By Emma Reilly
Elm Staff Writer
Tensions are running high in the political sphere as the 2020 presidential debate moderators face increasing criticism from President Donald Trump and other conservative figureheads.
“[Trump] … suggested that Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, who moderated the initial September 29 debate, and C-SPAN’s Steve Scully, who was scheduled to oversee the second debate, would treat him unfairly,” Vanity Fair’s Caleb Ecarma said.
Trump is concerned about bias, both on the part of the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates and on the part of the moderators themselves. The Trump campaign is urging for the selection of impartial debate leaders. This is evident in a Trump campaign press release from Oct. 8, in which campaign manager Bill Stepien said, “President Trump won the first debate despite a terrible and biased moderator in Chris Wallace.”
But complete neutrality is impossible.
“As human beings, we all have biases…that overtly, subliminally, and subconsciously influence our behaviors,” panel moderator Kristen Arnold said in reference to political moderators.
However, the CPD — which organizes the presidential debates and selects the moderators — is a private organization with no political affiliations or sponsors. The group “does not endorse, support, or oppose political candidates” and “receives no funding…from any political party, political action committee or candidate,” according to their website.
Considering the inevitably of pre-existing biases, that’s about a neutral as things can get.
Despite this, Trump has continued his persistent attacks on the CPD and its moderators in what Vanity Fair calls “an all-out assault.”
“…the so-called Commission on Presidential Debates is stacked with Trump Haters & Never Trumpers,” Trump said via Twitter.
The CPD’s Board of Directors is traditionally run by Democratic and Republican co-chairs and consists of former officials from both sides of the aisle, according to their website.
Yet Republicans continue to criticize. The moderators selected by the CPD will give former Vice President Joe Biden the upper hand by allowing him to have a “teammate” on the stage “most of the time,” the Trump campaign said in a statement.
Trump has criticized the moderator of his Oct. 15 town hall, NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, at length. At an event in Fort Myers, Fla. on Oct. 16, he called the journalist angry, hateful, and even “totally crazy.”
Accusations of left-leaning bias were present during the event, as well.
“You always start off with the question [regarding denouncing white supremacy]. You didn’t ask Joe Biden,” Trump said during his town hall on NBC. “Why aren’t you asking Joe Biden questions about…why doesn’t he condemn Antifa? Why does he say it doesn’t exist?”
To this Guthrie simply said, “Because you’re here, before me.”
Trump also claimed that the moderator of the final 2020 presidential debate, NBC’s Kristen Welker, is “unfair” and biased by “deep Democratic ties” in a tweet posted Oct. 17.
Welker, however, has no affiliations with either political party, with The Chicago Tribune reporting that she is a registered Independent.
Trump called Wallace “nasty and obnoxious,” on Twitter. He claimed that Wallace’s debate was “two in one,” as he believes Wallace to be biased toward Biden.
“My job is to be as invisible as possible,” Wallace said in response to anti-Trump bias claims. Wallace reports for Fox News, which is notoriously right leaning and pro-Trump.
Trump’s concerns, despite their accusatory nature, are shared by the public. According to a report by the Annenberg Debate Reform Working Group, 41% of Americans are “extremely or very concerned” about favoritism or bias on the part of the 2020 moderators.
“Moderators could be so worried about being perceived as biased that they oversteer and go in the other direction, toward ‘fairness,’” CNN’s Todd Graham said.
Even so, Wallace, Guthrie, and Welker are all professionals doing their jobs. They’re still human. Bias should not be the focus of determining the viability of a moderator — it can’t be measured, and there’s no way to completely eradicate it.
Rather, the CPD should be zeroing in on the qualifications, experience, and professionalism of their selections.
More measurable factors — like those offered by Graham — should be the focus of moderator criticism instead. Candidates, campaigns, and the public should question moderators for failing to control candidates, overstepping boundaries, or not asking the right questions — not for having their own personal political opinions outside of the debate setting.
Featured Photo caption: Savannah Guthrie was widely praised for being an effective moderator at President Donald Trump’s town hall on Oct. 15, though Trump and his supporters accused her of showing bias. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.