To hear all the fuss about the women who moderated this month’s presidential debates, you’d think the task was akin to that of a school crossing guard: Make introductions and get out of the way. That certainly was how PBS’s Jim Lehrer ran this year’s first presidential debate, to mixed reviews. And that was the way many assumed it would go after the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) finally chose CNN’s Candy Crowley as a 2012 moderator, following a gutsy Change.org campaign run by high-school sophomores Sami Siegel, Emma Axelrod, and Elena Tsemberis.

However, Crowley was not awarded the prestigious first debate or the final debate on foreign policy; she got the town-hall-style debate, in which “undecided voters” would ask the questions. The unspoken directive from the Commission for the handling of the debates was clear,  determined “in agreement with both campaigns.” But last week, after ABC’s Martha Raddatz ran the vice-presidential debate and Crowley took her turn, TV pundits and the blogosphere began charging that both women had misbehaved: Raddatz had asked one too many follow-up questions and Crowley had performed a bit of live fact-checking. In short, they had committed journalism.

Some of us remember that these debates were once about journalism. Legally, that’s what they are, and they don’t count as political advertising. When the first TV debates began, moderators (starting with Howard K. Smith, in 1960) led panels full of working journalists who asked hard questions. In 1976, there were two female moderators, NPR’s Pauline Frederick (above left) and rising NBC star Barbara Walters (above right). Walters repeated the feat in 1984, and also served on a debate panel. Between then and 1992, those panels included more and more women, including  Diane Sawyer, Jane Bryant Quinn, and  Andrea Mitchell—all veteran journalists.

In 1992,  Carole Simpson (left),  then the anchor of the Sunday edition of ABC’s World News Tonight, broke multiple barriers as she moderated the first-ever town hall presidential debate. By then, however, our current era of pricey political consultants had begun. The League of Women Voters had already withdrawn its sponsorship of the debates,  declaring in 1988 that “it has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions.”

Nineteen ninety-two was the last year of journalist-panels. In 1996, Jim Lehrer moderated all the 1996 debates solo, and in successive election years he did the same with most, yielding occasionally only to other male anchors. (Full history here.) But as the debates became more like game shows, in the outside world women in journalism were rising, from nightly newscasts helmed by Sawyer and Katie Couric to bombshell investigations from the likes of The Washington Post‘s Dana Priest, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, and Martha Raddatz herself.

It’s perhaps appropriate, then, that two seasoned women journalists were the ones to flip the script on the low-profile moderator persona. First came Raddatz, who, barely over jet lag from one of her Afghanistan assignments, asked multiple follow-up questions and, when unsatisfied with an answer, signaled so: “No specifics, I see.”  While the pundit crowd was aghast—”Martha Raddatz is the worst moderator ever,” tweeted Sean Hannity, while Glenn Greenwald accused Raddatz of asking only “questions [that] were thus snugly within this bipartisan framework”—Raddatz’s performance was widely acclaimed. “Oh, the lost sounds of an ancient craft . . . journalism!” murmured faux-anchor Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

Perhaps emboldened by the latter, CNN’s Candy Crowley was explicit in planning a similar pattern even in the town-hall debate. Both campaigns bawled, citing agreements they had finalized with CPD calling for “minimal” moderation. But Crowley, who had never signed, proceeded in committing journalism, and designed a night to cover ground not seen elsewhere. “We tried to make sure that we had some variety in; we didn’t want all white guys or all white women,” she said on CNN afterward. “We wanted to cover subjects that maybe folks hadn’t heard about but still were interested in.”

Taking the stage with a confident smile, Crowley kept up the momentum.  Rachel Rawlings immediately noted on Facebook, “Candy Crowley is rocking the moderator’s desk, picking up the sword Martha Raddatz laid down.”  Even with 11 questioners and two unusually combative participants, the moderator kept things moving even when one of those combative moments threatened to pin the debate on one single point, Libya. It was then that Crowley contradicted one of the candidates on a mistake of fact while  careful to acknowledge the validity of his larger point—a moment that has been endlessly replayed since.

 

Crowley explains her approach to CNN colleague Soledad O’Brien below. After the debate, Rush Limbaugh accused Crowley of “journalistic terrorism,” while others focused on the moment as a faux pas violating the carefully designed debate protocol. A few shamefully,  focused on Crowley’s body size.  None of which detracts from what Crowley and Raddatz accomplished, if briefly. They used the tools of journalism to avoid staging what the League of Women Voters called “campaign-trail charades.”

Jacki Lyden exulted on debate night: “Alright: so, I’m for women moderators. Martha Raddatz was [also] brilliant.” Lyden, a 30-year veteran of the news biz,  praised “moderators who use their own voice, male or female. Please, pulpit occupiers: you do HAVE a voice, never pretend we don’t.  Just sayin': abdication of tough questions is not journalism.”

We couldn’t have said it better.  In Monday’s final debate, CBS’s tough-yet-courtly Bob Schieffer now has a lot to measure up to.