The News Tip: Don't Get Distracted In Debates

Sep 18, 2011
Originally published on October 2, 2011 5:45 am

The Republican presidential hopefuls will meet in Orlando on Thursday for their next debate. It's an additional opportunity for the candidates to try to set themselves apart in a crowded field. It's also a chance to take stock of the debate moderators.

NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik has this tip for the moderators: Don't get distracted.

He tells Weekend Edition host Audie Cornish that the "theatricality" of some debates can make people forget their purpose.

Moderators are not just "traffic cops," Folkenflik says; they also have to focus the debate. NBC's Brian Williams, who moderated a debate between the GOP candidates earlier this month, has said his role as moderator is not to be popular, it's to help the viewers.

Folkenflik says framing the questions correctly is important, but moderators also have to be persistent. Candidates use a number of tactics to avoid answering questions, and a moderator's persistence can also show the audience that the candidate is purposefully choosing not to address a particular question.

What's your tip for presidential debate moderators? Share it with us on Facebook.

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AUDIE CORNISH, Host:

The Republican presidential hopefuls will meet in Orlando this week for their next debate. It's another opportunity for the candidates to try and set themselves apart in a crowded field. It's also another opportunity for our media correspondent David Folkenflik to take stock of the debate moderators.

David had a close eye on last week's Republican debate and joins us with the News Tip. Welcome, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So, last time we talked, we introduced the idea of the News Tip, which is a lesson learned from the media, a lesson for the media and sometimes for people who consume it.

David, what is the News Tip for this week?

FOLKENFLIK: Today's News Tip is don't get distracted. Think about these political debates were talking about. There's so much theatricality, so much of a spectacle there - fun to be diverted by a great one-liner and yet people often, I think, forget the mission, the point of the enterprise.

CORNISH: And you say it's theatrical - I would say, I mean, it is theater. When I think back to the June debate, with the either/or questions that they presented to the Republican candidates...

JOHN KING: Leno or Conan? Elvis or Johnny Cash? BlackBerry or iPhone?

RICK SANTORUM: Probably Leno, but I don't watch either.

KING: Coke or Pepsi?

TIM PAWLENTY: Coke.

KING: Governor Romney, to you now. Imagine you're getting to the barbecue joint...

CORNISH: I've got "Christmas With Elvis" on my iPod.

KING: Spicy or mild?

MITT ROMNEY: Oh, spicy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KING: Mr. Cain, deep dish or thin crust?

CORNISH: Right? I mean, it seems like essentially...

FOLKENFLIK: Boxers or briefs?

CORNISH: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FOLKENFLIK: Red or yellow?

CORNISH: I know that they're trying to get at some of the personalities. But it seems like, you know, a distraction.

FOLKENFLIK: You know, that is the silly season of the debates. And at the same time, it's starting to get more serious. And you're starting to hear that in some of the questions being posed by moderators. You know, moderators are not just traffic cops. In these debates, although there are nine people up on these stages, aren't supposed to just elicit the kind of junior high schools student council candidate statements. You really try to focus things.

I sat down with a recent moderator, Brian Williams of NBC. He offered this insight into how he thinks about questions.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Sometimes you're going to have to ask a question which is worded in a way, constructed in a very specific way - like Legos - for a reason. Because it's designed to shut off areas of escape for candidates and elicit a certain answer. And, you know, it may not always sound or come off well.

FOLKENFLIK: So there, Brian Williams is acknowledging, look, his role isn't to be popular. His role is to help you out at home. And, you know, there are a lot of feints, a lot of tactics being used by candidates to try to avoid questions that they don't want to deal with.

CORNISH: Right. I mean essentially the moderator can press a candidate and then be punished for it by the candidate.

FOLKENFLIK: Right. And we just saw a couple examples of that. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich went on the warpath against Chris Wallace of Fox News when he asked a question he didn't want to deal with. And he did it again more recently with Politico's John Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

JOHN HARRIS: Speaker Gingrich, it sounds like we got a genuine philosophical disagreement. In Massachusetts, a mandate, almost no one uninsured. In Texas, a more limited approach, about a quarter uninsured. Who's got the better end of this argument?

NEWT GINGRICH: Well, I'm frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

FOLKENFLIK: And yet, you know, people in the crowd who were left wanting, not really knowing where Gingrich came down. Perfectly good question, kind of got sidestepped.

CORNISH: So, given what Brian William says, how does a moderator, I guess, press in - really get an answer and not have it end up being all about them?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think a certain kind of persistence is needed. As he suggested, it's a question of how you frame things. But it's a question of also not letting things go by the wayside. CNN's Wolf Blitzer has a reputation among some of his peers of doing that from time to time - letting things go by. And yet, he did a pretty strong job the other night when he moderated a debate for CNN.

WOLF BLITZER: Governor Romney, you know Governor Perry, as governor of Texas...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: ...created more jobs in Texas than any other state.

ROMNEY: Terrific state, no question about that. It's some wonderful things that Texas has going for it that the nation could learn from. Zero income tax...

FOLKENFLIK: And here, Romney talks charmingly without answering the question at all.

ROMNEY: We are an energy-rich nation. We're living like an energy-poor nation. We've gone from a payphone world to a Smartphone world. People won't invest here unless they have confidence here.

BLITZER: So - so...

ROMNEY: And that's what I'll do.

BLITZER: Just to get back to the question, so does Governor Perry deserve any credit for all those jobs that were created in Texas?

ROMNEY: Oh, sure. Oh, sure.

BLITZER: Go ahead and tell him how much credit he deserves.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FOLKENFLIK: So however much credit you want to give to Governor Perry of Texas, certainly you've got to give some credit to CNN's Wolf Blitzer for boring in and seeing that his question is answered.

One of the things Brian Williams said was, hey, remember, as long as you're persisting a bit, you're showing viewers that if a candidate is not answering the question, that's the choice that he or she has made. And I think that's a useful insight, as well.

CORNISH: don't get distracted.

CORNISH: NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thanks so much for speaking with us.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

CORNISH: And if you have a news tip you'd like to offer, share it with us through our website, NPR.org/thenewstip. You'll find a link to our Facebook page where you can join the discussion. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.