Marc Lacey, national editor of the New York Times, was co-moderator of the Oct. 15, 2019, Democratic National Committee presidential debate. A 2010 alumnus of LMU Loyola Law School’s Journalist Law School fellowship, he returned in 2019 to provide the keynote commencement address. In advance of #DemDebateLMU, we turned the tables and asked him questions about his DNC debate moderating experience.
LMU: Describe your debate experience in three words?
Lacey: Intense. Electric. Crowded.
LMU: Can you briefly describe the process for finalizing the questions asked by the moderators in the debate?
Lacey: Lacey: There was a large team of CNN and NYT journalists, myself included, who worked for weeks to hone the best topics and questions to ask. A great debate question is different than a great interview question. It has some zing to it and it prompts an answer that prompts other candidates to wave their arms widely to jump in.
LMU: As a print journalist, how did you pivot to conducting an interview with thousands watching you live in the audience, and many more remotely?
Lacey: I practiced. And practiced some more. I pretended to be a moderator while on the treadmill at the gym. While walking down the streets in Manhattan. While sitting on the subway. “Senator, what’s your position?” “Thank you, Senator.” “Please respond.” I said those things scores of times before the big night.
LMU: As moderator, to what extent did you view yourself as a proxy for voters?
Lacey: I was not just Marc Lacey up there. I was representing The New York Times and all of our readers. That’s millions of folks.
LMU: A lot of the debate is scripted, and a fair amount is not. How do you balance that?
Lacey: You don’t just wing it during a debate and ask whatever pops into your head. You prepare and follow the plan. But you are no talking head. You have to remain nimble and be ready for the unscripted moments. They happen when you least expect it.
LMU: How did you employ your LMU Loyola Law School’s Journalist Law School knowledge? (You knew that was coming, right?)
Lacey: I knew you’d ask me that. How could you not? Let me say this: we learned at Journalist Law School that the law is everywhere. I agree with that. Knowing the law is essential to understanding the big issues of our government.
LMU: How does your experience as a moderator color how you’ll view the Dec. 19 debate?
Lacey: I will be not just listening to the words coming out of the candidates’ mouths, as important as they are. I’ll be studying the questions, the whole arc of the debate and I’ll be paying some attention to the venue.
LMU: How did your experience change your perspective on the value of candidate debates?
Lacey: Debates are big deals. Millions and millions of people gather around their sets and focus. If you’re a candidate, that means it’s a large stage.
LMU: To you, what was the most eye-opening part of your experience?
Lacey: I had no idea how much preparation was done. I was remarkably calm when our debate started because I felt prepared.
LMU: What are your words of advice for the moderators of the Dec. 19 debate?
Lacey: Go to the gym beforehand and work out like you’ve never worked out before. That takes care of the nerves. And then take deep breaths throughout. It will be fine.
LMU: Anything else you want to say about the debate?
Lacey: My time is up.