Television networks are bracing for a decision on who will moderate this year’s presidential debates beginning in September between Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHeadaches intensify for Democrats in Florida Stormy Daniels set to testify against former lawyer Avenatti in fraud trial Cheney challenger wins Wyoming Republican activists' straw poll MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNo Hillary — the 'Third Way' is the wrong way The dangerous erosion of Democratic Party foundations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat MORE.
With only three presidential debates and one vice presidential contest, some network stars are sure to be left out in the cold in what will be must-watch moments of the campaign season.
Picking debate moderators is always a tough business, and today’s polarized, increasingly opinion-based media raises serious questions about whether objective, trusted and credible moderators can be found.
That question only gets amplified in 2016 thanks to Trump, who is already questioning whether the election will be rigged.
NBC’s Lester Holt, CBS’s John Dickerson, Fox News’s Chris Wallace, CNN’s Jake Tapper and ABC’s Jonathan Karl are the names most consistently mentioned as likely moderators.
With an election that could result in the first woman president, it also seems inconceivable that there would not be a female moderator for at least one of the debates.
Fox News’s Megyn Kelly is one obvious possibility, and several people contacted by the The Hill raised her name. Others dismissed the chance she could be selected given her history with Trump, who skipped two primary debates that she hosted.
“I think she's a solid moderator based on what we saw in the primaries. She's tough, measured and prepared. But there's just too much history with Trump,” one prominent media writer told The Hill. “She'll end up being the story if he publicly objects to her being chosen, which he almost undoubtedly would. It may even lead to him boycotting the debate and that's the last thing anybody wants.”
Other women mentioned as possible moderators include Martha Raddatz of ABC and Dana Bash of CNN.
Holt, who Trump himself has suggested should moderate a debate, is the odds-on favorite to get one of the three slots.
“I think [NBC’s] Lester Holt is a good guy,” the GOP nominee told radio host Hugh Hewitt in a recent interview.
Aside from the positive remarks from Trump, Holt has interviewed Clinton on a few occasions, is decidedly non-controversial and earned respect for righting the NBC Nightly News ship after Brian Williams lost his job. He has never moderated a presidential debate.
Trump also had somewhat kind words for CNN's Bash, saying, “I think she’s had moments of great fairness.”
But he criticized former CNN anchor Candy Crowley, who drew GOP ire for a 2012 debate in which she fact-checked Mitt Romney over whether President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden: A good coach knows when to change up the team The Memo: Biden looks for way to win back deflated Black voters 6 in 10 say they would back someone other than Biden in 2024: Fox News poll MORE had described the 2012 attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya as a terrorist attack.
“I don’t want to have people that are unfair,” Trump said. “When you look at what Candy Crowley did with, you know, with Mitt Romney, that was so unfair. And she was wrong on top of everything.”
Crowley isn’t the only moderator who has been a source of controversy.
Being the referee in a presidential debate is a tough business, says Arnold Shober, an Associate Professor of Government at Lawrence University.
“The moderators this cycle are going to be as much a part of the debates as the candidates themselves,” he added.
Moderators will always be scrutinized for possible bias.
In 2008, after PBS’s Gwen Ifill was selected to moderate the vice presidential debate between Democrat Joe BidenJoe BidenUS threatens sweeping export controls against Russian industries Headaches intensify for Democrats in Florida US orders families of embassy staff in Ukraine to leave country MORE, Barack Obama’s running mate, and Republican Sarah Palin, critics noted that Ifill was about to release a book titled “Breakthrough, the age of Obama.”
“Let’s get real here. What would journalists say if in 2004 Jim Lehrer wrote a book called ‘Breakthrough, the age of Bush?’ ” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, referencing another debate moderator from PBS, asked at the time.
Paul Levinson, a communications professor at Fordham University and author of the book “New New Media,” says this year’s divisive candidates means there isn't a scenario where both sides will be satisfied.
“I don't think the Commission should worry about picking moderators who are perceived as fair,” Levinson says. “No one who asks tough questions will be perceived as fair by supporters of the candidate who is asked the tough questions, and asking tough questions is exactly what the American public needs from a moderator.”
The Commission on Presidential Debates uses three criteria to select its moderators. A
familiarity with the candidates and the major issues of the presidential campaign, extensive experience in live television broadcast news and an understanding that the debate should focus maximum time and attention on the candidates and their views.
Jeffrey McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University, argues the commission should do away with its second point of criteria and not focus on high-profile anchors as moderators.
“Political debates need to get away from using high profile broadcasters as debate moderators,” said McCall, who argues that celebrity journalists are more worried about the branding of their news organizations.
“Certainly, the candidates this year will have enough notoriety on their own without injecting other big name personalities who will want their share of the limelight,” he said.
The Annenberg Debate Reform Working Group, a bipartisan group of top officials from past presidential campaigns that has looked into the debates, found that high-profile moderators play more to the business side of journalism.
“One result of all of this is that the debates can take on the appearance of marketing opportunities for the network whose reporter or anchor is moderating,” the report states.
It also faulted the Commission for not being more transparent in picking moderators.
The Hill reached out to the Commission of Presidential Debates but could not reach any senior officers for comment.
Dr. Lauren A. Wright, a political scientist and a board member of the White House Transition Project, says finding both a prominent moderator who can bring in additional viewers and play it straight is a challenge.
“The tightrope the CPD has to walk is essentially getting a very popular, very well-known moderator, with experience mediating intense exchanges on live television, who is also perceived to be nonpartisan and fair,” Wright says. “It is a tall order by any standard.”