“It’s not about the moderator, and it shouldn’t be,” Jim Lehrer said in an interview with Politico, responding to the torrent of criticism that followed his performance at last week’s presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Lehrer’s morsel of wisdom is no doubt foremost on the mind of ABC News Senior Foreign Correspondent Martha Raddatz as she prepares for Thursday’s debate between vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan. Try as she will to make the event “not about her,” Raddatz is under heavy scrutiny sparked by both a fallout surrounding her predecessor’s limp presentation as well as questions about a perceived conflict of interest.
Conservative pundits around the country cried foul on Wednesday, when the website Daily Caller reported that Barack Obama was a guest at Raddatz’s wedding to her first husband, Julius Genachowski, in 1991. Obama and Genachowski were classmates at Harvard Law School. ABC News, which had caught wind of the Caller’s story before it was published, released a preemptive statement calling the idea of a conflict of interest “absurd.”
“Martha Raddatz is known for her tough, fair reporting, which is why it was no surprise to her colleagues inside and outside of ABC News that she was chosen by the Commission on Presidential Debates for this assignment,” the statement read. “Barack Obama was a law school classmate of Raddatz's ex-husband Julius Genachowski at Harvard. At the time Barack Obama was a student and president of the Law Review. He attended their wedding over two decades ago along with nearly the entire Law Review, many of whom went onto successful careers including some in the Bush administration. Raddatz and Mr. Genachowski divorced in 1997 and both are now remarried.”
Even the Ryan campaign seemed to think the report was much ado about nothing, telling Fox News that the Wisconsin congressman has “no concerns” about Raddatz moderating the debate.
Nevertheless, scrutiny of Raddatz won’t end there. Following last week’s presidential debate, Jim Lehrer’s performance -- which many considered passive and ineffective -- became one of the most talked-about topics (second, perhaps, only to Big Bird). As it turns out, though, that passivity might have been intentional. Both Lehrer and the Commission on Presidential Debates said that Lehrer was testing a new debate format in which the candidates would be given more opportunity to respond directly to each other’s comments. The change has been a long time coming, a response to decades of complaints by pundits who believed the presidential debate format is too controlled.
Consequently, Raddatz is now under intense pressure to keep order amid looser restrictions, particularly as neither Biden nor Ryan is known for being exceptionally graceful during unscripted moments. As Evan Thomas, a former moderator, told NPR on Thursday, good moderators have to know when to “get out of the way,” but they also have to be assertive enough to challenge the candidates when they say things that are misleading or untrue.
At the very least, critics can’t claim that Raddatz isn’t tough. As a reporter for ABC, she traveled to Iraq 21 times to cover the conflict there, and as the network’s White House correspondent she had the unenviable chore of covering George W. Bush’s second term.
Thursday’s vice presidential debate, which takes place at 9 p.m. at Centre College in Danville, Ky., will mark the first time that Raddatz will sit in the moderator’s chair. Tune in to find out if Raddatz will tighten the reins or loosen the straps.