Martha Raddatz (center) set a new national standard last night.
Photo by Courtesy Michael Reynolds
When I heard that ABC foreign correspondent Martha Raddatz was going to moderate the presidential debate, I got my hopes up a little. She has always seemed to be a serious journalist, unlike so many we've gotten used to on the screen and in print in the cable news age.
I'd also heard the reports that the Romney-Ryan campaign had added a stipulation to the debate rules that Raddatz had to call their candidate "Mr. Ryan," not his official title "Congressman Ryan." It was such an obvious political play to downplay his high-profile connection with a very unpopular Congress that I shook my head with disgust. How could a real journalist agree to such a term? Real media should not allow candidates running to become public servants to dictates terms of interviews, read questions in advance or tell journalists what we can call them. Our job is to ask good questions; theirs is to answer them.
Apparently Raddatz did not agree to the terms, or mean it if she did. When she introduced the Republican as "Congressman Paul Ryan," I knew she was going to be a different kind of debate host. And she was, moderating what is probably the only real presidential-level debate I've seen in my lifetime.
Raddatz started the debate with serious and tough questions (for the administration) about Libya and the murder of Christopher Stevens and steadily moved through her list of questions as an expert journalist should do--not chained to them but determined to ask important questions and follow-ups. In a time when journalists actually email questions to sources—a very bad policy not allowed here at the Jackson Free Press because it's not journalism—Raddatz listened carefully to the answers and interrupted both to keep the debate on track and to ask needed follow-up questions. Like when she put Ryan on the spot about how his side would pay for the 20 percent across-the-board tax cut that Romney has campaigned on for months. He couldn't answer it and waffled, offering one of the most telling moments of the debate.
But think about the question and not just the answer. In asking the question, Raddatz skipped over Mitt Romney's feigned outrage in the first presidential debate that anyone would suggest that he wanted to cut 20 percent from everyone's taxes, including the very wealthy. It wasn't true, he kept saying—but it was his denial of it that wasn't true.
Romney has promised the 20-percent across-the-board tax cut repeatedly in primary debates and in media interviews with tons of video to prove it. Raddatz ignored his debate waffle and stuck with the script that Romney has long pushed--and Ryan didn't deny that the across-the-board cut was the plan. That is, she held their feet to the fire, and denial wasn't an option. I suspect Ryan knew she would nail him on it if he lied about it, too, so he didn't. That's the way to do a real interview.
Raddatz was also very clever on the abortion question by asking the candidates to answer it in a personal way. This resulted in Ryan being forced to say out loud that his own position is that "life begins at conception"--which means no abortion, no matter what. Congressman Ryan has long supported personhood efforts that go far beyond abortion into limiting hormonal birth control like the pill, as well as other fertility treatments. And he said outright that Romney definitely wants abortion illegal but with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. He said that "unelected judges" should not make those decisions, which contradicts Romney's previous statements that he wants the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade and return it to the states (which could then outlaw abortion with no exceptions, regardless of Romney's views).
In other words, Raddatz's questioning pinned down the candidates on many fronts, opening avenues of discussion for the next presidential debate Monday night. Imagine had a journalist of her caliber and strength been the moderator for the first debate; she would have at least backed the candidates into the corner on obvious mistruths.
This is what journalists are supposed to do. We must ignore all the people who call us "biased" because we don't take their position, and be fair to the truth, not partisanship. Few stories split evenly down the middle when the facts are all in. It's not our job to leave out important facts to pretend we've objective if we know facts that make one side look worse than the other.
Each journalist should also be a factchecker—both before filing our stories, but also in interviews, or in this case, debates. Raddatz asked hard questions, and she didn't let the spin control the narrative. And she allowed the candidates to show their respective toughness, which many Republicans are saying today meant that Biden was being "rude" to Ryan. But the truth is, the audience got to see how Ryan acted and answered under pressure, and we certainly understood the points that the vice president thought were "malarkey." That sets us to do research ourselves and think about what we find instead of feeling like we must agree with everyone one or the other says.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Raddatz's approach last night, though, has been the response to her from across the nation and the globe. It's as if the world is breathing a collective sigh of relief that an American journalist is willing to be good at what they do, look powerful people in the eye and ask real, substantive questions. Most of the pundits, liberal and conservative, on cable TV fail on this point, and nearly every daily newspaper in the country sold out to the Gannetization of news over the last several decades, showing more fear of the powerful than willingness to ask them the hard questions, no matter what. We've seen an epidemic of this in state media, but it is true across the nation.
As of this morning, Raddatz was trending higher on Twitter than either Biden or Ryan (although Biden was close). People, including young viewers, responded to her tough style of journalism precisely because they are starved for it. It is high time that American media put aside the fake objectivity that causes them to split a story evenly down the partisan middle instead of reporting the truth no matter what. The people are starved for media outlets that factcheck every story (as we do here). And they are tired of the media circus that plays into the hands of politicians who lie more than they tell the truth.
Martha Raddatz set a new national standard last night. Let's hope the rest of the media, national and more local, try to live up to it.