Michael Aron on What Makes for a Great Political Debate on TV

John Mooney | May 11, 2017 | Elections 2017, Politics
A look behind the scenes at the intense preparations going into the NJ Spotlight and NJTV co-coverage of the second Democratic gubernatorial debate

Michael Aron, moderator of tonight's Democratic gubernatorial debate, does some homework.
Michael Aron, long-time political correspondent for NJN and now NJTV public TV and widely regarded as the dean of New Jersey’s press corps, will be moderating tonight’s debate between four men seeking to be the Democratic nominee for New Jersey’s next governor.

The debate — co-hosted by NJTV and NJ Spotlight — will be broadcast live from NJTV’s studio in Newark, starting at 8 p.m. It will also be live-streamed on our websites with running commentary and fact-checking by our reporters.

But much of the direct attention tonight will be on Aron and his handling of the candidates in what is a high-pressure balancing act. The following are excerpts of a conversation that NJ Spotlight founding editor John Mooney held with Aron yesterday, as he was preparing for the show.

NJ Spotlight: For all your experience, Michael, I believe this is the first time that you have moderated a political debate alone. What’s that like?

Aron: It’s like getting ready for your own wedding. It is the only thing you can think about. I have been preparing for weeks, making notes. I have too many papers all over the place, with scattered notes. But I’m 75 percent there, and I need to nail down the final 25 percent before (tonight).

NJ Spotlight: Talk about the process that all of us at NJTV and NJ Spotlight have been going through to prepare for this.

Aron: It’s been incredibly thorough, and impressively so. I think people would be surprised. I don’t know if other news organizations put in this amount of time to come up with good questions and cultivate and curate the questions. We’ve had three or four sessions here at NJTV. We had one over the weekend at the boss’s house at 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning, a little earlier than I’m accustomed to.

We’re refining and refining and refining. You could do this endlessly, but at some point we have to call it to a halt.

NJ Spotlight: And that’s not including the technical work. This studio isn’t exactly built for a live public debate. You’ve added a whole second studio, and you have a partner in NJ Spotlight who will help do some online commentary right from the newsroom. What’s all that like?

Aron: It’s a much more complicated undertaking than you would imagine in just turning on your television set and watching it. The technical side of it is probably 75 percent to 80 percent. Lights have to be right, the camera angles have to be right, the seating has to be right, the timing of the candidate answers has to be right. Switches have to work, Internet connections have to work. It is really quite elaborate.

NJ Spotlight: Going back to your career, what have been the highlights of doing these kinds of events?

Aron: In terms of the debates, I had (Essex County executive candidates) Tom Giblin and Joe DiVincenzo in the studio maybe 25 years ago just going at each other like dogs for a half-hour. I had Willie Brown and whoever he was running against for his Assembly seat in Newark that year also just ragging on each other, pitifully.

I have interviewed all the major players over the years, and the highlight might be when Bill Clinton almost took my head off for no good reason. I asked him why he changed his positions on things so readily, and I was told later that was probably the 82nd time that day he’d been asked that question. But I guess I was the one who set him off. He just lit into me.

NJ Spotlight: Who would be the top three in the New Jersey’s debating Hall of Fame, politicians who are really good in this setting we are about to dive into?

Aron: Interesting question. I don’t remember Tom Kean as an especially good debater. I think Christie Whitman was a good debater. I think Chris Christie is a good debater, although at NJTV’s debate in 2013, Barbara Buono matched him stride for stride. She was extremely good that night, showing for once she belonged on the same stage as him.

NJ Spotlight: Back to this one, what are you hoping to get out of tonight? Will it be one of those passionate brawls like DiVincenzo and Giblin?

Aron: I hope so. Those are always entertaining.

Actually, I hope for a spirited debate that walks us through the top issues in the state and shows these candidates off at their best — but that also reveals the distinctions between them and their proposals.

NJ Spotlight: Perfect. Good luck, or break a leg, whatever they say in TV.

Aron: Thanks, John

Watch the debates streaming live with real-time commentary on NJ Spotlight.

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