Debate Moderator Ethics: Martha Raddatz, Conflicts of Interest, and the Appearance of Impropriety

In any election, especially a closely contested one, the role of debate moderator must be filled by a professional with absolutely no personal or professional ties to either candidate or his running mate, so as to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, bias, or conflict of interest.

ABC just made my head explode. How’s yours?

Is this basic and obvious ethics principle really so elusive that ABC never considered it?

We learned today that ABC’s Martha Raddatz, a senior foreign correspondent and the assigned moderator for this week’s Vice Presidential debate, was once married to a high-ranking member of the Obama administration, FCC head Julius Genachowski, and President Obama was a guest at their wedding.






Under no circumstances, in this hyper-partisan environment when “that handkerchief was a cheat sheet!” conspiracy theories follow a transparent debate thrashing, and a professional moderator who does his job, like Jim Lehrer, is used as a scapegoat to excuse a supposed master of communication who forgot to make eye contact while speaking, should a debate moderator be tolerated who has these kinds of connections to either Presidential ticket. Isn’t that obvious? If it wasn’t obvious to Raddatz and ABC, why not? What’s the matter with them?

Both moderator and network had  absolute ethical obligations to 1) on their own, figure out that Raddatz could not fill the role of objective, trustworthy moderator, however hard she tries, and 2) at very least disclose these apparent conflicts in timely fashion to both candidates and their parties in timely, so they could register their concerns and veto the moderator. This is something both parties and all the candidates should be able to agree on. If one thinks of Raddatz’s role as the equivalent of a judge in a trial, she would absolutely be required to recuse herself on the basis of “appearance of impropriety,’ a core judicial ethics principle. In judging, and in moderating debates, fairness and objectivity and the appearance of fairness and objectivity are paramount.

ABC has responded to the revelations with this jaw-dropping statement:

“This is absurd. Martha Raddatz is known for her tough, fair reporting, which is why it was no surprise to her colleagues inside and outside ABC News that she was chosen by the Commission on Presidential Debates for this assignment. Barack Obama was a law school classmate of Raddatz’s ex-husband Julius Genachowski at Harvard. At the time Barack Obama was a student and president of the Law Review. He attended their wedding over two decades ago along with nearly the entire Law Review, many of whom went on to successful careers including some in the Bush administration. Raddatz and Mr. Genachowski divorced in 1997 and both are now remarried.”

Unbelievable. Clearly, ethics isn’t just ignored at the network; it isn’t even recognized. Let’s examine this ridiculous set of rationalizations irrelevancies in detail:

  • “This is absurd.If ABC means a that it is absurd for a broadcast network that has been in the news business for more than 70 years to have forgotten everything it ever knew about trustworthiness and ethics, yes, it is absurd.
  • “Martha Raddatz is known for her tough, fair reporting..” Irrelevant! She’s not reporting here, she is moderating in a high-profile adversarial setting where her conduct of the debate will be under close scrutiny. It doesn’t matter if she’s the greatest reporter since Lois Lane–she has personal and professional ties to the Democratic tickets, making the perception of objectivity impossible. 
  • “…which is why it was no surprise to her colleagues inside and outside ABC News that she was chosen..” What do the reactions of her largely left-biased colleagues have to do with anything? Who cares whether they were “surprised” or not? I suppose if you work at ABC, you’re not surprised when they or one of your colleagues show a complete absence of basic ethical instincts and principles, since it is business as usual—so what?
  • “…by the Commission on Presidential Debates for this assignment.” If it didn’t know about this connection between Raddatz and Obama, the Commission did an incompetent job of vetting moderator candidates. If it did know, and chose a conflicted moderator anyway, it did a disgraceful job.
  • Barack Obama was a law school classmate of Raddatz’s ex-husband Julius Genachowski at Harvard. At the time Barack Obama was a student and president of the Law Review. He attended their wedding over two decades ago along with nearly the entire Law Review, many of whom went on to successful careers including some in the Bush administration. Raddatz and Mr. Genachowski divorced in 1997 and both are now remarried.” Irrelevant, irrelevant, irrelevant! This is a textbook appearance of impropriety situation. If you have to explain why an apparent conflict isn’t one, than it is one, as far as perceptions are concerned. How do we know that because they aren’t married, Raddatz and Genachowski’s lives aren’t still connected? Is he paying her financial support? Is she paying him? What happens if he loses his job with a Romney win? Are they still friends? Close friends? Friends with benefits? The public not only shouldn’t have to speculate on such matters, it must not.

Is ABC really this stupid, or does it just think we are?

It is in the vital interests of both parties, all candidates, the public, the integrity of the debate process and the elections themselves that the moderators of all the debates have no conceivable conflicts or apparent loyalties to one ticket or the other. This is beyond argument. It is Ethics for Dummies.

Candidate Biden and Candidate Ryan, and their parties, should insist that Raddatz be replaced.


Facts: Daily Caller

Source: Politico


Filed under Government & Politics, Journalism & Media

12 responses to “Debate Moderator Ethics: Martha Raddatz, Conflicts of Interest, and the Appearance of Impropriety

  1. urbanregor

    While, i take no issue with your argument as to the ethics of a moderator with ties to either candidate, I think your criticism is miss-directed. The fact that she works for ABC is irrelevant in my opinion for two reasons: 1. ABC is not the exclusive broadcaster of this event and played no role in her being chosen as moderator. They have no ethical responsibility here. 2. Your beef, if you have one is with the Commission on Presidential Debates. ( It’s very likely (but I can’t be certain) that the campaign teams negotiated every aspect of this debate, including the moderator. If both parties agreed to the terms, I don’t see that there’s an issue, unless the agreement was made without Ms. Raddatz disclosing her connections to one candidate, no matter how tenuous.

    I think you’re being overly harsh, and unnecessarily so, to ABC, and perhaps Ms. Raddatz herself.

    FYI, while I comment less, I still read your blog regularly. I do this in a sincere effort to understand, and educate myself on positions that I may not hold, but want to hear from what I consider a trusted source. I look forward to your response….

    • Why is ABC defending her, then? i don’t know, but I’m pretty sure she’s not doing the moderating as an independent contractor—I’m pretty sure she’s being paid by ABC News, and their credibility is on the line.

  2. urbanregor

    Are you saying that ABC is paying her to moderate the debate? Do you think the the commission has a broader role to play here? If she’s not being paid by ABC “for this debate” (and based on its being broadcast on multiple channels, I sincerely doubt it), I’m struggling to find the ethical violation. Please help…

    • She will be doing it as a member of the ABC News staff, and will be so introduced. I don’t see why the universal broadcast changes anything. ABC benefits directly from the prestige and publicity. And as an employee, she is bound by the organization’s and the profession’s ethical standards, You might be right about compensation—I don’t know. But her employer will be mentioned—is always is. She certainly had to get their permission. She’s an employee—she’s under contract to ABC. If anyone knows how this works, I’d love to be enlightened.


  3. urbanregor

    I’ve been researching and am quickly forming the opinion that what is needed is more information from the commission. they appear to negotiate with the two main parties and do not disclose contracts publicly. The participation rules also seem to make it next to impossible for 3rd party candidates to participate. They accept corporate sponsors, and charge news organizations for access to filing equipment and job related resources. You’re right about the moderators network getting publicity, but they appear to try and spread the wealth. Although I’m not sure if a Fox journalist has ever moderated??? But I would equate the moderators role as one that is separate from journalistic obligations to their network. So while we likely have more questions than answers now, I’m still reluctant to put the ethical responsibility on ABC. I find it hard to believe that the Romney camp didn’t know about Raddatz’ ties to the administration when they signed off on her as a moderator. if this was in fact the case, i believe that an ethical violation does not exist. But you’re the expert. I’m just trying to learn something….

    • Me too. If the Romney campaign OR Obama campaign knew and agreed, 1) she still shouldn’t have done it, because it violates journalistic ethics, 2) The Commission shouldn’t have allowed it, and 2) the campaigns are run by idiots.

      I think it’s per se disqualifying—what we want is absolute public trust.

    • This Guy

      Not terribly germane to the topic, but more access to the debates isn’t necessarily a good thing. I agree that the game is rigged against third parties, but more podiums on the stage isn’t the answer. Witness the party debates before you’re sure you disagree.

  4. Eric R

    This reminds me of growing up when my father was the church accountant. He established the rule that two people always counted the offerings together and they couldn’t be related. My father and I counting together? Nope. My father counting with the plate with my girlfriend? Nope. My father and my girlfriend’s father counting together. Yep, that’s OK.

    My guess is the committee considered the relevant facts and decided that the distance between Raddatz and the Obama campaign was sufficiently large as to not cause concern. Frankly, the story plays out a bit like Simone explaining Ferris’ absence in Ferris Bueler’s Day Off,

    “Um, he’s sick. My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night. I guess it’s pretty serious.?”

    Regardless, there are at least five parties that could have, should have raised concerns … Raddatz, ABC News, the commission, the Romney campaign, and the Obama campaign. The only logical conclusion is none of them considered this to be serious enough to warrant removing Raddatz. With all five parties OK with this moderator, there is no relevant reason to object.

    • Eeyoure

      Eric (appreciating the quote from the movie!), I believe only two of those five – the commission and the Romney campaign – have any incentive (or, reason for incentive) to check diligently for (and act upon) any actual, potential for, or appearance of, the specific conflict of interest that Jack alludes to. I suspect the Romney campaign flat-out missed the “connection of dots,” but would have objected if they had caught it; I am troubled, just for being suspicious.

      It is not difficult to imagine the commission knowingly giving Raddatz a pass, with rationale tied to some conception of “degrees of separation” (much like Ferris’s absence-excuser). From another perspective, assuming Romney has spoken previously against federal funding for PBS, that didn’t stop the selection of Jim Lehrer to moderate the recent Romney-Obama debate – but should that conflict between Romney’s and Lehrer’s interests have mattered, anyway? (I don’t think so.)

      I wonder: Where is a moderator, save for someone who’s lived reclusively for over a decade like self-isolated Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), who could be unquestionably unconflicted in any manner with any and all positions of two candidates like Obama and Romney? I don’t think we need a standard for debate moderators that stretches to the extreme of, say, requiring that the U.N. Secretary General be the head of state of a far-from-all-shipping-lanes, mid-oceanic island of population = 1.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.