U.S. Sen. candidates Ted Cruz, Republican, and Paul Sadler, Democrat debate at WFAA Victory Plaza studio with moderators Brad Watson (left) and Gromer Jeffers Jr., (right) of The Dallas Morning News. Watson is a 1972 graduate of Carroll High School.
U.S. Sen. candidates Ted Cruz, Republican, and Paul Sadler, Democrat debate at WFAA Victory Plaza studio with moderators Brad Watson (left) and Gromer Jeffers Jr., (right) of The Dallas Morning News. Watson is a 1972 graduate of Carroll High School.
Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What’s it like sitting in the line of fire when two candidates for a U.S. Senate seat are battling in a contentious debate.

There appeared to be little love lost when Democrat Paul Sadler and Republican Ted Cruz, vying to represent Texas in the Senate, squared off in a recent debate produced by WFAA-TV in Dallas-Fort Worth.  

Serving as lead moderator for the debate was Dick Watson, 1972 Carroll High School graduate who’s a son of Dick and Gloria Watson of Carroll.  

The debate was broadcast live nationally by C-SPAN and featured a roundtable format. Sadler and Cruz faced questions from Watson and Dallas Morning News veteran political reporter Gromer Jeffers Jr.

Watson explained in a recent phone interview that this style debate proved to be successful when Cruz vied with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the Republican primary race this spring.

“Instead of the button-down, podium, timed-responses format, we said, ‘Let’s do it roundtable,’” Watson recalled. “It was a great success. People liked it. It was more spontaneous.”

In the Sadler-Cruz campaign, polls show Cruz, former Texas solicitor general, enjoying a big lead on Sadler, a state senator from 1991 to 2003. They are seeking to succeed Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, 68, who was first elected in 1993 and did not seek re-election.

Needing to make up a lot of ground, Sadler came out aggressive in the debate, and Cruz fired back, leading to some heated moments, Watson related.

“The Democrat, Paul Sadler, who has very little money and very little chance of winning, tried to use it as more of a platform to get after and criticize Cruz,” Watson said, “so he was very much on the attack and became very muscular rhetorically. So maybe it was more of a challenge for me to try to keep them squared-off.

“My goal is to be fair, making sure they have an opportunity to respond and a fair amount of time to go back and forth.”

Watson tried to keep the debate moving by remaining polite but firm. To accomplish that, he said, “I appeal to the candidates’ sense fairness. ‘Wait. Let the other guy talk.’”

Although a debate as fiery as Sadler and Cruz’s can be disconcerting at times, Watson said, “Debates are not there just for candidates to talk about their policies. Voters also learn about their personal demeanor and whether they’re likeable. And that’s important.”

In the Texas debate, he observed, “Mr. Sadler was aggressive. People learned something about that. That may not be to his credit if they feel like he was too aggressive. And there were times when Mr. Cruz was pretty aggressive in his questioning, too, toward Mr. Sadler.  

“My goal is to make sure they get a fair amount of time to respond. We want them to engage but not let things get out of control.”

Watson sees the moderator’s role as a representative for the voters watching.

“If a candidate is not answering a question or misstating a fact, then the moderator as a journalist, at that moment should ask a candidate to clarify.

“You owe it to the viewers to say, ‘Wait a minute. What about this?’ It’s important to ask specific questions, because when you ask a specific question, you’re looking for a specific answer. Voters deserve specifics to find out what a candidate is going to do.”

Watson, therefore, must do his homework through his own reporting and also by reading newspapers daily and following reliable websites and twitter contributors.

“It’s my job to keep up on issues and know when candidates are being accurate or when they’re out of context,” he said. “Candidates can be very selective in trying to hit certain points that are going to bolster their positions. So it’s important to keep up, and it’s a lot of preparation, but that’s my responsibility, making sure I’m well-briefed and well-studied.”

While candidates in debates such as Sadler and Cruz’s are representing the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, Watson said, he feels the responsibility of representing journalism. He acknowledges that in today’s highly sensitive political climate, even debate moderators are on the hot seat. Just look at the scrutiny given to the performances by presidential-debate moderators Jim Lehrer, Candy Crowley and Bob Schieffer and vice-presidential-debate moderator Martha Raddatz.

“I know I’m not necessarily going to be loved on the way out,” Watson said, “but I have a responsibility to follow up with questions, make candidates accountable, keep it fair and do the best you can.”

Following the Sadler and Cruz debate, he said, both candidates said they thought they were treated fairly and we’re very appreciative.

Watson, 58, started at the ABC-affiliate WFAA in Dallas-Fort Worth, the country’s fifth-largest TV market, in 1979 and his current assignments are covering Dallas city government and politics. He and the Morning News’ Jeffers host the Sunday morning program Inside “Texas Politics” and have interviewed candidates and government leaders from the local to national levels.

It is indeed a long way from Carroll to Texas, Watson said of the political and cultural scenes.

“Texas is a very diverse state,” he noted. “There are a lot of things it does right and a lot of challenges. The overarching narrative is that it’s controlled by Republicans now, but with a quickly growing Hispanic population (traditionally leaning Democratic) it’s believed Texas could go purple (closely divided between Democrats and Republicans) someday.”

Watson gives major credit to his interest in government and politics to his days in Jim Knott’s speech class at Carroll High School.

“Part of his requirement was to read a daily newspaper,” Watson said of Knott, who later became provost of Des Moines Area Community College Carroll campus, “because he’d quiz us on what was in the newspaper. He taught us how to read newspapers and the importance of reading newspapers every day. So I started paying attention to news events, Iowa politics, and national politics. And that broadened my world, and I enjoyed that.

“I also was getting interested in radio and TV, so there was this confluence of interests. By the time I went t college at Iowa State I got into radio and TV.”

At Iowa State he received strong encouragement to study not only journalism, where he could learn reporting and newswriting, but also an area of expertise. Political science then was a natural for him, and Watson graduated from Iowa State in 1976 with majors in journalism and political science.

He worked three years at the ABC station in Peoria, Ill., before moving to Dallas-Fort Worth. At Peoria he took part in his first debate, with Republican U.S. Senate incumbent Charles Percy facing Democrat Alex Seith.

“That was pretty cool when I was only 23 or so,” Watson said of the experience.

According to the WFAA website, some of the prominent stories he’s covered over the years are the Vernon and Wichita Falls tornadoes in 1979, the Delta Flight 191 crash at DFW International Airport in 1985, 6bhn y the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, the 1993 assault by U.S. agents on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco and the 2000 presidential election and Florida recount.

Watson was on the anchor desk the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, when space shuttle, Columbia, disintegrated live on WFAA during re-entry over north Texas. He co-anchored WFAA’s live coverage for another eight hours.

In 2004, he covered the re-election campaign of President George W. Bush with reports from around the country.

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall near New Orleans, Watson remained in the city in the days after landfall covering the damage.

Since 2006, Watson has been covering politics primarily including the Texas governor’s race in 2006 and the Texas presidential primary and general election in 2008.

He led WFAA’s coverage of the governor’s race in the 2010 Republican and Democratic including campaign altering interviews with Hutchison and Democrat Farouk Shami.

Watson anchored WFAA’s top-rated weekend newscasts from 1992 to 2000 and has won awards for his on-air work and reporting.

To this day, Watson reads daily newspapers just as CHS speech teacher Knott taught: read the lead stories, government stories, the newspapers’ editorials and the op-ed page for different views.

“His (Knott’s) point was to be a critical thinker,” Watson said, “don’t settle just for what your opinion is. Try to read about other opinions too. It was very good schooling on how to read a newspaper.”

At home in Carroll, Watson and his family read the Des Moines Register and Times Herald daily, and he recalls there was a lot of dinnertime discussion about current events. One of his grandfather’s was a rock-ribbed Republican. “You had generations talking about politics, which was very interesting,” he said.

Modeling Knott’s teaching, Watson said, he tells college interns in the TV station’s news department: “If you’re going to be a journalist, you start every day by reading with your arms wide open. This notion of ‘Oh, I’ll scan a couple of websites’ doesn’t cut it, because the human eye doesn’t absorb information well off the computer screen like that. It has to have stories laid out like a newspaper does.”

He added, “I must say the young people we get now, I’m just amazed how many don’t read papers. I just want to roll up a paper and tap them on top of the head because if you want to get into this business, sit down and read in the morning and don’t come in here if you haven’t.”

Watson and his wife, Margaret, have been married 17 years ad have two daughters, Eleanor, 15, a high-school sophomore, and Emily, 13, an eighth-grader. He’s not sure either has been bitten by the journalism bug, he said, but both are working on their schools’ yearbooks.