Moderating a debate? Good luck with that

The worst job in America today might be moderating a presidential debate. The candidates know that attacking the messenger charges up the base. TV viewers sit with Twitter by their sides, ready to turn any utterance into a stream of snark.

Maria Bartiromo is excited anyway.

“There’s a reason that we do these debates,” the Fox Business News anchor told me. “And the reason is to help the voter better understand and better distinguish between all of these candidates’ proposals.”

That’s true, but it’s only part of the story. Like all the GOP primary debates, the one that Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto will helm Tuesday on the Fox Business Network promises to be some mix of high-minded democracy and bread-and-circus entertainment.

And this year, ratings for debates have been record-high. That means they’re critical for growing or struggling cable networks: a moment of glory, a revenue stream.

And for candidates, more viewers lead to more desperation. Cavuto expects they’ll seize on the chance to skewer one another.

In that context, it’s not easy to referee the clock, manage 10 towering egos, and try to keep every answer from devolving into a boring stump speech. Last weekend’s Ben Carson-led coalition, which threatened to boycott debates unless a list of demands were met, was quickly exposed for the political posturing that it was. And Fox Business Network set Tuesday’s ground rules well before the attempted mutiny.

Some of those rules should please the candidates. Some won’t.

While Bartiromo is wary of personal questions, she says a candidate’s behavior is fair game if it suggests how he or she would run the country.

“The candidates should be able to answer whatever comes their way,” she said.

That’s the biggest argument against the campaigns’ gripes: The world is unpredictable and oftentimes obnoxious. So there’s little currency in a would-be president complaining that a questioner was mean. Yes, there’s a difference between toughness and snideness; the CNBC moderators laced some reasonable questions with ill-advised quips.

But their bigger fault was losing control of the room – at one point, Becky Quick apologized to Donald Trump for making a factual statement. Bartiromo and Cavuto say they’ll correct facts in real time, when they can.

The first rule of Fight Club Moderator is: Be prepared.

The second rule is: Decide how to handle Trump. Do you treat him seriously, or challenge his right to exist? Bartiromo sides with respect.

“Look, I go back to the voter,” she said. “Who’s been at the top of the polls? ... You have to base everything you’re doing on reality and on what the voter is telling you.”

The voter has a lot of demands, it turns out. Let Trump be Trump, but not too much. Inform us. Entertain us. Be tough. Be kind. To the moderators: Good luck with that.

Joanna Weiss writes for the Boston Globe.