The Digital Journalist
Anchors Away: The Debate Debacle
September 2004

by Ron Steinman

The other day the esteemed and soon-to-go-into-semi-retirement NBC News anchor, Tom Brokaw, in what became an open letter, parts of which were in The New York Daily News, informed anyone who would listen that he is unhappy that the Commission on Presidential Debates had the audacity - and strength - not to choose him or any other big-name anchor to moderate the upcoming political debates. His public rant gave me pause to reflect on Brokaw's defense of his role and that of anchors in general. (I must disclose that, during my long tenure at NBC News, I worked with Brokaw on many special projects.)

Janet Brown, who runs the debates for the Commission on Presidential Debates, told The New York Times that star network anchors are unsuitable. She believes, as I do, that anchors simply get in the way of the debates. Tom is angry, an emotion his role as staid anchor rarely permits. Because Tom believes he is NBC News, it is worth hearing from him but I do not agree with him.

Tom Brokaw

I can understand Tom's desire to be part of the action, but the debates are not nearly as interesting as a farm show in South Dakota. These are carefully staged shows with enormously difficult and self-serving ground rules. Where is the prestige in covering an event that has no endgame and probably little effect on the election? If Tom or his fellow big-name anchors want action, how about going to Baghdad or Kabul? I know they have ventured to those venues and have done well at times. Then their names are in lights, and their networks shine in reflected glory. Anchors have covered their share of important stories and, at times, given importance to stories that do not deserve it. But think, will anyone remember or care that they did or didn't moderate a presidential debate?

Sadly, some anchors believe they improve the debates for the home viewer - if anyone watches. An anchor's presence, and this includes Brokaw's, does not make the candidates better in a one-on-one match-up. Most times the debates sadly pit the charisma-challenged, one against the other. Nothing can make dross into gold.

Anchors do not enhance the coverage by sitting in the front, with gavel in hand, and glass of water at their side. Viewers do not tune in, if they watch at all, because Tom or Dan or Peter, Jim, Wolf or any version of an anchor moderates the debates. That is a self-perpetuating myth.

Journalism is in enough trouble today without its major front men crying foul over something as silly as not being part of a so-called debate. Anchors are not more important than the news.

I would go so far as to dispense with even the second tier of moderators. What we really need is the principal of an inner-city high school, armed with a list of questions from a diverse audience, and an advisory panel next to him for follow-up questions. More importantly, he should have a stop watch to time each answer. A gong and police whistle to end each answer. A baton to threaten the debaters if they get unruly.

To call these two-man shows debates is a travesty.

These debates are not the same as those at the vaunted Oxford Union or a university debating society. Here we will have two men laying out the same positions they have been touting for months, only now in prime time on national television. They will have two minutes, one minute, or thirty seconds to present their position. Give and take? No way. Just give. Maintain your position as the candidate, then respond to time, pray you do not mess up and continue until the hour ends. Needed is a traffic cop with a firm hand. A no-name with his or her finger on a loud buzzer to signal time is up.

Sorry, Tom, you are wrong. I agree with the commission that name anchors get in the way of the proceedings and offer little beyond a continuing commercial for their networks. They do impede the process because - again, sorry, Tom - the moderator is all about the moderator being there asking the questions.

Tom, stay home. Unbutton your collar. Slip off your shoes. Have a sip of fine wine, or even a beer. Have a good chuckle and be glad you are not there in the hall. Realize, too, that the presidential debates are an anachronism, dinosaurs, and a waste of time - as are the political conventions, except for the cities that make a fortune from their presence.

The debates, after all, are for television. All that matters is how the candidates appear on the home screen, not how good or smooth the moderator is. What happens in the hall is irrelevant. Watching two men in identical dark suits, light blue shirts and dark ties and wearing makeup is not something I look forward to seeing. Each man must hope that perspiration does not appear on his upper lip, that his tie is straight, and his hair perfectly combed. Surely, the debates are as bad as television gets and not worth our time. Maybe we need a rock band in the hall, a drummer to hit rim shots for emphasis, and rockets that go off when either man makes a good point. None of this requires a moderator, especially a network anchor with more charisma than the candidates and who will divert our attention from the boring and usually useless proceedings before us.

© Ron Steinman

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