Pity Lester Holt. The NBC newsman is the next batter up in the lineup of journalists (and whatever Matt Lauer is) sure to be skewered by the left and the right for the temerity of moderating a political debate. Holt will be the man in the middle at the first presidential debate on Sept. 25.
I don’t mean to malign Lauer. And that sets me apart from just about everybody else in the wake of the so-called “Commander-in-Chief Forum” held last week on NBC. Trump supporters blamed him for harping on Iraq. Clinton supporters say he was harder on the democrat. Critics said he was terrible. And, reportedly, even executives with his own network called Lauer’s performance a “disaster.”
Regardless of what you think of Lauer’s performance that night, his experience in the aftermath justifies my own skepticism when asked to moderate political events in Half Moon Bay. Part of me thinks I should, but all of me knows I’ll be pilloried for doing so.
Respected journalists have taken part in political forums for decades. More often than not they have emerged relatively unscathed. One reason, I think, is that the smart ones agree to participate selectively.
If you are reading these words, you may be asked to participate in a forum in your community, perhaps even as this year’s election nears. I think there are three ways you can take part without creating rifts with one side or another of the political spectrum. …
Be part of a panel. If you are one of two or three or five questioners, it seems to me you can master your fate. You will likely only be asked to pose a couple questions. Make sure they are fair and equally difficult for both sides. Avoid putting candidates on the spot. These are local people who are most likely motivated by wanting to do good in their community. Ask them reasonable questions that they should expect given their race and you should be OK.
Be a master of ceremonies. Sometimes our newspapers present these events. While I personally think doing so is … fraught, I see the benefit as well. You help set the agenda. You put yourself in the center of civic affairs. You become synonymous with learning about public office. I think you have to be very careful and keep your sense of humor. Your job might be to simply introduce the candidates and remind them when they run on too long.
Sponsor it. Make it happen, select other participants and get out of the way. You benefit from a branding perspective but then maintain plausible deniability if it goes sideways.
What I would not do is accept a job as the sole inquisitor of multiple candidates on one stage. Ask Lauer how that turns out.
I’d love to hear your experiences and how you have walked this line.