Even for the world’s most seasoned journalists, there are few challenges more daunting than moderating a presidential election debate.
The stakes are incredibly high, and there are countless ways to do it wrong. The audience is hypersensitive to anything that could be perceived as unfair treatment, and the candidates will use every ounce of their verbal judo skills to derail the conversation toward their preferred talking points.
But Fox News’ Chris Wallace did it with aplomb. He was actively engaged, thoughtful, topical and insistent. But most importantly, he represented us—the viewers and voters—with a near perfect balance of respect, candor and skepticism.
For anyone whose job occasionally or frequently calls for high-stakes interviews or moderation at public events, Wallace’s performance as debate moderator offers several lessons worth remembering long after this election is decided:
1. Give context to provocative questions
Wallace pulled no punches in his selection of hot-button questions, but he avoided the easy route of hurling them like verbal daggers at each candidate. In an election cycle where major accusations have often been lazily distilled down into punchy headlines or tweets, he offered background on both the issues and the candidates’ positions.
For example, on trade and open borders, here was Wallace’s question to Clinton:
“Secretary Clinton, I want to clear up your position on this issue, because in a speech you gave to a Brazilian bank, for which you were paid $225,000, we’ve learned from the WikiLeaks, that you said this, and I want to quote. ‘My dream is a hemispheric common market with open trade and open borders.’ So that’s the question… Is that your dream, open borders?”
He could have simple asked why she has called for “open borders,” but instead offered viewers the context of where the quote originated and the financial relationship under which she said it.
Similarly, Wallace offered a strong foundation of context in addressing Trump’s comments about grabbing women and the subsequent accusations of groping:
“Mr. Trump, at the last debate, you said your talk about grabbing women was just that, talk, and that you’d never actually done it. And since then, as we all know, nine women have come forward and have said that you either groped them or kissed them without their consent.
“Why would so many different women from so many different circumstances over so many different years, why would they all in this last couple of weeks make up — you deny this — why would they all make up these stories?”
The lesson? Just because we live in a soundbite, tweetable culture doesn’t mean we need to ask soundbite questions. Providing context helps viewers better understand the question objectively and also frames the conversation in a way that generates more direct, substantive answers.
2. Guide the conversation politely but firmly
Wallace had the seemingly impossible task of managing a constructive conversation between the notoriously interruptive Trump and the chitinous Clinton, who wisely refuses to yield when talked over. And behind Wallace was an audience speckled with partisans just waiting for their chance to hoot, groan or cheer.
While there were certainly moments of chaos, Wallace kept them to a minimum not only by chastising the crowd but also by reminding them that quiet is necessary for both decorum and maintaining an atmosphere where candidates can provide their most well-reasoned answers.
Wallace knew that simply cutting off either candidate mid-ramble would result in accusations of unfair treatment, but he found a middle ground of interrupting for the sake of time management while also allowing candidates to finish their (often-tangential) thoughts.
When Trump veered from a question about immigration into discussion of Middle East policy, Wallace recognized that the commentary was still valuable and provided a brief extension: “We’re a long way away from immigration, but I’m going to let you finish this topic. You’ve got about 45 seconds.”
3. Don’t let speakers evade direct questions
While Trump and Clinton haven’t been particularly evasive when it comes to addressing their critics, they both tend to redirect conversations away from their controversial comments or actions and try to switch over to broad issues where they can speak in generalities.
Wallace was politely relentless in pressing through these deflections and ended up pinning Trump down on one of the biggest questions of the moment: Will the GOP candidate, who often complains of a “rigged election,” officially concede if the results fall in Clinton’s favor?
Here was Wallace’s admirably phrased question:
“Mr. Trump, I want to ask you about one last question in this topic. You have been warning at rallies recently that this election is rigged and that Hillary Clinton is in the process of trying to steal it from you.
“Your running mate, Governor Pence, pledged on Sunday that he and you — his words — “will absolutely accept the result of this election.” Today your daughter, Ivanka, said the same thing. I want to ask you here on the stage tonight: Do you make the same commitment that you will absolutely—sir, that you will absolutely accept the result of this election?”
When Trump attempted to sidestep the question by talking about the media being “dishonest and so corrupt,” Wallace interjected three times to force Trump back to the core issue of accepting defeat.
In doing so, Wallace didn’t just continue asking the question; he took the time to eloquently explain the gravity of the issue:
TRUMP: Chris, she should never have been allowed to run for the presidency based on what she did with e-mails and so many other things.
WALLACE: But, sir, there is a tradition in this country — in fact, one of the prides of this country — is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign that the loser concedes to the winner. Not saying that you’re necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and that the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?
TRUMP: What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense. OK?
This quickly became the most controversial comment of the night, but what should be noted is that Wallace gave Trump every opportunity to understand the historic context of the question and the publicly stated positions of his closest allies. That meant that when Trump still refused to say he would accept defeat, few could argue that he’d been goaded into a trick question or taken out of context.
In summary, Chris Wallace offered a master class in moderation at this third and final debate. While he surely has his share of critics on both sides due to his tough questioning and willingness to insert himself into the fray, he deserves high marks for being even-tempered, meticulous and fair.