The only consolation President Barack Obama had for his poor showing during Wednesday’s debate was that moderator Jim Lehrer did even worse. Lehrer, executive editor of “PBS Newshour,” showed little ability to control the give-and-take and keep candidates to time. He even had to handle a direct attack on PBS funding.
Former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller summed up the Lehrer criticism, giving him a D grade and calling him “road kill” in his Twitter analysis of the debate.
The 78-year-old Lehrer has had a storied journalism career dating to the 1950s, and this was his twelfth time as presidential debate moderator. But he only lasted into the second round of questions before he started losing control. Lehrer asked GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney if he had “a question you’d like to ask the president directly?” Romney’s two-minute answer lasted three minutes and never addressed the question at all.
Things soon went further downhill. The debate was theoretically broken into six sections, three of them about the economy. Lehrer couldn’t even keep the first section to time. “Just so everybody understands, we’re way over our first 15 minutes,” he proclaimed as the first question responses continued on. Romney dominated Lehrer’s attempt to end the segment with an Obama comment since the president had also started the discussion. Lehrer was unable to stop Romney mid-answer.
To make matters worse, Romney used a deficit discussion to take a direct attack at PBS, scoring points with conservatives by making sport of the moderator. “I’m sorry Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS.” While Romney admitted he liked Big Bird and “I like you, too,” it was a masterful jab.
Not long after, Obama filibustered and Lehrer was unable to rein him in either. He did tell Obama afterward, “you’re way over the two minutes.” By the time the candidates got to talking about Medicare, they were both talking over Lehrer at the same time. When Lehrer was able to end the segment, the smile on his face appeared to be one of relief as he was able to officially begin another of his question segments.
The biggest tells for Lehrer’s failures came from the clock. The monologuing was so unchecked that only about three minutes were left for the last segment. Lehrer then took 51 seconds to try to ask his question – three times making the point that only three minutes were left. When the debate ended, Obama had used more than four minutes more air time than Romney, another example of how Lehrer was unable to control the debate tempo.
Eric Deggans, TV/Media Critic for Tampa Bay Times, used Twitter to criticize Lehrer’s lack of context for some questions. “Much as I respect Jim Lehrer, also hated stuff like Dodd/Frank and Simpson/Bowles weren't explained to viewers who aren't policy wonks.” Perhaps a PBS audience has gotten used to wonkery, but Deggans is right, a mass-market viewership needed some explanation.
Liberal NYU journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen also called out Lehrer on Twitter, saying, “Romney took strong advantage of a weak moderator.”
Perhaps Lehrer’s tentative performance stemmed from criticism that the “PBS superpatriot” received before Wednesday's debate questioning whether he could be fair to any candidate who was opposed to government funding of PBS.
Dan Gainor is the Boone Pickens Fellow and the Media Research Center’s Vice President for Business and Culture. He writes frequently about media for Fox News Opinion. He can also be contacted on Facebook and Twitter as dangainor.