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Oct. 1, 2012, 2:03 p.m.

Monday Q&A: Bill Wheatley on presidential debates, how they’ve changed, and how they should

Moderators should more aggressively pursue honest responses, he says.

For a certain breed of political junkie, the Twitter back channel has become as much a part of the election as what the candidates are actually doing and saying.

During the 20 Republican primary debates last fall, Twitter was truly a destination — a snarky watch-party of sorts (drinking games most definitely included).

Along with the side discussion taking place 140 characters at a time, digital media was also front and center in the televised broadcast of many of those debates. Moderators culled questions from Twitter, YouTube, or elsewhere, and generally made it clear that they were attempting to put a new twist on a decades-old format.

With the Commission on Presidential Debates leading the way, though, the three Obama-Romney debates this month will will likely be a bit more staid. (CPD is officially partnering with AOL, Google and Yahoo, but it’s worth watching how other news organizations will try to engage with audiences during the debates.) Yet even though presidential debates are more rooted in tradition than their primary-season counterparts, the approach to debates has changed in key ways over the decades.

I caught up with Bill Wheatley, the former NBC executive vice president and a ’77 Nieman fellow, who spent decades producing debates and other political coverage. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and condensed:

Adrienne LaFrance: Let’s start from the beginning. What was the first presidential debate you were involved in?
Bill Wheatley: Well, my debate experience actually goes back to the gubernatorial election in Massachusetts between Frank Sargent and Mike Dukakis. That must have been 1974. A debate in those days was relatively easy. I was news director at WBZ TV and I just called each of the gubernatorial candidates — the incumbent and Dukakis — I just called and said, “I’d like to put on a debate,” and they said, “Great, great.” So we set up a meeting and I told them pretty much how we’d like to do it and that was it. It went off reasonably well.

My pretty strong memory of it is it proved to be an advantage to Dukakis. He was quite strong in that debate — you know, you always think of Nixon in the presidential debate in 1960.

LaFrance: It’s a cautionary tale.
Wheatley: In that first one, Nixon’s performance was just — he looked haggard, he banged his knee getting out of the car, he declined makeup.

[Editor’s note: For the record, there’s evidence Nixon’s appearance on screen didn’t hurt him nearly as much as people tend to remember.]

But then there were no debates until 1976, and that was Carter-Ford. They were run by the League of Women Voters between ’76 and ’84, and then the League in 1988 was so annoyed with the candidates’ demands as to how they would debate — who they would permit to be the questioners, that sort of thing — that they rather dramatically said “We’re out. We’re not going to be a party to this,” and that’s when the Committee on Presidential Debates got going.

They call themselves nonpartisan, but I think they’re closer to bipartisan than nonpartisan. For years the former chairman of the RNC and the former chairman of the DNC were on the board.

LaFrance: You could say that’s the very definition of bipartisan. So let’s talk about the debate format over the years.
Wheatley: The commission has gradually tried to vary the format. The concept of a town hall debate for undecideds is pretty well institutionalized, and the commission has had some success in making the formats less rigid. There are no more opening statements, which were very predictable. I was looking at something the other day that said Nixon and Kennedy were each permitted an eight-minute opening statement.
LaFrance: That’s an eternity in broadcast.
Wheatley: Isn’t that amazing? So they’ve been trying to make the format less rigid — a little bit more relaxed — this year. The moderator will ask an opening question of each of them and they’ll have a couple of minutes to respond, and the remainder of the debate will be largely involved in the discussion of six topic areas, the idea being you could have a little bit more of a back-and-forth than you now have with 30 seconds for rebuttals.

We’ll see. We’ve gotten away from the practice of panels of reporters questioning the candidates — that was once a staple of debates — and it’s now single-moderator. That’s good, I think, in the sense you’re a little bit more likely to have continuity, although there have been examples of when the reporters have met before the debate and decided to work together to keep continuity.

LaFrance: The single-moderator format puts a lot of responsibility on one person.
Wheatley: Especially with the more conversational approach that we’re seeing now. But that’s why it’s important that you have seasoned people being the moderators. I would say that as a rule in the presidential debate, the moderators are less likely to be as aggressive as some moderators [in the primaries].
LaFrance: But, theoretically, with the continuity of one moderator and the opportunity for longer back-and-forths, the moderators are better positioned to challenge candidates in real time, call them out on misleading spin.
Wheatley: You would think so. And of course there’s lots of spin. It’s up to the moderator to decide when to interrupt — when to say, “That doesn’t square with the facts,” or something like that if a candidate goes that far. They’re generally pretty careful in the presidential debate not to make errors of fact, but they can.

The moderator will also have the ability to turn quickly to the other candidate and say, “Do you agree with the first part of what so-and-so said?” So you’re much more flexible — provided you have a good moderator who understands it’s not about the moderator. It’s about the audience, really, and the moderator needs to keep the audience in mind most. So if a candidate says something that’s overly complex, try to straighten it out, or if the candidate gets too far off topic.

You know, the candidates make an agreement with each other that specifies the rules, and that agreement is generally not made public.

LaFrance: Shouldn’t it be?
Wheatley: I support it being made public. I think the viewing public has a right to know. For example, the candidates might agree not to ask questions of each other. Someone got a hold of one a few years ago. Some of the agreement is relatively minor stuff, such as the candidates will be permitted to stand; the podiums will be no higher than this; water will be provided — those sorts of comforts.
LaFrance: Do candidates influence who moderates?
Wheatley: I haven’t seen it addressed recently. The selection of the moderators, as far as I can tell, the Commission on Presidential Debates is silent on that. There was a time when candidates did have [a say].
LaFrance: Why would a journalist ever agree to that?
Wheatley: That’s a great question, and I believe some news organizations said “No,” and others said, “It doesn’t bother us.” It’s a prestigious thing to have your person selected. We know that [the candidates] don’t know the questions ahead of time, but I would be very interested to know what is in this year’s agreement and to what extent the CPD cooperated with candidates. It’s a memorandum of understanding between the candidates and the commission signs off on it, so I’m sure if there were something particularly egregious, the commission would say, “No, you can’t do that.” I would still like to know if the moderators were run by the candidates. Perhaps not.
LaFrance: What has changed from a production standpoint? I watched all of the Republican primary debates and some of them were so over-the-top slickly produced that I felt like I was watching reality TV.
Wheatley: I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of that at the presidential debates. Unlike the presidential debates, individual networks sponsored the primary debates — sometimes in conjunction with a local newspaper or something. I think the television people use television production values. Some of them use these animations and things like “Decision 2012,” but I don’t think you’re going to see the sort of thing that you saw in the primary debates — they did sometimes look like reality television.
LaFrance: What still needs to happen for these debates to feature even more robust journalism, to better serve the viewing public?
Wheatley: I think that if each candidate is trying to be as cautious as possible and is simply mouthing the same talking points that he has been mouthing for weeks and months, I’d like to see the moderators be a little bit more aggressive about getting through that and at least trying to extract really important answers, more insightful honest answers.

You can’t always do it, by the way, and it’s a difficult thing for the moderator to say more than once, “I’m sorry, governor, but I have to point out that you didn’t answer the question. If you recall, the question was…” If you do it twice or three times, now you have the audience mad at you — or at least 50 percent of the audience.

LaFrance: If you were moderating an Obama-Romney debate, what questions would you insist on getting answers to?
Wheatley: I would definitely ask Romney what makes him believe that tax cuts will have such a dramatic impact on the economy, in light of the history of tax cuts. Most economists would say that they don’t, and I’d press on that. I’d be very interested in governing style. I would press Obama — but also Romney — on this business of how one governs. In Obama’s case, this aloofness we keep hearing about — whether it’s with members of Congress or foreign leaders — what’s that about? Because I think it is an important governance characteristic.

I suppose on Romney, you have to press him on his change in position over the years, although we heard that throughout the primary debate. It’s hard to break through that. I’m glad I don’t have to ask the questions because it’s really a hard job. Let’s see how forthcoming the candidates are.

LaFrance: For the first time last fall, engagement with at-home audiences — taking questions from Twitter, for example — was really a prominent feature of the Republican primary debates.
Wheatley: As far as I can tell, there is no social media direct component here. I do think it’s important that, as part of this process, questions from citizens be included. The question is: What’s the most effective and responsible way to do that? At the very least, people should be permitted to send questions to the moderators.

You have to make this work in real time, of course, and the moderator’s watching his clock. It’s not going to be as bad now, now that you’re not having 30-second rebuttals, so I suppose he or she — there are two women moderators this year — could do something. There’s real-time feedback now. Traditionally, entirely too much has been made of the views of reporters and analysts on the debates — who won and who lost — and I think you’ll find that the public may not always have the same views.

LaFrance: 1972 comes to mind. Nixon won that year — we talked about him as an example of a debate gone wrong in 1960, but what’s the worst screw-up you’ve seen on the journalist side of the debate?
Wheatley: In one of the Jerry Ford-Jimmy Carter debates, there was a power failure for 27 minutes. The candidates stood at the podiums waiting for it to get fixed. So that’s not so good. You could always have technical problems. Anything can happen.

The Bible for candidates is look presidential, be measured and knowledgeable, and don’t make any mistakes. Because if you make a mistake as Jerry Ford did when he said Eastern Europe is not under Soviet domination, that really hurt him. It was demonstrably not true, and he said it, and I don’t know what he was thinking.

All of the attention is on the mistakes. The other thing is the so-called one-liners. Lloyd Bentsen was just waiting for [Dan] Quayle to compare himself to Jack Kennedy because they knew he had done it before. So when Quayle began, Lloyd paused and said, “Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

LaFrance: And it went down in history.
Wheatley: And it was devastating. Some one-liners happen spontaneously. Some are planned. I think most candidates have a few in their back pocket. I mention this because you have large audiences, scores of millions, who watch. They then — afterward, the next morning in the newspaper, online, at the office over the water cooler — their opinion they may have had when they were watching may change. It’s the human interaction that changes it.
LaFrance: Do you have a favorite debate from over the years — one that was most intellectually robust, or particularly meaningful for the outcome of the election?
Wheatley: No. I mean, I think we’ve had some fairly intelligent debates. They’re not all simply talking points. They can be revelatory. It’s the great opportunity the public has to see the two people side by side, and take their measure. I don’t know that there’s any that stands out in particular.

Carter had been dodging Reagan. God, in those days, some of the debates were closer to the election. The candidates like to leave time now in case they have to clean something up, so now we have the last debate at least two weeks before the election. But that Carter-Reagan debate, the one in which Reagan said, “There you go again” to Carter — I think it established in the public’s mind that Reagan could be president. And the fact that Carter had been dodging him made it even worse.

There was the one when Bernie Shaw pressured Mike Dukakis — “Let’s suppose your wife had been raped” — and Dukakis answered in a sort of dispassionate way. Everybody said, “Wait a minute, his wife was raped according to this hypothetical, he ought to be infuriated,” but he analyzed it in an almost professorial way. No doubt that hurt him.

In terms of memorable debates: I thought that some of them that had Ross Perot were very good. We were hearing something different, different points of view. Perot was more adventuresome. He wasn’t going to win but he might have had an influence on the outcome. George H.W. Bush always seemed uneasy like he didn’t want to be there. You may recall the famous shot of him looking at his watch.

NBC was the pool for that debate and our director was setting up a shot that had Perot in the foreground and Bush in the background. He called the shot and a half-second later Bush looked at his watch. He said, “I’d like to say I made that shot by pure wits, but I didn’t.”
LaFrance: Sometimes you get lucky.
Wheatley: You do, you do. You really do.
POSTED     Oct. 1, 2012, 2:03 p.m.
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