Almost immediately after the first presidential debate, moderator Jim Lehrer began to face a torrent of criticism for losing control and allowing the candidates too much free reign. It hasn’t stopped.
“Saturday Night Live” took another shot at him when poking fun at the vice presidential debate last weekend. In the “SNL” spoof, Joe Biden threatened to “smack that dumb look off” Paul Ryan’s face. But, moderator Martha Raddatz showed she was in charge: “Hey, do I sound like Jim Lehrer? And do I look like Jim Lehrer? Then don’t try to (bleep) with me like I’m Jim Lehrer.”
From the outset of the real VP debate a few days before, ABC News' Raddatz was determined not to get Lehrer-ed by the candidates. She stopped a meandering Biden and brought him back to the matter of the killings at the Libyan embassy. She cut off Ryan, saying it was time to move on to discussing what to do about Iran. She prodded for specifics.
So, thank you Jim Lehrer. You have left a valuable legacy. You have empowered successors to flex their muscle.
From now on, moderators can feel emboldened to make it demonstrably clear they are running the show. Lehrer’s perceived inability to pilot the ship has given them license to do whatever it takes. Dispense with intimidation. It doesn't matter if it’s a debate for student council, county sheriff or the White House.
Presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo, watch out. With the tougher moderators, go off subject and they can stop the filibustering. Try to stretch two minutes into five and you get a hard stop. Try to talk over the moderator and get out-yelled.
It’s possible Lehrer inspired a questioner to stand firm in a Connecticut U.S. senate debate Monday. The GOP’s Linda McMahon charged Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy with skipping hearings in Congress about the recession. He was then asked a question about taxes, but wanted to first address McMahon’s allegations. But he was cut off and told there will be time for that later.
Yes, there is plenty of grist to say Romney and Obama played without a referee in their Oct. 3 debate. But the criticism of Lehrer, the long-time PBS anchor, for shirking his duties may have been overblown.
The debate format called for two-minute opening statements by each candidate on particular topics, followed by about nine minutes of free-wheeling discussion between them. The moderator’s job was to ensure each candidate had equal time in that span.
At points, the candidates did mess up the rhythm, provoking funny exchanges as Romney or Obama would effectively say “chill out Jim.” But, that open discussion may have given the impression that Lehrer lost more control than he did, which the PBS legend suggested in a Washington Post interview.
Lehrer, however, also conceded he was frustrated by the candidates going over time and failing to “answer the questions directly.” Yet, he said the discussion was generally substantive and there were some “magic moments” when he moved aside and let the two talk.
Nonetheless, perception is reality. And, so Lehrer unintentionally may have taken one for the team -- or the country. Because of his alleged failings, debate quality and the voter experience may really improve as moderators strive to avoid his pitfalls.
ABC’s Raddatz started that last week and CNN’s Candy Crowley is offering signals that she will make sure the public is served -- maybe at the expense of the candidates -- tonight when she moderates Romney-Obama II.
Tonight’s format calls for audience questions in a town hall-style forum. According to “a memorandum of understanding” between the campaigns made public by Time’s Mark Halperin, Crowley won’t be able to press the candidates to stay on topic. The memo prohibits her from asking follow-ups or getting involved in the back-and-forth, save enforcing time limits.
But Crowley gave no indication she would stand by and accept obfuscating, roaming answers. In an CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer Monday, she said Charlie Gibson and Tom Brokaw followed up in town hall sessions, so she will also be looking to “further the discussion.”
And, she hinted she’s a journalist doing an interview, not solely a facilitator. So, if Romney or Obama offers a meandering response, she’ll be on it.
That might involve a simple “the question, sir, was oranges and you said apples. Could you answer oranges?”
Good for Crowley. And, thanks to Lehrer.
(A TVBlog Oct. 15 should have noted ex-New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson is running for president as a Libertarian.)