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When Vice President Biden meets his challenger Paul Ryan tonight in Kentucky, the debate will be about the candidates, the issues and the country. It is not supposed to be about the debate moderator, but there she'll be on camera - Martha Raddatz of ABC News. Last week, the PBS "News Hour's" Jim Lehrer received widespread criticism for failing to control the first presidential debate, as his critics saw it. And that led NPR's David Folkenflik to ask what do we expect a moderator to do.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The first modern presidential debate was moderned by dint of being televised. It was 1960 - John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Memorable by dint of Kennedy's seeming vigor in contrast to Nixon's pallor.
HOWARD K. SMITH: Thank you, Mr. Nixon. That completes the opening statements. And now...
FOLKENFLIK: Few people remember the moderator was Howard K. Smith and no one recalls the panel of questioners. I've assembled my own panel of experts to illuminate what a moderator should actually do.
Evan Thomas was Washington bureau chief for Newsweek magazine. He says the first thing, do no harm.
EVAN THOMAS: I think the moderator usually should get out of the way and let these folks make their case and not interject too much, 'cause I find it annoying when moderators try to be know-it-all.
FOLKENFLIK: But he says the moderator also has to be muscular enough to step in to challenge candidates when they say things that are untrue.
CNN's Candy Crowley will experience the challenge firsthand next week when she moderates the presidential town hall.
CANDY CROWLEY: It is sort of the first line of accountability, I think. And the best moderators also are the ones that aren't waiting for their turn to speak next, but are listening to the answers.
FOLKENFLIK: So that they can refine their questions on the fly.
Baylor University professor Rich Edwards is president of the American Forensics Association. Forensics being public debate. Edwards says sharp edged questions can backfire, pointing to a CNN debate during the GOP primaries.
RICH EDWARDS: When John King asked the question that undoubtedly was on many viewers' minds, you know, of Newt Gingrich - what do you say about your wife's allegation?
JOHN KING: As you know, your ex-wife gave an interview to ABC News and another interview with The Washington Post. And this story has now gone viral on the Internet. In it, she says that you came to her in 1999, at a time when you were having an affair. She says you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage. Would you like to take some time to respond to that?
NEWT GINGRICH: No, but I will.
FOLKENFLIK: Gingrich didn't answer the question.
GINGRICH: I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country...
EDWARDS: What Newt Gingrich saw was an opportunity to make the point that the public distrusts the media.
FOLKENFLIK: Edwards says it's usually hard to score a clear winner in presidential debates. Though, former Governor Mitt Romney was deemed triumphant last week.
Yet, even during the debate, moderator Jim Lehrer seemed to concede he lost control.
JIM LEHRER: We've got - barely have three minutes left. I'm not going to grade the two of you and say your answers have been too long or I've done a poor job.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You've done a great job, Jim.
LEHRER: Oh, well. No.
FOLKENFLIK: And the offstage activities of moderators are also drawing scrutiny. The conservative Daily Caller website is accusing tonight's moderator, Martha Raddatz, of bias because in 1991 she married a Harvard law student who was a classmate of the president at the time and Mr. Obama attended their wedding. They divorced and her ex-husband now leads the Federal Communications Commission. For what it's worth, Raddatz is now married to my NPR colleague Tom Gjelten.
ABC dismisses that objection as laughable, but that's the game, says CNN's Candy Crowley.
CROWLEY: Few people ever get mad at a politician - be they a Republican or a Democrat - for running over the media.
FOLKENFLIK: So, don't intrude, but hold the candidates to account. Tough order. Evan Thomas says he can't think of a single time the balance has been exactly right.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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