Questions for the Questioner


Lehrer was more of a teleprompter than a moderator

Speaking of bathtub scum, it’s ludicrous that the most fanatic partisans are co-chairs of the Commission on Presidential Debates and have this power to say which moderator is “neutral” and what kinds of questions should be asked in front of what kind of audience.

The League of Women Voters did fine with this job before the mid ’80s, when Congress, the networks, and the parties stepped in and took it over. Now the debates, said to be so crucial, are run by a commission co-chaired by the most partisan people possible, Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. and Paul Kirk, former heads of the GOP and Democrats. See this Disinfopedia background piece on the commission.

Kirk’s nothing but a party hack. Fahrenkopf is considerably more. He’s the most prominent attorney and lobbyist for the casino industry, particularly when the GOP is in power.

As for last night’s moderator, Jim Lehrer? The Los Angeles Times trumpeted him this way in a headline Thursday morning: “Lehrer Known as Earnest Voice Dedicated to Neutrality.”

Not so fast. See Cynthia Cotts‘s Voice piece on Lehrer’s dispute last spring with guest Christian Parenti for an example of Lehrer’s practicing something a little less than “neutrality” and a hell of a lot less than journalism. Also see this piece from the watchdog group FAIR, which wrote:

Parenti raised the possibility that corruption and mismanagement of the rebuilding contracts in Iraq were contributing to the insurgency against the American-led occupation of the country. Those comments apparently provoked a response from Lehrer, who explained two days later (3/4/04) that “a discussion about Iraq ended up not being as balanced as is our standard practice. While unintentional, it was our mistake, and we regret it.”

A NewsHour producer told the Village Voice (3/17/04) that Parenti’s response to the question “was not reportage, this was giving his opinion, and that’s not why we brought him on.”

No, Lehrer, it was not a “mistake” for Parenti to say what he said, especially because it’s likely true and has been said by many people. Journalists aren’t supposed to be secretarial workers; they observe, report, and, yes, they sometimes interpret. (Read Parenti’s latest piece on our “reconstruction” of Iraq here.)

That incident between Lehrer and Parenti happened after the invasion. Take a look at this FAIR piece from September 2002 about Lehrer’s failure to hold Don Rumsfeld accountable for pre-invasion bullshit about Iraq. Lehrer didn’t correct a misstatement from Rumsfeld that even CNN pointed out.

This is not backbiting from fellow journos. Listen to English teacher Susan Ohanian, winner of her profession’s George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language. The Parenti-Lehrer tiff, plus her own experience with Lehrer’s PBS show, led her to write a piece on journalists called “Stenographers to the Powerful.” Speaking of Parenti’s difficulty with Lehrer, Ohanian contended:

The people representing the government Standardisto policy can say anything they damn well please, and it is regarded as news. When anyone opposed to government Standardisto policy tries to speak up, their words are regarded as bias and they are either ignored or treated as lunatic fringe.

That’s why, Ohanian said, “it is so hard for the voices of teachers and parents to be heard above the cacophony of government shills.”

Last night, during the Bush-Kerry show, Lehrer was sometimes more of a teleprompter than a moderator.

Lehrer’s first two questions were not really questions. They were setups for each candidate to spout some introductory pap, and each “debater” got one perfectly tailored to his campaign. Here was Lehrer’s first question 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?

Well, no shit, Jim! I believe I can. At the very least, Lehrer could have narrowed this open-ended question a tiny bit by phrasing it like this: “Specifically why do you say you could do a better job … ?” At least that way, Kerry couldn’t have started his answer with the obvious “Yes.”

Likewise with Bush. Lehrer’s first lob to Dubya was this:

Do you believe the election of Senator Kerry on November 2 would increase the chances of the U.S. being hit by another 9/11–type terrorist attack?

What a setup! And unfair to Kerry too, in that it expressed Bush’s own negative theme in Lehrer’s “neutral” voice even before Bush had to. Lehrer might as well have asked Bush, “Do you believe that Kerry is a flip-flopping motherfucker?” In the interest of the “balance” that Lehrer claims to crave, and so he wouldn’t actually be the first person to voice Bush’s negative view of Kerry, Lehrer could have asked Bush, “You’ve said you’ve made the world safer and that Kerry’s election would increase our chances of being attacked. Specifically, how so?”

In each case, the first questions to Bush and Kerry required nothing more than an obvious and simple yes. That’s a big mistake on the moderator’s part, because every time you ask a politician a question that can be answered with a simple yes, you’ve just given him a setup—and one that he can easily append a canned blurb to. The door is open for him to blather. The key is to ask questions that can’t be answered with a “yes.” At least that way you can try to force a person to explain in uncanned words.

Lehrer deserves to have some slack cut, because this Bush-Kerry miniseries is not really a set of debates and because the commission’s rules would hamstring any moderator. But Lehrer’s former PBS partner, Robert MacNeil, would have done better. Or maybe Susan Ohanian.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 1, 2004

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