October 21, 2020


Behind the scenes of moderating a political debate with Chicago journalist and faculty member Carol Marin

Debates have taken center stage during the dynamic 2020 Presidential election—from plexiglass shields, socially distanced audiences and candidates interrupting one another to even a fly trending on Twitter. The debate moderators’ performances also have been scrutinized and criticized. To give her take on this year’s debates and share some of her experiences as a political debate moderator is Carol Marin, award-winning Chicago journalist and director of DePaul University’s Center for Journalism Integrity and Excellence.



LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I'm you're host, Linda Blakley, vice president of University Marketing and Communications. 

With Election Day 2020 just days away, the campaign is incredibly dynamic, with news headlines changing by the hour. The country is in the midst of a recession, has an open Supreme Court seat, and is engaged in critical discussions on racial inequality and climate change. That's on top of the ongoing COVID‑19 pandemic that has taken the lives of more than 215,000 Americans. 

And from plexiglass shields, numerous candidate interruptions, socially distanced audiences, to even a fly trending on Twitter, this year's debates are like nothing the American public has seen before. Even the debate moderators have become the subject of debate. 

To discuss her own experiences as a debate moderator and to share her thoughts on the 2020 election, I'm joined this morning by Carol Marin. She is a reporter, a longtime award‑winning Chicago journalist, NBC 5 News political editor, a regular interviewer for public broadcasting on WTTW's Chicago Tonight, and the director of DePaul University's Center for Journalism Integrity & Excellence.

Carol, welcome to the DePaul Download podcast. I appreciate you speaking with me today. I can only imagine how busy you are right now.

CAROL MARIN: Thank you, Linda. It's crazy. You're right. It's crazy out here in the political landscape for all of the various issues you enumerated. And I think that you want, your desire to talk about debates absolutely is key because we count on them to help us sort all of this stuff out.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Let's start with a background question. For those who may not be familiar, can you talk about your experience with political debates?  And which debates have you moderated?

CAROL MARIN: I've moderated so many of them I've lost count, but they include gubernatorial debates between Republicans, Democrats in the primary and in the runoffs or in the general elections, mayoral debates between Lori Lightfoot and Tony Preckwinkle, Rahm Emanuel and Chuy Garcia, debates that include lower down-ballot offices, like clerk of the circuit court. So I've juggled a lot of these various debate balls.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So how did you get involved in this aspect of reporting? Was it always something you wanted to do?

CAROL MARIN: It was not even something I really thought about doing. However, I was a high school and a college debater, so I spent time on debate teams, and I pretty much understand the various formats. And often, when I've moderated something, we have gone to great lengths not to call it a debate because a debate has a set amount of a closing, an opening, different kinds of times for Q&A. 

We call ours forums more often than debates because we specify we're not going to ask every candidate the same question. If they filibuster, we're going to interrupt. We're going to try to mix it up, make it fair, but at the same time not make it so regimented that you can't get through the rules to get to the conversation.

LINDA BLAKLEY: And that's what we want to get to, the conversation. 

So what has been your most rewarding moderating experience and why?

CAROL MARIN: My most rewarding ‑‑ boy, that's a complicated question. I will tell you that one of the really interesting debates I moderated was the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial debate with J.B. Pritzker, Chris Kennedy, Daniel Biss, Bob Daiber, Tio Hardiman and Bob Marshall. What a various and varied collection of candidates. 

One of the most interesting things was I asked each of the candidates to say something good about his opponent. Was there one thing that at least they could say to commend that candidate? 

Pritzker answered about Chris Kennedy, "I think he's a" ‑‑ I think something like "a wonderful family man," et cetera. The two of them are standing very close to each other, pretty close to me, in a pre‑COVID 19 world. And I go to Kennedy, and Kennedy, who's heard the question given to Pritzker, so he's had time to think about it, still cannot think of something good to say about J.B. Pritzker. 

And what was so interesting about that is there are moments in debates, Linda, that sort of reveal more than the candidate can say in a press release or on a website. 

And Kennedy really was upset with himself for not coming up with something good to say about Pritzker and later in the press conferences that followed the forum sort of lamented that he should have come up with something more positive.

But it was an interesting, honest, complicated moment revealed to the voters on camera.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Given what we've seen during this year's debates, what would you say was the most challenging debate you've ever moderated and how did you navigate that situation?

CAROL MARIN: One of the most challenging was the 2019 mayoral runoff between Lori Lightfoot and Tony Preckwinkle because the two of them arrived girded for battle. 

And Lightfoot was outraged even before we began at some of the things that she felt Preckwinkle said that were affronts to her candidacy and to her integrity. And so Lightfoot from the beginning was almost shaking with rage. 

Preckwinkle was kind of a stalwart opponent of that, and right out of the box, the first question, they pretty much jumped away from the question and into the boxing ring with each other. 

They were very hard to separate. And at one point, and I've never done this before, I said like a mom with kids, "I'm calling a time‑out." You know, "Stop. Just let me ask the question. I will allow each of you to answer." But it was, it was a kind of crazy time.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Would that you had been a part of that first presidential debate. 

So based on your moderator experiences, what three skills help you the most?

CAROL MARIN: Number one, preparation. So you, and this is something at DePaul we try to teach our journalism students, there are well‑asked questions and poorly asked questions. And we try to ask questions that I call the tip of the spear. You don't say, "How would you fix climate change?" Too big a question. They could go on for years on that one if they had the wherewithal.

So you try to refine and reduce it to, "You took a position on carbon dioxide admissions that you later changed. What was the change in your thinking?" 

It sort of takes the global issue of climate change but allows you to penetrate one aspect of it to see how they're thinking about it. So preparation is one, Linda.

Number two is listening. You can have all the great questions on your list that you want, but if you're not listening, if you're glued to your list, you might miss a candidate saying, "And in point of fact, I'm a communist." And you don't hear it, and you don't go, wait, stop, screech. "What did you say?"  You know, and so listening is key.

And then the third skill is some sense of humor, some willingness to let a light moment arrive in the midst of all that seriousness just to give the audience a break and maybe the candidates a breather.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I'm going to be looking for that in the next debate I observe.

Switching topics, then, to this year's presidential election, you refer to the first presidential debate as “a rugged 90 minutes."

Susan Page and Chris Wallace were criticized for not enforcing more control over the first presidential and the vice presidential debates. What could they have done differently that would have led to more productive conversations?

CAROL MARIN: I think they should have started out sternly. 

I think that they needed to set the table in the beginning and then return and repeat the rules that they enumerated, and they didn't do that. I don't know if that was in collaboration with the Presidential Commission on Debates or not, but I saw one commentator, Linda, refer to that first debate as “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck." And it was all of those things and more. 

I thought in the beginning Wallace and Page were so deferential, so part of the inside the Washington beltway kind of thinking, that they let the train run away before they could, you know, bring down the guard gates.

And for Ms. Page, the kind of "Thank you, Mr. Vice President.  Thank you, Mr. Vice President," she wasn't stopping him.  And at some point, and I know they were loath to do it, you've got to say, "Stop. I'm the moderator. You'll get your answer, but do not interrupt your," you know, "fellow combatant."

Would it have worked? You know, I don't know. With Donald Trump, I'm not sure you could have stopped him or Vice President Biden. 

But Kamala Harris in response to a Susan Page question utterly ignored the question and said, "I'd like to give you my biography." Well, no. Answer the question. And so I was yelling at my TV, Linda, through both of those debates.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I think a lot of people were yelling at the TV, me included. 

As of today's recording, we still aren't sure if there will be even one other debate. And the situation may have changed before we hit publish on this episode, but do you think this debate cycle will lead to any changes in future presidential debates to ensure a successful dialogue occurs?

CAROL MARIN: Yes. And I have a lot of confidence in the Presidential Commission on Debates. 

You know, Newton Minow, who is my dear friend and mentor, is the father of those debates, the father of the Kennedy‑Nixon debate conducted right here in the studios of WBBM in Chicago, and he remains on that commission to this day at the age of 93. They really earnestly, sincerely want these debates to be a civic conversation that can inform the electorate before they go to the polls. 

And so I know they are agonizing and thinking and trying to find ways to structure these things so that they don't become irrelevant, because that's really the problem. Once debates or those kinds of forums become irrelevant, then you might as well just pick up a mud wrestling pit, plunk it in the middle of a studio, and tell them to go at it, because the value is truly being lost.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Last month you announced that you will be retiring from WTTW and NBC 5 News after the November general election. So what's next for you?

CAROL MARIN: I don't call it retirement, one, because I don't particularly like the word; but, two, because I'm just leaving the broadcasting stage. 

For me it was time. And I like the idea of picking my own time. I like the fact that I still love what I do, and I still think it's pretty solid work that I can be proud of, and so better to leave at a high moment than a low moment and better to pick your point of departure, and so I've picked mine. 

But I remain on the faculty of the College of Journalism at DePaul, and I continue to be a co-director of the Center for Journalism Integrity & Excellence, where we take seniors and graduate students just about to jump into the profession; and my co-director, Don Moseley, who's been my longtime producer, and I try to give them one final deep dive into complicated reporting but with a heavy emphasis on ethics problem‑solving, because all of these students are going to run into newsrooms and find themselves in the midst of some new ethical problem. 

It's been true for me for all these years, and we want to give them the skills to figure out how to always maintain their integrity in the midst of screamingly fast deadlines and demands of bosses, how you still maintain the integrity of your work. 

So that's what I'll be doing. And in the meantime, I also have two book projects that we are at work on.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So, Carol, one final question. What advice would you give to future journalists interested in moderating debates?

CAROL MARIN: Ooh, take a deep breath. Make sure you're taking vitamins, hydrate. 

You know, it is, I'll tell you, when I'm in the midst of it, Linda, when I'm on that stage and I'm watching, I'm watching the floor director's time in trying to separate yelling candidates, that hour ends up being a blur, and I walk off the stage, and I go to Don Moseley, who has produced all of these that I have moderated, and I say to him before I talk to anyone, "Was it any good?" And I know he'll tell me the truth. 

So you have to have, if you're going to moderate a debate, you're not a soloist. You rely on all of your colleagues who are going to help you through that, but then you have to really rely on your preparedness because that basically will bolster your confidence in making this a good hour‑long presentation.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Thank you, Carol, for joining me today. It was really delightful to hear your insights on the ongoing 2020 presidential election and to learn more about your experiences as a political debate moderator.

It will be interesting to hear what happens next as we count down to election day, and I'll be listening to debates with new insights thanks to you.

CAROL MARIN: It's been my total pleasure. 

And, Linda, I'll just add one more thing, later in the month I'm going to moderate a Zoom debate. Oh, Lord help me, Zoom debate, with Dick Durbin and his four opponents for the US Senate. And that is going to be the day after he votes on Amy Coney Barrett's nomination to the Supreme Court.

But Zoom adds a new and really complicated layer to this because, as you know, the voice that's talking can overtake the screen of the other person that's talking, and it can be like a roulette wheel. So I would say, Linda, pray for me.

LINDA BLAKLEY: You got it. 

I'm Linda Blakley. Thank you for listening to another episode of DePaul Download presented by DePaul's Division of University Marketing and Communications.