George Stephanopoulos still looks rather boyish at 56, so perhaps it’s possible not to think of him as middle-aged with a lot of history, especially of the Washington kind. Who could forget him hunched in a chair over to the side of the stage at the Clinton White House’s grumpy, to not say barely-restrained furious, press briefing after the disastrous 94 mid-term elections? And of course, a big reason for the electoral disaster was their Health Care plan, in which Hillary was a prime mover. How did George and Hillary get along? Were the hives he apparently broke out in all Bill’s fault? As they piled the pressure on the earnest little policy wonk? And what exactly is true in Primary Colors? And yes, he’s said he was more like Josh than Rob Lowe’s character in The West Wing. It makes sense to put some distance between himself and the brat-packer. And there’s all that money donated to the Clinton’s foundation. Which is George’s business.

Until he gets to moderate presidential debates. In which Hillary Clinton is the sole – for now – Democrat candidate. When it comes to commentators it’s hard to find true arm’s-length relationships. George Will, Stephanopoulos’ colleague at ABC of course, was part of the debate-gate controversy in 1980 as an advisor to Reagan. But Will’s controversy came after the debate as a commentator in the media. Not as a moderator of the debate itself. So the criticism of Stephanopoulos by Rand Paul – whose father debated under the moderation of Stephanopoulos – is fair game.

But the stage, literally and figuratively, on which this latest controversy on presidential debates is taking place is Big Media itself. And the fact that moderators seem to come from the ranks of journalists rather than academics or judges or other experts. Is this as it should be? That’s a tough one to call, as removing the press – however hostile or biased would be seen as censorship. Certainly by those who felt it damaged their message more than that of others. And they would have a point. De Tocqueville, writing on censorship and the liberty of the press, which he saw as a necessary evil, said the following:

You have been led from the extreme of independence to the extreme of servitude without finding a single tenable position on the way at which you could stop.

Wise words from a brilliant mind, but there’s a problem with De Toqueville’s warning. Very few in today’s world, on either side of the cultural wars, view the mainstream press as truly independent but rather as the voice of one or other vested interest. Given this polarized partisanship, perceived and real, it is truly difficult to find a moderator like Jim Lehrer that is viewed both as knowledgeable and fair. George Stephanopoulos does not really come close, and controversies over his previous role as a moderator attest to that. If he does keep the job, then likely we will see tit for tat tactics with immoderate moderators playing a gotcha game of musical chairs: each having his or her chance to take aim at their favorite targets, sorry candidates. Are we already there? Or can a reasonably neutral voice be found?

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