The Warren Forum

I’m seriously sick of these stupid “who won” blurbs over last night’s candidate forum with Rick Warren. Here’s a hint; whatever the ratings were for the event, no one watching was an undecided voter. It was a Saturday night in August for crying out loud, if you were watching the thing live you are a political junkie in some form or other, and there’s a 99% chance you’re vote is already decided.

Media bashing aside, from what I did see of it (not all that much), I want to hereby recommend that Rick Warren moderate every Presidential debate until he dies. The guy was absolutely fantastic. There were no gotcha questions, viewers didn’t have to sit through an hour of questions about why one of the candidates no longer believed what he believed 20 years ago, and as a result, viewers actually got a good look at the people they’re being asked to vote for. In Barack Obama you saw a man who’s attentive, detailed, knowledgeable, and comfortable talking intimately about a wide range of topics. In McCain, someone who is certainly amiable, self-assured, personable, and driven by personal experience and deeply held assumptions. Which is to say that you actually saw who the candidates really are, and might have been able to glean some real information about how they would run the country.

I also want to highlight this from Alan Wolfe’s response  to the event, because I think it’s critically important, and obviously something the media won’t be eager to discuss:

 My guess–and it is only a guess–is that Rick Warren does not know much about policies in which he is not all that interested.

Which is obviously true, but the other half of the equation that goes unsaid is that neither do reporters. Brian Williams is a guy who reads stories off of a teleprompter on television, not an expert on the politics of Eastern Europe. Bill Moyers is a damn good investigative journalist, but not necessarily a leading expert on the effects of fiscal policies. So they don’t necessarily have the requisite knowledge to correct incorrect statements made by candidates in these realms, and that’s understandable because they’re journalists as opposed to, say, professors of international relations. But journalists are supposed to be “tough” with politicians, and so they feel like they have to come up with something, and that’s where the “gotcha” comes from. Wolf Blitzer might not have the time to become a foremost expert on every topic that could come up in a debate in order to keep candidates “honest” on the issues, but CNN can pay for an army of researchers to dig through the public pronouncements of a candidate in order for Blitzer to be able to call out the dreaded “flip-flop.” There’s a reason Tim Russert is known for perfecting the tactic after all, and why he was a favorite outlet for politicians to go to.

So my humble suggestion is to cut journalists out of the debates, if we want to have moderators engaging in challenging the candidates. Journalists are not policy experts. That’s not their job, even if they regard themselves as experts on everything. And on top of that, far from being uninterested, objective, referees, they have a vested interest in the event. Debates will make for a large window of opportunity to glean content from, and so journalists-as-moderators have a glaring interest in generating storylines for their own sake, another reason they’re so focused on “gotchas,” (and another reason why Russert, NBC’s Washington chief, was so bad as a moderator). If we’re looking for somewhat contentious moderators, I recommend getting hgihly respected policy experts from non-partisan think tanks to do the deed.