What’s the role of the journalist/moderator? The debate continues.

The event was billed as a conversation with the presidential and vice presidential debate moderators about the impact of the televised forums on the democratic process. The subtext was clear: What would Jim Lehrer have to say about his much-criticized performance as moderator of the first presidential debate?

Lehrer didn’t disappoint.

In the midst of his analysis, the longtime PBS NewsHour anchor said of debate moderating: “It’s not even journalism.”

With that succinct statement, Lehrer illustrated the philosophical differences among the 2012 moderators and provided an answer to a question that many has asked since the fall: Why was Lehrer so passive during the Obama-Romney debate?

Journalists interject. They challenge. They direct the conversation. Moderators are referees. They largely stand on the sideline, enforce rules and gently nudge the conversation along.

The journalist/moderator has a choice — fact check on the spot like CNN’s Candy Crowley, ask pointed questions and interject like ABC’s Martha Raddatz or try to remain as invisible as possible, as Lehrer appeared to do.

During Monday’s taping of the Kalb Report at the National Press Club in D.C., Lehrer articulated his philosophy that moderators should stay out of the way. The events are designed to show what the candidates can do, what they say and how they respond, he said. If he had been acting as a journalist during the debate he’d have interjected more often. But he wasn’t — so he didn’t.

Raddatz, who moderated the 2012 vice presidential debate, said each moderator operates with a different philosophy.

“To me if I asked a question I wanted an answer,” she said, drawing a clear distinction between her style and Lehrer’s. “That’s my style. I’m me. I’m chosen for who I am.”

Unlike Lehrer, Raddatz said she spent quite a lot of time prepping questions and cramming for the debate. She viewed pointed questions as part of the process and said of her involvement in the debate: “You are part of it. You can’t help but be part of it.”

It’s hard to ignore the staging differences, as well. Raddatz sat at a table just feet from Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, while Lehrer was far removed from both Obama and Romney.

CBS’s Bob Schieffer logged his vote that he approaches debate moderating as journalism. (Crowley, the other presidential debate moderator, was unable to attend the event).

During the question-and-answer session, Lehrer clarified his earlier comments by stating that as a moderator he is functioning as a journalist and using basic journalism skills, but not to the same extent as he did on the NewsHour. Still, the differences in styles and philosophies had been made clear.

Lehrer defended his performance as moderator last fall, saying “I felt good about this debate.” He painted himself as a scapegoat, arguing that “partisans couldn’t criticize Obama so they criticized me.” (Though Lehrer also said he didn’t think Obama did poorly in the debate).

It was abundantly clear that the moderators had all developed thick skin — Lehrer said he tuned out the Twitterverse criticism and Raddatz calmly responded to several questions from conservative journalists about Obama having attended her wedding several decades ago.

But it was also clear that the journalist/moderators were sensitive to the appearance of impartiality. Schieffer said he asked CBS to refrain from assigning him to cover the first two presidential debates. The scrutiny was so intense, he said, that he didn’t want to be accused of letting his reporting/anchoring taint his moderating.

Other news and notes from the event:

  • Both Schieffer and Lehrer support the idea of more debates, perhaps as many as six, with each forum focusing on one issue. Raddatz, however, said four is plenty. “I’ve had enough after four,” she said.
  • While Schieffer said do away with the town hall forum with candidates walking around a stage, Raddatz said she likes that format because it allows people to learn about the candidates’ body language and interactions on stage.
  • Not surprisingly, there was no mention of allowing third-party candidates into the debates, nor giving candidates the opportunity to truly debate each other without restrictions on asking each other questions.
  • My vote for funniest moment of the night: Schieffer revealing that someone on Twitter thought he was a member of the Muppets cast.

Balance of Power Shifts to the Source?

On the first day of my news writing and reporting class, before we cover leads and nut graphs and quotes or anything else, I talk to students about interviewing techniques and best practices. Two issues I make sure to raise: (1) Don’t let the source review any quotes and (2) The first choice is to conduct the interview on the phone.

The rationale for these rules are quite simple: (1) You don’t want sources being able to edit themselves or worse even demand that comments they didn’t like in retrospect be removed; and (2) When given the chance to respond to e-mails or tweets or instant messages, sources have more time to write polished responses that might not reflect their immediate thoughts on a topic — or worse yet don’t even come for them (see press liaisons).

In short, giving in to sources who demand quote approval or interviews through e-mail (unless there’s a justifiable reason) allows them to dictate the rules of the game and shifts the balance of power too far away from journalists.

By now the controversy over news outlets allowing sources — particularly high-powered political sources — to approve quotes has been well documented. After months of outcry from journalists and journalism watchdogs, several outlets, most notably the New York Times, have recently forbid this practice.

But now the phone interview issue is making news. As Romenesko reported this week, an increasing number of sources are demanding that interviews take place anywhere but on the phone. A reporter wrote in saying,

I have been noticing an exponential increase in the number of people who will only communicate via email. It’s not “ordinary people,” but lately it seems like anyone, in any large organization, just refuses to talk on the phone. “Submit your questions in writing” or “send me an email” is the most common response. I’ve been doing this for a few years, and I know groups have different policies on this, but in my limited, anecdotal experience, the practice is just exploding.

The post notes that this isn’t just happening in the political world but also in business and other enterprises.

While this controversy might not gain as much traction as quote approval, it is just as troubling because it speaks to the changing relationship between source and journalist at a time when professional standards seem to be changing rapidly.

My message to students: Take a principled stand against allowing sources to dictate the rules of the interview. Quote approval is a universal ‘no’. Only in rare cases do I see the value of e-mail or Twitter interviews. While interviews in writing might appear easier for both sides, the reason to do interviews at all is to gather authentic, contemporaneous statements. These most often come from spoken interviews.

If you’re a journalist and your source makes one of the above demands, unless he is Deep Throat you should be wondering — what is he so afraid of?