A “Job to Do At the Table” (But, What?)

Will Tom Brokaw do better than Gwen Ifill?

As the VP debate wound down last week, Andrew Sullivan’s insta-reactions included the following:

There was only one loser: Gwen Ifill. She was intimidated, peripheral, neutered. The rules didn’t help. But Ifill put in a dreadful performance.

At the time, I thought that sounded a tad harsh. But after watching Ifill talk about the debate on Meet the Press yesterday… maybe she agrees at least to the spirit of Sullivan’s take (that she was rendered useless in that debate)? Did Ifill do her job in her own estimation?

To introduce the topic of How the Candidates and Moderator Fared At Last Week’s Debate, Meet The Press’s Tom Brokaw turned not to footage of Ifill, Palin, and Biden from Thursday night but to footage of Queen Latifah, Tina Fey, and Jason Sudeikis from Saturday night, and then chimed in:

BROKAW: When she said—and you asked her a question and she completely ignored it…

IFILL: More than ignored it.

BROKAW: More than ignored it and said, you know…

IFILL: She blew me off, I think, is the technical term.

BROKAW: …”I’m just going to talk directly to the American people.”

IFILL: Yeah.

BROKAW: Tell us about what happened beforehand about what the rules were and what the understanding you thought you had with the candidates who would be onstage.

(Maybe Brokaw was trying to determine if the “understanding” he thinks he has with the candidates for tomorrow night’s debate could be similarly…misunderstood?)

In Ifill’s response to Brokaw, she said that the candidates’ job is “to debate each other” and “the moderator’s job is to control their debate.” But if, Ifill continued, the candidates “have decided, as Joe Biden decided that he was going to debate John McCain, and she decided she was going to give a stump speech to the American people, there’s very little a moderator can do other than say, ‘No, no, no, listen, I asked a question. Please, please answer.’”

In other words, in theory Ifill sees her job as to “control the debate” but in practice — in the job as she approaches it — she actually has no control if the candidates so “decide” it. (Maybe Brokaw will do more of the “please, please answer” tomorrow night than Ifill did on Thursday?)

And if, Ifill says, Palin “wasn’t challenged on the things she said that were not completely correct, or she wasn’t challenged on changing the subject and then answering the questions by her competitor, I had another job to do at the table.”

Which was? (I thought “controlling” the debate, no?)

If it’s up to the competitors to challenge each other’s incorrect claims made from the debate podium and it’s up to the competitors to challenge each other for changing the subject rather than answering the moderator’s question, or answering a question other than the one posed by the moderator, then it’s up to the moderator to do….what?

Here’s hoping Brokaw does more tomorrow night.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.