Debate Sea Change

10.24.12

Candy Crowley, Martha Raddatz: Female Moderators Rocked the Boat in Debates

It’s no accident that Candy Crowley and Martha Raddatz were the breakout stars in the presidential and vice-presidential debates. Lauren Ashburn on why they outperformed the men.

Don’t mess with us girls.

And if you don’t already know that, all you had to do was turn on the tube—or the computer—when moderators Candy Crowley or Martha Raddatz took to the debate stages to tame the roaring male lions fighting to rule the kingdom.

They whipped ’em into shape, refused to be bossed around, in essence nailing a “Girlz Rule” sign on the old boys’ clubhouse for all to see.

The ladies brought their A game with smarts, female sensibility, and sass showing in spades.

Contrast that with the male moderators—PBS’s Jim Lehrer and CBS’s Bob Schieffer—who got the job done in a more laidback, workmanlike way.

And here’s why the women dominated: Both Raddatz and Crowley came up through the ranks at a time when most women were not being groomed for anchor posts. They made their marks by putting their heads down, reporting the hell out of stories, and never giving up. They clawed their way to the top, inch by inch, not letting anything stand in their way. And it turns out those hard-charging characteristics are exactly what is needed to tangle with the truculent contenders.

During the vice-presidential debate in Danville, Ky., Raddatz’s opening question to Joe Biden showed she meant business.

The attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, said Raddatz, ABC’s senior foreign-affairs correspondent, “was a preplanned assault by heavily armed men. Wasn’t this a massive intelligence failure, Vice President Biden?”

Her take-no-prisoners style wasn’t limited to one side. Raddatz later told Paul Ryan: “You have refused yet again to offer specifics on how you pay for that 20 percent across-the-board tax cut. Do you actually have the specifics, or are you still working on it, and that’s why you won’t tell voters?”

Ryan tried to dodge the question but didn’t get far. “Different than this administration, we actually want to have big bipartisan agreements. You see, I understand the—”

“Do you have the specifics? Do you have the math? Do you know exactly what you’re doing?” Raddatz shot back.

Ouch. Wouldn’t want to come home late in her house.

Growing up, it never seemed odd to me that the only anchors I saw on network TV were men.

As for Crowley, who at 62 took over CNN’s State of the Union last year, it’s clear she’s cut from the same chicks-who-report-and-don’t-take-crap mold.

"Your secretary of state, as I’m sure you know, has said that she takes full responsibility for the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi,” Crowley told President Obama at Hofstra University. “Does the buck stop with your secretary of state as far as what went on here?”

Following up on an audience question to Obama about high unemployment, Crowley put the screws to the president: “Let me see if I can bring you to the gist of the question. Are we looking at the new normal?”

During a discussion on gun control, Crowley asked Mitt Romney about having signed an assault-weapons ban as Massachusetts governor and noted he no longer supports such restrictions. “Given the kind of violence that we see sometimes with these mass killings, why is it that you’ve changed your mind?”

It was nearly four decades ago that Barbara Walters, having been a “Today Girl” (no kidding), landed a co-host’s spot on the Today show. Despite that large crack she put in the glass ceiling, it’s only been six years since the first woman—Katie Couric—solo-anchored a network evening newscast, Diane Sawyer following quickly on her heels. Crowley is the only female Sunday morning anchor; each cable news channel has only one female host after 7 p.m.

And, of course, Crowley is the first woman to moderate a presidential debate since Carole Simpson in 1992. The Commission on Presidential Debates, under considerable pressure, picked two women this year for the first time—and awarded them what are considered the lesser prizes, the VP face-off and the town-hall debate, where many of the questions come from the audience.

Crowley drew pointed criticism for her performance from Romney supporters, especially for attempting to fact-check a dispute over how Obama initially characterized the attack in Libya. Crowley has said she was trying to move the debate along, but she paid the price for being an aggressive moderator.

Still, her mere presence was progress. Growing up, I watched Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw rule the evening airwaves. It never seemed odd to me that the only anchors I saw on TV were men.

Yet when I set out to become one of them by breaking exclusive stories, coming into television newsrooms at all hours of the night and day, asking questions that needed asking, men with the same level of experience were handed better assignments, forcing me to dig harder and deeper to uncover my own stories.

So when I see two very strong, smart, hardworking women rolling into a male-dominated bastion and playing ball, I can’t help but admire their moxie and the example they are setting for the next generation of young women.

But I’ll be even more proud when next time around, the fact that there are female moderators won’t even cross our minds.

Video screenshot

Watch a mashup of Jim Lehrer's many attempts to talk in the first presidential debate.