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Murphy column: Candidate crossfire takes down presidential, U.S. Senate debates

Murphy column: Candidate crossfire takes down presidential, U.S. Senate debates

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NOT REAL NEWS: A look at what didn't happen this week

FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020 file photo, President Donald Trump, left, and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, right, with moderator Chris Wallace, center, of Fox News participate in the first presidential debate of the 2020 election at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. 

Moderators for political candidate debates, in one sense, are much like referees at sporting events: if they do their job well, nobody talks about them.

And that’s the way most debate moderators like it.

Moderators don’t want to be a part of the story. They simply want to do their job — ask the pertinent questions — and then fade into the background.

There was no such luck this past week for David Yepsen and Chris Wallace.

Yepsen moderated Iowa’s U.S. Senate debate for Iowa PBS, and Wallace, of Fox News, moderated the presidential debate. Both were at times overwhelmed by the candidates as they talked over each other and ignored pleas for order. And the post-mortem for both debates included, at least in part, discussion about how the candidates went off the rails and the moderators attempted, often in vain, to restore order.

During Monday night’s Senate debate on Iowa PBS, Republican Joni Ernst and Democrat Theresa Greenfield on a few occasions got into back-and-forth discussions where neither ceded ground and both continued speaking, creating exchanges there were indecipherable to viewers.

The official Iowa PBS debate transcript includes “speaking simultaneously” nine times.

Yepsen pleaded with Ernst and Greenfield to speak one at a time and reminded them that they were not participating under the debate rules to which their campaigns agreed.

During one such exchange well into the hour-long debate, Yepsen appeared exasperated and attempted to appeal to the candidates’ better angels.

“Do either of you think you’re acting like a U.S. senator? Is this the way Iowans expect their senator to act?” Yepsen said.

There were three instances of “speaking simultaneously” after Yepsen’s plea.

Little did Yepsen know that he got off easy. Because the very next night, Wallace walked into a tornado.

President Donald Trump from the opening moments of Tuesday night’s presidential debate was on the attack, flaunting debate rules and constantly talking over former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden also jumped in and had to be reined in by Wallace, but Trump was far more egregious in talking over his opponent.

Wallace repeatedly attempted to convince Trump to stop talking over Biden. Sometimes it worked; often, it did not.

By debate’s end, Wallace was almost as much the story of the debate as were the candidates. His performance drew sympathy and praise from some, pointed criticism from others.

Regardless of how you feel about Wallace’s performance, what’s most unfortunate is that his work was up for discussion at all. One could argue part of the reason Wallace’s work became part of the story was his own fault, that he could have done better to rein in Trump. But the candidates share responsibility, and in this case Trump’s strategy clearly was to be as disruptive as possible.

Surely all the journalists who are preparing for future debates, both presidential and here in Iowa, saw what happened this past week and are contemplating how they will operate if and when the candidates start to run wild again.

Hopefully they don’t. Or if they do, hopefully those moderators are well-prepared and have a solid plan for maintaining some semblance of order.

Because if they don’t, if we get more debates like the ones we got this past week, well … ask yourself this: If you watched either debate, what did you learn about the candidates?

I suspect I know your answer.

— Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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