Last night, I moderated a candidate forum between Republican Congressman Bob Dold and his Democratic challenger, Brad Schneider, for the 10th district seat. We happened to have a live studio audience of WTTW trustees who had just wrapped up a long-scheduled meeting at the station.
Before the show began, I asked the audience how many had watched all the presidential and vice-presidential debates; not surprisingly, most had. And then one of the trustees asked me if I thought a debate moderator should correct a candidate who was misstating a fact. This was, apparently, a reference to the Candy Crowley brouhaha when she corrected Mitt Romney about President Obama’s use of the word “terrorism” the day after the attack on the embassy in Libya.
I’m in the Crowley camp and here’s why. A moderator’s main responsibility is to the audience — this includes facilitating a debate that is fair, content-driven and allows the candidates to reveal their positions and temperament to help voters make an informed decision. If the moderator is aware that a candidate is flat-wrong about something of significance, then I believe the moderator owes it to the public to keep the discussion honest in an even-handed way. I think Crowley’s comment — though it was heavily criticized in some quarters — may have caused both candidates to fact-check themselves (wishful thinking, maybe!) for the remainder of that encounter. If candidates know the moderator has a compass, they may be less apt to steer off course.