Peter Funt: Rocky Mountain low
Talk about broken election promises. Four years ago, after moderating his 11th debate, Jim Lehrer, the highly respected PBS veteran, said he would retire. On Wednesday night in Denver he broke that promise, and the result was one of the most poorly moderated presidential debates in U.S. history.
Lehrer, 78, said he decided to take the helm once more after the Commission on Presidential Debates accepted a format he lobbied for: a format with few formal questions, in which the candidates challenge each other. It doesn’t work. The candidates don’t care to do it, and the moderator didn’t help.
Making matters worse, neither candidate spoke directly to camera. The audience at the University of Denver may have enjoyed it, but for tens of millions watching on TV, it was awkward and unsettling. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney addressed most of their comments to the moderator rather than the home audience, meaning they were often looking off to the side. Only in his closing remarks did Romney wisely speak directly to viewers at home.
Lehrer supported the idea of cutting the number of questions from nine to six. Even at that, he was so unable to control the process that there was barely time for the final question.
Worse, Lehrer chose a style of questioning that is both unfair and usually a roadblock for the candidates. “What are the major differences between the two of you on jobs?” was his first question of the night. Almost all of the questions that followed asked about the “differences” — on education, on social security, etc. Candidates should never be asked to define their opponent’s positions, only their own. It’s up to the moderator to identify the differences, and Lehrer was unable or unwilling to do it.
“Do you have a question for President Obama?” Lehrer asked Romney early on. It was exactly what Lehrer asked John McCain in ‘08. McCain said, “No.” Romney didn’t even bother with that; he simply delivered several minutes of talking points.
Lehrer said on a recent PBS broadcast that he favors a free-wheeling format in which the candidates question each other. They don’t like that, which is why, for example, Romney was never asked about his “47 percent” remark in which he said people who don’t pay federal income tax consider themselves victims, and Obama was never asked about his remark that if he didn’t turn the economy around he’d be a one-term president.
The event was such bad television that many Americans, including the prized “undecided voters,” probably gave up and changed the channel. For those who stuck with it, Romney was the apparent winner — but more on style points than hard facts, most of which were never challenged by the president or the moderator.
The co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., told me two weeks ago that his group relied on Lehrer and Bob Schieffer, 75, as moderators because they were impartial journalists who could be counted upon to interrupt when necessary and make the candidates stick to the facts. The CPD will now have to rethink the process of selecting moderators.
As to the content, much was written before the debate that Romney practiced far more than the president. It showed, particularly in the closing arguments, as Romney painted a clear picture of how his administration would differ from Obama’s, while the president seemed to be winging it. That ad-lib style hurt Clint Eastwood at the GOP convention and it hurt Obama in Denver.
Thanks to the hype, many Americans probably tuned in expecting a raft of zingers from Mitt Romney. There were few if any. Voters might have hoped to see the candidates go after each other. They really didn’t. Pundits prepared long lists of possible questions. None was asked.
There are still two more presidential debates, one on foreign affairs, the other using the so-called town hall format in which the questions come from undecided voters, selected by the Gallup Organization. Frank Fahrenkopf told me, “The public loves town halls, but the media hates them.”
After watching Jim Lehrer in Denver, even media know-it-alls might find themselves looking forward to giving the public a shot.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker and can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com.