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Presidential debate moderators don’t hide their bias | COMMENTARY

Moderator Savannah Guthrie speaks during an NBC News Town Hall with President Donald Trump at Perez Art Museum Miami, Thursday, Oct. 15, in Miami.
Moderator Savannah Guthrie speaks during an NBC News Town Hall with President Donald Trump at Perez Art Museum Miami, Thursday, Oct. 15, in Miami. (Evan Vucci/AP)

There has been quite a lot of controversy about the presidential debates and the competing town halls between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden over whether they have been conducted on a level playing field.

They haven’t.

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The unfairness charges have focused on the moderators, with the most salient partisan claim aimed at the deception of the scheduled moderator in the eventually aborted second presidential debate.

As everyone who follows presidential rhetoric and politics knows by now, C-SPAN’s Steve Scully was scheduled to moderate the second presidential debate until he sent a tweet to Trump-hater Anthony Scaramucci soliciting advice about the president.

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Mr. Scully claimed he was hacked, and then days later, while he left his supporters twisting in the wind, said he wasn’t. C-SPAN also said that Mr. Scully was hacked, and the Trump-hating Commission on Presidential Debates echoed the hacking claim. (Seems there are a lot of Trump haters in positions of making “apolitical” decisions.)

Eventually, Mr. Scully admitted he lied and now will forever be tarnished, as well as all of his friends he allowed to publicly humiliate themselves by supporting his false claim.

The brilliant Fox News radio host Guy Benson, as honest as a journalistic pundit can be, said Mr. Scully is "the last character … that you would think would not be playing it straight and would cover up like that and get caught — it’s just stunning.”

Many others from the right and left had stood by Mr. Scully, all due to his having the perceived integrity to moderate a sure-to-be contentious debate (again, later canceled), despite his having a long history of supporting Democrats and having tweeted terribly disparaging points about the president.

The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty dutifully tweeted her belief in Mr. Scully, as did other usual suspects, but also there were credibility experts on the right who were credulous, such as Fox’s Chris Wallace and Karl Rove (say it ain’t so, Karl).

NBC moderator Savannah Guthrie’s unrelenting attack on the president at NBC’s “Town Hall” last week, including interrupting and talking over him, and haranguing him as well as dominating the time in an advertised public questioning of Mr. Trump, was praised by some as representing the tough style that debates should have. This Guthrie-Trump clash, however, was over the top, and, like George Stephanopoulos' town hall, employed a Democratic-friendly agenda and spin, with both moderators' ignoring Hunter Biden’s involvement with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. The latter town hall also included a question from an audience member who was a former Obama administration Commerce Department speechwriter.

It’s not difficult to be fair to candidates with whom you disagree. I have moderated many debates between Democratic and Republican candidates and never had a complaint. But the moderator must be more dedicated to political fairness than winning approval from his or her employer or group of professional friends. Nothing destroys disinterest like unprofessionalism.

The hatred for Mr. Trump allows people who are generally honest to rationalize that “Everything’s fair, including suspending integrity, in getting rid of Trump.”

Nice guys and gals are often not so nice when they’re under pressure, political and personal, and their honesty disappears. I’ll bet Ms. Guthrie is generally a person of fairness, until her NBC sociology demands that she not be.

None of this is to claim that fairness and probity is the provenance of the right; it is just to say that seriously ethical people are few and far between, and when honesty gets sociologically pressured, there are few who shine — but there are some. Debate commissions should expend some effort to find them.

Richard E. Vatz (rvatz@towson.edu) is a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University and author of “The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion: the Agenda-Spin Model” (LAD Custom Publishing, 2021).

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