Jim Lehrer, the executive editor of PBS’ “NewsHour,” moderated his 12th presidential debate on Wednesday, sitting on the sidelines as Mitt Romney and President Obama dominated the program and steamrolled the veteran newsman whenever he attempted to interject.
While much of the initial criticism of Lehrer’s performance has focused on his failure to assert control over the proceedings, Lehrer’s vague and imprecise questions of the candidates — and weak follow-ups — contributed to his spongy moderation. Press critics TPM talked to Thursday morning dismissed Lehrer’s questions as “soft,” “dull” and “open-ended.”
“He seemed to think that ‘discuss the differences between the two of you’ is a debate question. It’s really not. It’s a ‘your turn to talk’ invitation,” Jay Rosen, director of the Studio 20 program at NYU, told TPM.
The first presidential debate of the 2012 election, hosted by the University of Denver, focused on domestic policy. Lehrer spent much of the evening trying to get the candidates to agree that they disagree. Take Lehrer’s question on the deficit, for example:
LEHRER: All right. Let’s talk — we’re still on the economy. This is, theoretically now, a second segment still on the economy, and specifically on what to do about the federal deficit, the federal debt. And the question, you each have two minutes on this, and Governor Romney, you — you go first because the president went first on segment one. And the question is this, What are the differences between the two of you as to how you would go about tackling the deficit problem in this country?
And here’s Lehrer on the candidates’ Medicare plans: “All right. Can we — can the two of you agree that the voters have a choice, a clear choice between the two … of you on Medicare?”
Obama and Romney agreed: “Absolutely.”
Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer didn’t mince words when summing up the quality of Lehrer’s questions and his overall performance.
“Jim Lehrer was AWOL for most of the debate, which meant that Mitt Romney took over,” Shafer told TPM in an email. “Most of his questions were soft and the ones that had any wood on them were easily evaded. I would chalk this up to a case of nerves on Lehrer’s part, but hasn’t he moderated 5,000 presidential debates? I’d make a replacement ref joke except that would be unfair to the refs.”
Media columnist Michael Wolff wondered what purpose Lehrer even served in the debate. “His questions were dull and open-ended; his control was non-existent; his contribution, overall, was in effect nil,” Wolff told TPM. “So what was his purpose? I can only assume his imprimatur of relative seriousness and unbiased middle of the road-ness was the point. Can’t see what that was worth. As for what he could do differently, not sure there’s the wherewithal. I hope I’m still working at 78, but you see the downside.”
Jeff Jarvis, director of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, told TPM that Lehrer proved how “unimportant” the debate moderator could be. “He added no value in content, context or control. But I don’t blame him for the poor quality of the debate. I blame Obama. (And I’m an Obama voter.) He made the mistake of speaking to Lehrer, as if this were a classroom, when he should have been speaking to American voters from a most-powerful platform.”
NYU’s Rosen summarized Lehrer’s performance as “weak.”
“As I said on Twitter after the debate: ‘Romney took strong advantage of a weak moderator. Obama just used that weakness to talk longer.’ Meaning: Romney answered whatever question he wanted to answer, and in that way ignored Lehrer. Obama ignored Lehrer by just talking over the time limits. Either way he got ignored a lot.”
Watch a clip of Lehrer’s debate performance below:
David Taintor is TPM’s News Editor. He contributes to TPM’s Livewire coverage, among other areas. David is from Chanhassen, Minnesota, where, yes, it gets very cold. Reach him at taintor [at] talkingpointsmemo.com