US presidential debate moderator and Fox News anchor Chris Wallace (Image: EPA/Olivier Douliery/POOL)

Traditionally, in journalism, if you outrage both sides of the political equation then you must be doing your job.

Yet in the case of US presidential debate moderator Chris Wallace, it is seen as evidence of failure.

The vitriol has been widespread, with few defending his handling of the debacle of a debate. The veteran broadcaster was accused of “losing control” by other seasoned journalists.

The left blamed him for Trump’s rampage; the right accused him of aiding and abetting Joe Biden.

The fact that the highly respected and experienced Wallace works for Fox News makes it even more divisive and confusing. He is the token leftie at Fox, so no wonder his own colleagues are relishing joining in the attacks.

What is agreed by all sides is that it was an appalling spectacle — uncomfortable to watch and little help to either candidate. Yet how much can the moderator be blamed?

Not as much as he has been, I would argue.

As someone who has worked as a presenter on a right-wing television network, I have moderated many discussions with numerous Trump wannabees.

The first thing that should be noted is that it is as much about theatre as it is about content. Indeed, let’s not pretend that even free-to-air television has not blurred the line between news and entertainment.

I too have been accused of “losing control” of a program.

No matter how many ground rules you lay down before going to air, once the red light goes on it can be a free-for-all. And it’s not just the guests doing the arguing and interrupting.

Ideally the moderator should remain impartial. But when the crazy is dialled up too far, it’s difficult not to lose your patience, as Wallace did, and weigh into the debate.

Often the only way you can try to regain control is to interject — and if pleading doesn’t work you find you have to keep raising your voice. That always leads to a backlash, not just from the guests but the audience as well.

I was famous for my eye-rolling over some of the more outrageous comments by former Sky contributor Ross Cameron, but eventually that wasn’t enough.

It prompted Ross to quip after I had talked over him once too often: “Are you paid by the interruption?”. At least he said it with humour.

Being a female, the personal abuse from viewers was always centred on my “shrill” voice, even though the numerous males screaming on Sky were never called out for it. (At least when attacked by the left it’s usually about your alleged political bias, not your appearance).

It’s not realistic to simply mute the offenders’ microphone, as some are suggesting ahead of the next US debate. On the rare occasions we resorted to that, when you couldn’t hear anything bar the shouting, it did not mute the attacks on the presenter from on and off the air.

Sometimes when there was no way to de-escalate the argument, you throw to a commercial break and give everyone a time-out — but this option was not available to Wallace in the 90-minute ad-free program.

On one occasion even that didn’t work for me, as two macho men refused to stop arguing in the break and had to be hurriedly pushed off set as I told them to take it outside. Not surprisingly, they skulked to their cars rather than have a physical confrontation.

It’s not as easy as it looks when you’re on the other side of the camera and dealing with bully boys.

Luckily the moderators of our own election debates are dealing with reasonably civilised adults. For now.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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