Amid Criticism, Jim Lehrer Explains Role of Debate Moderator

by | October 6, 2012 at 8:31 AM | TV News

PBS newsman Jim Lehrer moderating the debate Wednesday night. (Photo: AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Former PBS anchor Jim Lehrer says a debate moderator should be like a baseball umpire — get out of the way and let the candidates play. That philosophy may have compounded his troubles during the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney as he tried and failed to stay out of the spotlight, an increasingly impossible dream for a moderator in the age of social media.

Even before Wednesday night’s debate ended, Twitter was ablaze with criticism of Lehrer for losing control of it and not being sharp in his questions. The candidates frequently bulled past Lehrer’s efforts to hold them to time limits.

Lehrer, in a statement issued Thursday night, said he thought the debate format accomplished its purpose of promoting direct exchanges between Obama, a Democrat, and Romney, a Republican, on substantive issues.

“Part of my moderator mission was to stay out of the way of the flow and I had no problems with doing so,” he said. “My only real personal frustration was discovering that 90 minutes was not enough time in that more open format to cover every issue that deserved attention.”

Moderators have to walk a fine line between being criticized for not doing enough or doing too much by forcefully interrupting candidates and being showy in their questions, said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief and professor at George Washington University.

Moderators are selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has sponsored the forums since 1988. Candy Crowley, of CNN, and Bob Schieffer, of CBS News, will moderate the next two Obama-Romney debates, with Martha Raddatz, of ABC News, handling the vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan.

Lehrer had moderated 11 presidential debates before Wednesday. But Lehrer, 78, has been semi-retired and off TV since last winter. He came back to a hyper-partisan environment with millions of TV critics sitting with laptops in their living rooms, eager to let their opinions be known.

There was a political dimension Thursday to critics of Lehrer’s critics. Fox News Channel’s Greta Van Susteren wrote on her blog that Lehrer was being attacked because Democrats “expected the moderator to run interference for their candidate and the moderator didn’t bail out their bored, fumbling and unprepared candidate.”

“Instead,” she said, “moderator Jim Lehrer did the unthinkable — he let the candidates debate.”