Opinion by Ray D’Cruz
In the past 24 hours, PBS journalist Jim Lehrer has been savaged for his role as moderator in the First Presidential Debate. This is unfair. Lehrer should be applauded for allowing a real debate to unfold.
Televised Leaders’ Debates should not be the tightly scripted affairs they’ve become. We’ve become used to fast paced debates with 10 or more questions where speakers respond in sound bites, and neither moderators or candidates are given the chance to challenge assertions and lies. Is it any surprise that we’ve seen the rise of fact checkers when there’s no time to test the logic and soundness of arguments in the actual debate? Is it any wonder so many people have come to the conclusion that these don’t matter when they’re so contrived and superficial?
We’ve also become used to moderators regularly interrupting and diverting the debate prematurely. Recent presidential debates and the last round of Republican primary debates have seen moderators ask different questions of each speaker, making it very difficult for viewers to compare candidates. The idea of asking different questions to individual speakers is a challenge to the very notion of debate. Competitive debates rely on opponents addressing the same issues, or clashing. Presidential debates need clashes so that voters can discern properly. Lehrer understood this and sought direct comparison at almost every key juncture in the debate:
- “What are the major differences between the two of you about how you would go about creating new jobs?”
- “What are the differences between the two of you as to how you would go about tackling the deficit problem in this country?”
- “Mr. President. Do you see a major difference between the two of you on Social Security?”
- To Romney “You want it repealed. You want the Affordable Care Act repealed. Why? and then to Obama “Mr. President, the argument against repeal?”
- “Mr. President — do you believe there’s a fundamental difference between the two of you as to how you view the mission of the federal government?”
So when Jim Lehrer let things flow, asked broad questions, urged candidates to compare their positions, allowed them to challenge each other and refused to interrupt robust discussions, how could he have copped such a barrage of criticism?
Perhaps some who were critical of Lehrer do not understand the difference between a debate and a public speech. Debates are a contest of ideas. Debates can be messy and debates can be hard work for those watching. This debate undoubtedly required more energy and engagement from viewers than the traditional presidential debate, just as it did from the participants.
Like any moderator Lehrer will reflect on his performance and search for areas for improvement. Keeping track of response times from speakers would have ensured an equal time allocation, an important principle in debates. (Obama had more time to present his case, not that it mattered). Lehrer could have also clarified the speaking order: who would get first and last word on a subject. At one point in the debate Romney demanded the final word on the basis that Obama had first word. That sounds reasonable. Yet there are also debate formats around the world that allow the first speaker to close the argument. And that’s precisely what Romney did later in the debate on the subject of regulation. Either way is fine, but the moderator should have been clear at the outset or at least consistent through the debate.
Whatever the criticisms, this was a real debate and the moderator understood and played his role.
Post script to this piece: Jim Lehrer has launched his own defence on The Huffington Post. Lehrer said his job was “to get out of the way.” He added “Most people have come to realize, my God, this was a major debate about things that matter, and the candidates expressed themselves, and it wasn’t about one-liners or zingers and gaffes and all that … it was about substance.” We agree and ask this question of his critics: was it an accident that this was the closest thing to a real debate in modern presidential history?