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October 1, 2004

You Watched. Tell Me What You Saw in Jim Lehrer's Performance.

Let other blogs brave the Interpretive Jungle and reach the candidates. PressThink sticks to Jim Lehrer, journalist and moderator. How well did he do last night? And why do we entrust presidential debates to Jim Lehrer? Post links. Post thoughts. I'm collecting intelligent comment.

Collecting intelligent comment means you hit the comment button and say something intelligent. Give me your thoughts on Jim Lehrer, and what you want in a debate moderator. To see what questions he asked go to the bottom of the post.

How did Jim Lehrer do in your judgment? study: Moderator Lehrer received high marks for fairness. More than 83% of both groups of supporters felt he showed no favoritism to either candidate. More Kerry supporters thought his question selection was “extremely” relevant than Bush supporters did (55% v 39%), a rating that jibes with their reactions to the amount of attention paid to Iraq. Lehrer was well rated for being “extremely” plainspoken (60% by Kerry supporters, 49% by Bush’s), low rated for being “extremely” imaginative (15% and 12%).
Patrick Miller: I think all of us went into the debate thinking all we were going to see were two press conferences that happened to overlap each other.

Lehrer threw that dynamic out the window early in the debate, when his questions followed the flow of the debate, not a pre-planned script:

3. To Kerry: Colossal misjudgments, what colossal misjudgments, in your opinion, has President Bush made in these areas?

4. To Bush: What about Senator Kerry’s point, the comparison he drew between the priorities of going after Osama bin Laden and going after Saddam Hussein?

Lehrer’s crafting of the questions opened up the floor for the candidates to engage each other in a way that surprised many of us, and left many in the pundit class saying that it was the best debate they’ve seen in years.

News Nag: I thought Lehrer did a terrific job this time. He obviously worked hard to prepare himself well, in every respect, and it showed. On his news show, he tends to get sloppy, not consistently aware of the latest-breaking revelations at times, and sometimes getting his facts wrong as if he hadn’t really listened closely to certain news reports.

Did Lehrer ask what needed to be asked?

Eric Deamer: The only visible anti-Bush bias in the questions was that too many of them were about Bush’s record. None, zip, zero of them were about Kerry’s record 20-year record in the Senate. I realize that the conventional wisdom is that the election is “a referendum on the incumbent”, but it almost seemed as if Lehrer was trying to do his part to make sure that storyline played out…the true Bush partisans think Lehrer was horribly, egregiously biased against Bush with his questions. I disagree.
David S. Isenberg: The unasked elephant-in-the-room question: Oil and foreign policy. Is it just an irrelevant coincidence that Iraq is second only to Saudi Arabia in known oil reserves? What is the relationship between oil and foreign policy
JD Lasica: Yes, there were foreign policy issues left on the table — Cuba, Israel, South America, etc. — but he guided his laser pointer where it clearly belonged: on Iraq and international terrorism.

Those are the issues on which this election will, and should, be decided.

Journalists shouldn’t be deciding who should be elected the next president of the United States, and to his credit, Lehrer asked the tough questions without showing favoritism or dipping into the cesspool of Washington horserace journalism.

Stephen Waters: Lehrer should have filtered potential questions by asking, “Is it likely we will get an answer to this question that will forward our understanding of the candidates or their positions?” Had he done that, the character question would never have been asked. Both candidates are practiced enough to avoid that trap.

Did you feel represented?

Tom Parmenter: Lehrer really poisoned the well in the 2000 debates with his wishy-washy moderation. Last night he was much more engaged, a much better voice of the interested voter.

Your favorite Jim Lehrer moment from tonight?

Rebecca Blood: “I liked it very much when he stopped the debate twice to clearly restate the candidates’ positions on an issue and to ask if that accurately relected their position. I felt as if he was making an honest attempt to help the viewer make sense of a point that might otherwise have been muddied.”
Jay Rosen: My favorite was his question about genocide and the Sudan. He made a point first: that neither had ever mentioned sending US troops. And he wanted to know why. So did I.

Care to describe Jim Lehrer’s strength’s as a moderator, as they were in evidence tonight?

Tom Shales: Jim Lehrer of public television did a first-rate job of moderating the debate, fighting against the stuffiness imposed by debate negotiators. The audience in the hall was kept so emotionally and spiritually distant from the proceedings that there was really no reason for them to be there at all.

Does Jim Lehrer of PBS have a style and what are the consequences of that style in a presidential debate?

Andrew Cline: As for personal style, I’d call him a slightly grumpy Ward Cleaver. He’s the dad you don’t want to try to fool because his B.S. detector is very sensitive. Yet he’s understanding without being condescending. His ethos: trust.

Lherer’s personal style mixes well with his superior reporter’s ear. He listens well enough to know what to follow-up and when to do it. You can see this in the list of questions. It’s organic. It evolved as the debate progressed (did you see that book of notes!?). His skill turned what promised to be nothing but a presentation of spin and sound bites into something more nearly debate like. In this he did citizens a great favor.

Jay Rosen: It’s harder than it looks to do what Lehrer does. Just to be cool and alert in the situation is a feat of professional discipline. Lehrer was that: he was disciplined. I think Andrew is right that his great skill is his ear. But you have to be calm and confident enough to relax in a very tense situation and just… listen. Kerry says Bush made a colossal mistake. “Colossal misjudgments,” says Lehrer, “what colossal misjudgments, in your opinion, has President Bush made in these areas?”

This invites Kerry to swing away at Bush and in that sense is not a “tough” question. On the other hand, it increases the pressure on Kerry: now he has to convince us that “colossal” is the right word, or he loses some of what tried to gain. Lehrer would never say, “it my job to increase the pressure on the candidates,” because that wouldn’t fly, politically. Still, it’s what a moderator in that situation does.

Don’t tell me Jim Lehrer is annoying; that doesn’t help. Isolate and describe in detail one annoying thing about him— that helps.

Is Lehrer supposed to blend in, and is there a talent there?

Moderator Jim Lehrer’s questions, 2004 Presidential Debate, Sep. 30 Miami

1. To Kerry: Do you believe you could do a better job than President Bush in preventing another 9/11-type terrorist attack on the United States?

2. To Bush: Do you believe the election of Senator Kerry on Nov. 2 would increase the chances of the U.S. being hit by another 9/11-type terrorist attack?

3. To Kerry: Colossal misjudgments, what colossal misjudgments, in your opinion, has President Bush made in these areas?

4. To Bush: What about Senator Kerry’s point, the comparison he drew between the priorities of going after Osama bin Laden and going after Saddam Hussein?

5. To Kerry: As president, what would you do specifically in addition to or differently to increase the homeland security of the United States than what President Bush is doing?

6. To Bush: What criteria would you use to determine when to start bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq?

7. To Kerry: Speaking of Vietnam, you spoke to Congress in 1971 after you came back from Vietnam and you said, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Are Americans now dying in Iraq for a mistake?

8. To Bush: You have said there was a “miscalculation” of what the conditions would be in post-war Iraq. What was the miscalculation? And how did it happen?

9. To Kerry: You have repeatedly accused President Bush, not here tonight but elsewhere before, of not telling the truth about Iraq, essentially, of lying to the American people about Iraq. Give us some examples of what you consider to be his not telling the truth.

10. To Bush: Has the war in Iraq been worth the cost in American lives: 1,052 as of today?

11. To Kerry: Speaking of your plan, new question, Senator Kerry, two minutes. Can you give us specifics in terms of a scenario, timelines, etc., for ending major U.S. military involvement in Iraq?

12. To Bush: Does the Iraq experience make it more likely or less likely that you would take the United States into another pre-emptive military action?

13. To Kerry: What is your position on the whole concept of pre-emptive war?

14. To Bush: Do you believe that diplomacy and sanctions can resolve the nuclear problems with North Korea and Iran?

15. To Kerry: You mention Darfur, the Darfur region of Sudan, 50,000 people have already died in that area, more than a million are homeless. It has been labeled an act of ongoing genocide, yet neither one of you or anyone else connected with your campaigns or your administration that I can find has discussed the possibility of sending in troops. Why not?

16. To Bush: There are clearly, as we have heard, major policy differences between the two of you. Are there also underlying character issues that you believe, that you believe are serious enough to deny Senator Kerry the job as commander in chief of the United States?

17. To Kerry: If you are elected president, what will you take to that office thinking is the single-most serious threat to the national security of the United States?

18. To Bush: Mr. President, this is the last question and two minutes. It’s a new subject, new question and it has to do with President Putin and Russia. Did you misjudge him or are you - do you feel that what he is doing in the name of anti-terrorism by changing some democratic processes is O.K.?

And then there was this exchange:

Mr. Bush: You know my opinion on North Korea. I can’t say it any more plainly.

Mr. Lehrer: Right, well, what - he used the word truth again.

Mr. Bush: Pardon me?

Mr. Lehrer: Talking about the truth of the matter. Used the word truth again. Did that raise any hackles with you?

(Source: New York Times transcript.)

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 1, 2004 12:27 AM