Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz Will Have Their Hands Full Handling Donald Trump

Moderating Sunday's second presidential debate, a town hall-style affair where questions will be asked by both journalist moderators and the general public, just got a whole lot harder. 

On Friday, the Washington Post published a video of Republican candidate Donald Trump making highly misogynistic statements. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have condemned the statements -- and many have condemned Trump himself. Some Republicans have even withdrawn their endorsements of their candidate. Some have even called for his replacement atop the GOP ticket. 

To make matters more complicated, the scandal coincided with a bombshell for Hillary Clinton. Wikileaks released a trove of emails that reveal parts of her Goldman Sachs speeches. In those excerpts, her talk of wanting to see a future with a single market in the hemisphere hasn't generated the same outrage as the Trump recording. 

Late in the evening, Trump released a 90-second video statement apologizing for the remarks -- a first for him on the campaign trail -- and attacking Bill Clinton for his relationship with women, and Hillary for her defenses of Bill. 

All this makes the task of moderating Sunday's debate that much harder. Every debate this cycle has been a trial for the media. 

While NBC's Matt Lauer was laughingly unprepared in a pre-debate town hall and CBS's Elaine Quijano was easily steamrolled in the vice presidential debate, NBC's Lester Holt did an admirable job in the first presidential debate. Nonetheless, Trump's supporters charged that the NBC news anchor asked their candidate too many difficult questions while Hillary Clinton's camp said Holt should have done more to curb Trump's serial interruptions.

So when ABC's Martha Raddatz and CNN's Anderson Cooper take the stage Sunday at Washington University in St. Louis to moderate the second presidential debate, viewers will be hoping for -- but will have little reason to expect -- an impartial and exacting referee. 

That means preventing one candidate from speaking over the other, knowing enough about recent domestic and foreign history to counter errors of fact and above all, refraining from favoritism. Oh yeah, and somehow addressing the latest slew of scandals. The job of the debate moderator has become exponentially more difficult, if not absurd.

"One person has built his campaign on seeming pugnacious, politically incorrect, while the other person would love to have a classic debate over policy," Gabriel Kahn, a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. "We need a completely different rule book and completely different expectations for what the moderators should be doing."

For this second debate, Raddatz and Cooper will be joined by members of the studio audience. Questions from average people should give the moderators some cover, though now one wonders if they could include challenging Trump on his misogyny. It could be a smart play by the moderators, who will likely be criticized no matter how they handle it. It's one thing to trash a CNBC moderator, which Republicans did following an October debate, but quite another to bash the typical mom or dad.

Join TheStreet on Sunday at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time and immediately following the second presidential debate for a special Facebook Live with PredictIt CEO John Phillips. Like TheStreet on Facebook for updates.

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As Holt demonstrated two weeks ago, Raddatz and Cooper would probably prefer not to become a bigger story than whatever happens between Trump and Clinton.

CNN's Candy Crowley caught all sorts of flack from Republicans four years ago when she dared to correct the record on a comment President Obama may or may not have made about the 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya.  And CNN's Bernard Shaw was criticized for questioning Michael Dukakis in 1988 as to whether he's support capital punishment if his own wife were raped. In both cases, supporters of the candidates on the wrong end of the exchange (Mitt Romney in 2012 and Dukakis in 1988) were the ones crying foul. 

Sensitivities about the role of the moderator, already heightened in recent years, have rocketed as each candidate's team uses even the slightest push-back to allege favoritism.

"We've come to a point where all of the moderators have become too soft in their questioning," Mark Feldstein, a University of Maryland journalism professor and former ABC News television correspondent, said in a phone interview. "For the most part, the moderators have been milquetoast because the candidates are more likely to reject anyone who has an edge."

If Holt and even Quijano are any guide, the moderators appear to want to stay out of the fray lest their actions harm their reputations or those of their networks, Feldstein added. CNBC's John Harwood was buffeted by Republican criticism in October when he asked Donald Trump during a debate among GOP hopefuls, "Let's be honest, is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?"

Harwood hasn't appeared in a debate since then.

The inclusion of Raddatz, a reporter with a reputation for asking tough questions, is something to watch on Sunday. Raddatz has not only moderated previous debates -- Joe Biden versus Paul Ryan in 2012 -- she won praise for timely and educated follow-up questions. A reporter with extensive experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East, Raddatz played referee for a Republican debate in February just prior to the New Hampshire primary. This will be Cooper's first presidential debate.

Both moderators will be under pressure to fact-check in real time even as the debates have become less about policy arguments and more about riling-up core supporters. Trump's name-calling -- "Lyin' Ted", "Little Marco," "Crooked Hillary" -- has helped endear him to millions of people even as it has frustrated his opponents. 

For his part, Trump had promised that he won't bring up Bill Clinton infidelities (we'll see if anything has changed on that front given that he brought up Clinton's infidelity in his apology statement) though it's possible he will claim that Ford is moving thousands of jobs to Mexico or that he never advocated for the overthrow of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi or supported going to war in Iraq -- all of which are untrue.

"We're looking for the moderator to bring some degree of accountability to what the candidates say," Kahn said. "But this time around, that's very hard to do. It's like asking the moderator be a policeman as well as a fireman."

Join TheStreet on Sunday at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time and immediately following the second presidential debate for a special Facebook Live with PredictIt CEO John Phillips. Like TheStreet on Facebook for updates.

Follow TheStreet on Twitter for live updates on the prediction markets throughout the debate.

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