When Martha Raddatz was told last month by her bosses at ABC to expect a call on her cell phone, a lot of possibilities for who the mystery caller might be crossed her mind.
Raddatz compared the euphoric fog immediately following the call to what it must be like finding out you’ve won the lottery, with a hint of an unexpected diagnosis from your doctor.
“I had absolutely no idea. It was completely out of the blue for me,” said Raddatz, who moderated a debate during one of Ted Kennedy’s successful U.S. Senate runs during her time as a television reporter in Boston.
Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said the commission used three criteria for selecting the moderators.
The moderators must be familiar with the candidates and the issues and be able to handle hard news in a live setting, which Brown said isn’t easy or something everyone who does television news is capable of.
Lastly they have to “understand their job is to facilitate, not to be a participant,” Brown said. “The moderator’s job is to get as much information as they can from the candidates.
“Martha’s career speaks for itself in terms of her experience and her expertise at in-depth reporting,” Brown said. “She is very skilled, and I think she will do a wonderful job with the formate of the vice-presidential debate.”
Since the initial shock wore off, though, Raddatz, who is ABC’s senior foreign affairs correspondent, said she has started preparing in earnest.
The veteran correspondent is solely responsible for directing and redirecting questions during the debate, which will be divided into nine, 10-minute-long segments.
She said she has reached out to those who have been moderators in the past and follows the campaign happenings constantly.
Raddatz admits she has received almost as much unsolicited input on what to ask the candidates as she has sought. Right now, she is picking and choosing where to look for sage insights. A hint: probably not from Twitter.
“I don’t want to get caught up in the noise of all this,” Raddatz said. “I want to just think of this as an opportunity for the voters to see who these two men are, what kind of ideas they have and to be able to get to know them.”
Raddatz is unique among moderators because her itinerary typically includes trips like the one she made last week to the Middle East for the Non-Aligned Movement meetings. She consumes as much of the happenings from recent political conventions and the daily campaign trail as she can.
As always, the selection process for debate moderators has been heavily scrutinized for both political motives and meanings.
Immediately following the announcement of Raddatz’s role at Centre and CNN correspondent Candy Crowley’s selection as moderator for the townhall-style debate at Hofstra University, some of the national media coverage focused on the gender of the two veteran journalists.
Although Gwen Ifill of PBS has moderated the last two vice-presidential debates, it had been 20 years since there was a female moderator for a presidential debate before Crowley was named. A group of high school students from New Jersey reportedly started a petition to name a woman as moderator.
Raddatz knows the issue was in the news but believes all of the moderators are worthy of their positions primarily because of their news chops.
“I’m proud to be chosen, and I’m happy Bob (Schieffer) was chosen, Jim (Leher) was chosen, and Candy was chosen,” Raddatz said. “I don’t think Candy was picked because she’s a woman. I think it’s great to have some diversity in the panel, but I think we are qualified to be there regardless of gender.”
Brown referred to her statements on the criteria the commission uses to select moderators when asked about whether there was pressure to include women.
Some conservative commentators also decried Raddatz’s two-degrees of separation to the Obama administration through her ex-husband and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski. Raddatz dismisses any insinuation her work might be skewed by her relationship with Genachowski, whom she divorced 15 years ago.
“I am as down the middle as they come, and I am not partisan,” Raddatz said. “I do not approach my job, and never have, in a partisan way.”
Raddatz isn’t tipping her hand when it comes to what the candidates are in for. She said she is pleased the debate format offers the chance to find out about the candidates’ stances on both domestic policy and her current beat, foreign policy.
When she spoke about her time covering both politicians and high-level government officials, Raddatz said she expects people in public positions to understand reporters are simply conduits to the people.
“I do think it’s important for people, whatever positions of power they’re in, to give honest answers. That doesn’t mean you have to answer questions you’re not supposed to or give up national security secrets. It means you have to explain things to the public.”
Raddatz, who said she is bringing her family to Danville, has had a chance to familiarize herself with the backdrop for the debate. She said she is aware of Centre’s strong reputation and the glowing reviews the college and town received from national observers in 2000.