Long experience in politics and campaigns convinces me that debates are the most important way voters can ponder the competing arguments of candidates, but I'm also convinced that there should be as little intervention by a debate moderator as possible. Also, candidates should be at podiums or seated, not roaming the venue like TV talk show hosts (the classic "Phil Donahue" role). The theatrics of potential physical intimidation are just too great to allow candidates to get into each others' faces.
Last night's second presidential debate was valuable in letting viewers hear how the two candidates respond directly to each other's criticism and records. However, the involvement of Candy Crowley of CNN should have been limited in advance to asking the questions and keeping the contestants to their time limits--and preventing interruptions. A moderator can stop interruptions, by the way; but it takes real determination and the stakes are so high that you can't blame the candidates for trying to get their licks in whenever possible.
Crowley is a journalist and an able one. However, mindful of her vocation as journalist, she shrewdly refused to be bound by the candidates' own agreement that she was not to interject herself with follow-up questions or other observations. They had agreed between themselves, but she had not signed onto any such agreement. Obviously, if they wanted a truly neutral moderator, the organizers should have hired a professional debate instructor and given him or her a contract that stipulated non-involvement in such testy matters as fact-checking. They also could have done that with a journalist, too. That, in fact, is what happened with Jim Lehrer in the first debate.
The whole Libya imbroglio was an example of my overall point. Different sides on a contentious issue have different interpretations of what the facts are, let alone what the facts mean. (Did Mr. Obama describe the consulate killings as a "terror attack" the day after it, or was his terror reference only indirect and was is it not the main thrust of the Administration's position that a private, online video had provoked a violent demonstration in Benghazi?) You have to sympathize with Ms Crowley for doing her best to referee on that subject, but her difficulties (which have consequences, as she acknowledged later) show why it should have been settled going in that she was not to be a fact-checker or validator.
I'm not saying that journalists can't be good moderators, just that the role of dispassionate moderator contradicts how most reporters these days see their vocation. Something may be lost by having a moderator who isn't given any room for taking sides, but the refreshing opportunity to let the candidates speak for themselves--and in front of each other--more than compensates for the loss. We aren't electing a moderator.
Try to imagine the Lincoln-Douglas debates if a journalist had taken part to ask questions and serve as on-the-spot fact-checker!