Then you get some years where it is very low. In 1996, Bill Clinton was so far ahead of Bob Dole that people figured the race was over, so they didn’t watch.

TVWeek: Have you placed any bets on what the viewership is going to be like this year?
Mr. Fahrenkopf: I haven’t, although I happen to think it’s going to be extremely high.

TVWeek: Every four years, the commission rises like Brigadoon in the public consciousness. How do you describe to people what you do or where you go in the interim?
Mr. Fahrenkopf: We’re involved year-round in our educating-the-voters process. We consult with other countries on how we do the debates, how they’re presented. In fact, I’m flying out to Denver for the kickoff of the Democratic National Committee on Sunday before the Monday opening. The International Democratic Institute will have 650 foreign political leaders in Denver. They’re there for a two- or three-day program. They actually attend the convention. Paul Kirk and I will kick off their program Sunday night, as we’ve done at every Democratic convention for the past 12 years.
We’re very small. We only have one full-time employee, Janet Brown. She’s been our executive since we formed the commission.

In the off years we have a very limited budget. We’re not spending any money. Janet’s the only paid employee. We get some interns and some other help and support during the actual election year. Mr. Kirk and I and other members of the commission volunteer our time and effort, and travel and everything else we pay for ourselves.

TVWeek: You pay your own expenses when you travel to potential debate sites?
Mr. Fahrenkopf: If you are one of the sites that is going to be visited, there’s a certain amount of expenses you’ve got to pay for.
What normally happens is that the universities go to foundations and city fathers in their community who help with defraying those expenses. It’s a joint effort by the facilities that are chosen.

TVWeek: Is it getting harder to find sites willing to participate?
Mr. Fahrenkopf: A little bit. Initially we had, oh, high 30s. This time we made the first cut to 19. Then our technical people, the cameramen, the sound people, the lighting people and so forth, went out to do the site visits. They came back to us with recommendations of eight or nine they said met all the qualifications.

The commission sat down and came up with four.
There was some disappointment in that. You’ll notice that there are no West Coast sites. We did award the vice presidential debate to Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., but we then got a call from them saying, “Well, we don’t want the vice president. We want the president.”
We said, “When you put in the bid it was made very clear that you don’t get to choose.”
So we went back to Washington University in St. Louis, which has been the site of two debates.

TVWeek: Looking ahead, do you see anything about the public in general, the media in general, politics in general that will need to be addressed and reflected in format or content?
Mr. Fahrenkopf: After we’ve done the debates, within a year or two we put together a symposium where we bring in politicians, political scientists, people from the media to ask, “How can we do this better?” It has evolved over the last 20 years. We’ve done 18 presidential and vice presidential debates. We have tremendous experience.

TVWeek: In television news, personality is an increasingly valuable and cultivated trait. Can you envision the day where it’s really hard to find someone who’s willing or able to submerge their personality in order to meet your criteria for moderator?
Mr. Fahrenkopf: I don’t know. I have tremendous respect for the [the media]. I always have. I think there will always be individuals who are not going to have to succumb to the needs of 24-hour media cycles as we now have.