NEW YORK — Beneath Bob Schieffer's Southern charm is the tough spine of someone used to dealing with politicians. The moderator of Monday's final presidential debate will need it, because it has been open season on the other journalists who have done that job this campaign.
Thanks to a bitter campaign rivalry, thriving partisan media outlets and the growth of social media, debate moderator is approaching baseball umpire on the scale of thankless jobs.
Jim Lehrer was criticized for not doing enough, Candy Crowley for doing too much and Martha Raddatz worked over about the wedding guest list for a marriage that ended more than a decade ago. Though not unanimously so, the barbs were usually partisan in nature.
"There are millions of people with their hands over their keyboards ready to analyze every single moment of what's happening," said veteran TV journalist Jeff Greenfield. "That puts even more pressure on ... It's a no-win situation."
Conservative columnist George Will called last week's get-together on Long Island the best presidential debate he's ever seen.
It didn't take long, however, for Republican Mitt Romney's supporters to go after CNN's Crowley. They said questions that she chose from undecided voters on immigration, gun control and equal pay for women played to President Barack Obama's strengths. They were incensed when Crowley, faced by two candidates in a dispute over what was said during a presidential address about Libya, corrected Romney by saying Obama had referred to an attack on Americans in Benghazi as an "act of terror." Crowley also noted that others in the administration suggested for nearly two weeks that the reaction to an anti-Muslim video was a motivating factor in the attack.
Radio host Rush Limbaugh called Crowley's work "an act of journalistic terror."
"If there were any journalistic standards, what she did last night would have been the equivalent of blowing up her career like a suicide bomber," he said.
The conservative Media Research Center criticized Crowley for having only one question on a foreign policy issue, even though this Monday's Schieffer-moderated debate is supposed to focus on foreign policy.
Thanks to a clock that airs on CNN's screen during the debate, some conservatives saw as a sign of bias that Obama spoke for 44 minutes, 4 seconds during the debate, compared to Romney's 40:50. This prompted CNN to count the actual words spoken by each candidate. The faster-talking Romney said 7,984 words and Obama 7,506.
Criticism of Crowley was a relentless post-debate topic on Fox News Channel, which knows CNN isn't popular among Republicans in its audience. Conservatives on Fox and liberals on MSNBC offer an echo chamber for partisan complaints and have far greater prominence than they had even a decade ago.
"I knew from the start," Crowley told The Associated Press, "somebody is going to be unhappy no matter what you do."
Crowley's bosses leapt to her defense: "She had to deal with the tricky format, the nervous questioners, the aggressive debaters, all while shutting out the pre-debate attempts to spin and intimidate her," CNN U.S. chief Mark Whitaker said in a memo to staff. "She pulled it off masterfully."
Even as each debate progresses, Twitter is crackling with reactions. Type in the moderator's name in a search and the screen immediately fills with tweets. Generally, it's a dependable way to gauge how a candidate is doing. The harsher one party's reaction to a moderator is, the tougher time their candidate is having onstage.
"I've never known the winning side to (complain)," said Aaron Brown, the former ABC and CNN anchor who is now a professor at Arizona State University.
Frustration against Lehrer boiled over predominantly among Democrats like Michael Moore and Rachel Maddow who were witnessing Obama's admittedly poor performance in the first debate. The former PBS host said he essentially tried to get out of the way, asking general questions and letting the candidates go after each other.
"I wondered if we needed a moderator since we had Mitt Romney," Obama's deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said, even though her candidate talked longer. As in the second debate, Romney spoke more words.
ABC's Raddatz generally received strong reviews for her work moderating the one debate between Vice President Joe Biden and challenger Paul Ryan. Conservative media was buzzing days before the event, however, with the story that future president Obama attended her 1991 wedding to Julius Genachowski, Obama's Harvard classmate. The couple divorced in 1999. Allusions to the wedding popped up in grumbling tweets by Republicans about Raddatz's questioning.
One motive of the pre- and post-debate criticism is to "work the refs," to let the moderators know that partisans are watching. If intimidation works, even on a subtle level, it can seep into their performances at a time when even modest advantages can make a big difference.
During the second debate, George Mason University went so far as to count how many times each candidate and Crowley interrupted one another. They found that Romney was interrupted 58 times and Obama 43. The numbers came with little context, however, so it wasn't clear how many interruptions were related to candidates exceeding agreed-upon time limits.
Crowley's role in the Libyan discussion also raised the issue of how much the moderators should be prepared to practice journalism while onstage. If you hear something factually incorrect or misleading, is it your duty to point it out to viewers, or is that strictly the candidates' job?
For most viewers, the answer no doubt has to do with which candidate is being corrected.
So let's get this moderator's job straight:
Craft sharp questions to get the candidates to talk, while being meticulously fair not to challenge one more than another. Keep an eye on the clock so one candidate doesn't get to hog the time. Don't be bullied; be firm in forcing the candidates to move on. But be flexible enough to keep a productive discussion flowing. Know the difference. Keep the focus off yourself. And do it all on live television before some 60 million people.
"There is not enough money to get me to do one of these things," Brown said.
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