Instead of knocking moderators, let's knock the format, which the campaigns ultimately control. Back in the early 1990s, Walter Goodman of the New York Times called for a debate template that forced candidates "accustomed to delivering bromides on the stump and toying with interviewers" to actually grapple with issues. Forget about time limits, Goodman counseled, writing:
When the usual slogans start popping out, leave it to the moderator to remind the candidate what the question is, and to press for a straight answer.
The candidates could also be compelled to confront each other, give and take, no place to hide. Instead of the charges and insinuations that float through their commercials, there could be rebuttals and counter rebuttals. A tough, fair reporter—and specimens are available on all the networks—can abet that healthy process, too.
Who could oppose Marquis of Queensberry-style rules governing 90-minute championship bouts between the candidates? Surely not WorldNetDaily, Michelle Malkin, or Tim Graham. The only candidate afraid of showing what they've got is the candidate who's got nothing to show.
No discussion of Gwen Ifill is complete without mentioning the laden-with-innuendo 245-word piece that she co-bylined with Maralee Schwartz and the late Ann Devroy for the Jan. 10, 1989, Washington Post about Jennifer Fitzgerald. Many had gossiped in the absence of proof that President George H.W. Bush had had an affair with Fitzgerald, so the politically connected knew exactly what Ifill, Schwartz, and Devroy had on their minds when they wrote this in their lede:
Jennifer Fitzgerald, who has served President-elect George Bush in a variety of positions, most recently running the vice presidential Senate offices, is expected to be named deputy chief of protocol in the new administration, sources said yesterday.
Send similarly scurrilous ledes to email@example.com. And remind me to revisit Ifill's book when it comes out in January. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)