Immoderate Moderators?

When you think of political debate moderators, you think of old school types like Jim Lehrer and, over the years, Edwin Newman or Sander Vanocur. These journalists could be relied upon to navigate discussions dispassionately and professionally – and occasionally keeping the peace.

Welcome to the 21st century, folks. According to the AFL-CIO, a certain MSNBC host and frequent George Bush critic is going to moderate an upcoming Democratic debate held by the union:

Keith Olbermann, whose biting, pull-no-punches commentaries on MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," have been known to spike the blood pressure of their targets—ask Fox News' belligerent right-winger Bill O'Reilly—will moderate the AFL-CIO Presidential Candidates Forum in Chicago on Aug. 7.
The debate will consist of some questions posed by AFL-CIO members in an online contest as well as a number of questions from Olbermann himself.

As you'd expect when a partisan personality gets involved in a debate, it's causing a stir in some media quarters. One critical view comes from Inside Cable News:

A year and a half ago MSNBC could have probably worked Olbermann in to moderate a debate without drawing too much fire. But not now. Not after Olbermann has firmly placed himself on the left side of the political spectrum with numerous Special Commnets/attacks at the Republican administration, and one aimed at the Democratic Congress for not having a spine to stand up to Bush on the Iraq War, I don't see how anyone can watch Olbermann moderate a debate without thinking of his biases. MSNBC is taking a big risk here.
So is MSNBC really taking a big risk? At first blush, you'd think so. (I did.) But when you take a step backwards, let the concept breathe a tad and get over the This Isn't The Way We've Done Things Before, you realize it's different, yeah, and a tad unorthodox … but it could be an interesting change of pace.

I'm not an Olbermaniac, mind you, but in today's polarized media landscape, this concept could generate a little more heat and light than the traditional format. Most importantly, the AFL-CIO forum isn't coming at the cost of a regular debate. It's not as if this is the only opportunity we have to find out more about the candidates – there have been more than a handful of Republican and Democratic debates and it's only July, with a pair on CNN scheduled before the AFL-CIO event.

Olbermann – and his political Moriarty, Bill O'Reilly – engages with a sizable constituency of Americans who have their own concerns, priorities and partisan worldviews. A chance for each of them to address the candidates would speak to their viewers in a way that the unbiased professorial approach doesn't. I think each of them should be encouraged to moderate a debate of the candidates they sympathize with. (Wishful thinking, sure, but a chance for them to challenge the other side would be Must See TV, thought though it would never happen in today's carefully choreographed campaign environment, where the Democrats won't even participate in a Fox News Channel debate.)

So have at it, Keith. Consider it for a moment, Bill. (Or if Bill passes, how about Rush?) The more information we have about the men who want to run America -- regardless of who pokes and prods them – the better. After all, knowledge is power.