‘The buck stops with Candy’, screamed the US’s Fox News; ‘Candy Crowley sides with Obama’, fulminated the UK’s Daily Mail. Such a reaction from two well-known conservative media outlets in response to moderator Candy Crowley’s performance in last night’s second US presidential debate seems both unsurprising and unremarkable, given both the innately problematic nature of the job and her own prior indications of how she would complete it. The tussle between those who proclaim their journalistic impartiality and those who assert the presence of political bias is as old as the hills; given her unapologetically robust analysis of the role beforehand – ‘to give the conversation direction and get the questions answered’ – controversy was perhaps inevitable.
Such arguments are by no means new. What is new, however, is the notion that such active mediation – both in these debates, but also in the wider sense of journalism as moderation and explanation – is not just biased or incompetent, but inherently outdated. It is now conventional wisdom that the newly democratic brave new world of social media is rendering the hierarchies of traditional print and broadcast journalism obsolete: politicians can communicate directly with voters without the need for a journalistic interface (witness the UK Prime Minister’s volte face from infamous dismissal in 2009, ‘too many tweets might make a twat’, to all-too-predictable membership last week), and punditry is more often actively performed than passively received. In response to the meteoric rise (and undoubted importance) of sites such as Twitter, therefore, a narrative has developed that the role of the ‘moderator’ has become unnecessary as people make up their own minds, and any muscular journalism as exhibited by Crowley is deemed at best superfluous and at worst self-indulgent. As Ron Kaufman, a senior advisor to Mitt Romney, noted: “At different times tonight, she in fact got into the game, and she wasn’t on the sidelines”.
The trouble is that, again taking the debates as a microcosm for modern journalism, such unmediated interaction not only fails to lead to a nirvana of unvarnished truth-telling, but can cause more arguments than it solves, as is illustrated in the reaction to Jim Lehrer’s turn as moderator in the first debate. He got out of the way – and got slammed for doing so. ‘It’s not my job to control the conversation,’ he said afterwards. ‘If the candidates gave me resistance, and I let them talk, to me that’s being an active moderator, not a passive moderator.’ And again: ‘I was not there to do the challenging. I was there to facilitate the challenging. If they didn’t want to do it, then I wasn’t going to do that work for them.’ By refusing to function as an interlocutor, the ‘vanishing moderator’ (as he was subsequently labeled by Jay Rosen) was just another tweeter, lobbing up questions before retiring to a safe distance to allow mass judgment to be passed.
Why, then, was the immediate consensus so critical? If the central allegation – that Lehrer ‘lost control’ of the debate – is valid, it suggests that there might be a need for professional moderation after all, for a traditional bona fide journalism that actively asks, inquires, directs, annoys, and prioritizes. Apply this to print journalism, particularly in its online form, and a similar phenomenon is evident: there is still a market, in the wild west free-for-all that is the internet, for elite, professional, quality journalism – often behind paywalls – which satisfies an itch that a Facebook wall or a Twitter feed, despite their prevalence, simply cannot scratch. Modern electioneering may decree that the opinion formers of old are hopelessly out of date: yet the anarchy that ensues when the moderator’s function is entirely removed suggests that there will always be room for those who wish to ‘commit journalism’.