The typical presidential debate involves a number of candidates being asked a number of general questions which all are expected to answer. The journalists involved (usually TV types) are there to “moderate” the debate: ask the general question and step back, allowing the candidates to say whatever they wish. If the answer is challenged, it is the other candidate or candidates that does/do the challenging. The presiding journalist, however, is expected to remain neutrally unobtrusive. Which is why the tough questioning of Donald Trump regarding his comments about women by Fox News’ Megyn Kelly at the first televised Republican debate caught Trump and much of the nation by surprise, especially given the conservative propaganda that Fox tends to peddle.
To her credit, Kelly defended herself against Trump’s objections and subsequent insults by saying “I certainly will not apologize for doing good journalism.” Whatever Kelly and Fox provide the public on a daily basis, her hard-nosed questioning of Trump during the debate was good journalism and much too rare. As a nation we need much more such journalism from journalists who lead the debates.
As we witnessed during the last Republican debate at the Reagan Library, allowing candidates to spout off to the camera and at each other does little to provide the audience with a genuine sense of how well the candidates know of what they speak. At debates, journalists should serve as respectful and skeptical interrogators rather than mindless, objective “moderators.” Our political candidates ought to be challenged to defend, in depth and detail, what they so easily promise and propose. Questions should be addressed to candidates as individuals based on their stated positions, and the journalists (one or more) should be free to follow-up with further questions (having done their homework) until the veracity of the response is made clear or the stupidity is exposed.
In other words, the debate must be between the candidates and the journalist or journalists. Anything less is not an informative debate nor is it good journalism. Of course there will be cries of journalistic bias and “unfair attacks” from candidates, parties and partisans. Such is the way of democracy. But the one thing that journalism should not do is show deference to politicians and give falsehood and fallacy the benefit of the doubt. If something a candidate says is wrong or stupid or crazy, an educated journalist should be free to represent the public and provide some enlightening cross-examination.