There’s No “I” in Debate Moderator

Someone tell Tim Russert

Not thirty minutes into last night’s Democratic debate, a heckler was heard interrupting the show from somewhere out in the dark, faceless audience.

The heckle, to the best I could hear: “These are race-based questions!”

That this heckler directed his protest at the men moderating the debate—not the candidates—tells you all you need to know about the first half hour of last night’s “Fight For [The Democratic Candidates’] Political Lives.

And at that point, Tim Russert had been doing most of the showboating—er, moderating—with six questions to co-moderator Brian Williams’ one, all seven of which, bringing us back to the heckler’s point, were about race (or rather, RaceGate, the campaign press’ preoccupation over the past several days).

In the first question of the night, Williams gave a nod to how absurd RaceGate had become—“We needn’t go back over all that has happened, except to say that this discussion, before it was over, involved Dr. King, President Johnson, even Sidney Poitier, several members of Congress, and a prominent African-American businessman supporting Senator Clinton”—and then proceeded, along with his co-moderator, to ask the candidates to revisit and rehash it six different ways.

From there, the questions got more varied and, arguably, substantive (producing discussion of topics ranging from foreign ownership of American companies to energy policy).

And yet further along in the debate, another heckler could be heard.

“These are Russert-based questions!”

Wait, that heckler was me. Shouting at my TV as Russert referred more than once to himself, circled back to Very Important Questions he’d asked on his show, and generally tried to turn the debate into a special Tuesday night edition of Meet the Press (complete with a wad of damning papers, waved menacingly).

The first two “Russert-based questions” were also “race-based questions.” To wit:

Russert (emphasis ours): Senator Clinton, in terms of accountability, you told me on Sunday morning, “Any time anyone has said anything that I thought was out of bounds, they’re gone. I’ve gotten rid of them.”…Will you now not allow Robert Johnson to participate in your campaign events…?”


Russert (emphasis ours): In terms of accountability, Senator Obama, Senator Clinton on Sunday told me that the Obama campaign had been pushing this storyline. And, true enough, your press secretary in South Carolina—four pages of alleged comments made by the Clinton people about the issue of race [waving four pieces of paper]. In hindsight, do you regret pushing this story?”

And this, on Iraq:

Russert (emphasis ours): In September, we were in New Hampshire together, and I asked the three of you if you would pledge to have all troops out of Iraq by the end of your first term. All three of you said you will not take that pledge. I’m hearing something much different tonight…

As if that—the reaction to Russert’s own question from a previous debate—were the critical insight for voters wondering how candidates might handle Iraq.

The good news? With another NBC News-hosted debate scheduled for January 24th in Florida, looks like only eight days till the Republicans Meet Tim Russert.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.