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 was traveling on Thursday and was unavailable for comment, a spokeswoman said. His defenders said he was trying to make a new format work and there’s no shame in letting candidates try to engage each other directly.
“It’s a very, very, very difficult job,” said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief and professor at George Washington University.
Moderators can be criticized for not doing enough or doing too much by being forceful in interrupting candidates and showy in their questions, he said.
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.
Commission Co-chairman Paul Fahrenkopf told the Poynter think tank recently that the commission looks primarily toward experienced TV journalists for the moderator role. He said it seeks a moderator who is comfortable having someone shout instructions in an earpiece, is fair and balanced and “does not have an ego.”
Lehrer had moderated 11 presidential debates before Wednesday. Last year he wrote a book about his debate experiences and said he had no interest in doing any more. But he agreed when asked this time, comparing the request to a civic responsibility or a draft notice.
But Lehrer, 78, has been semi-retired and off TV since last winter. Some in the business believe that layoff can cost even an experienced broadcaster a few feet off his fastball.
Lehrer 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.”
Lehrer said last year that he felt his best job as a moderator came during a 2004 debate between President George W. Bush and John Kerry because nobody talked about what he did. He said his advice to future moderators was “get out of the way whenever you possibly can. Facilitate the debate. That’s what you’re there to do.”
What may have struck viewers as a hands-off approach may have something to do with a new format that called for Lehrer to introduce subject areas and give each candidate two minutes to speak, then several more minutes of back-and-forth, said Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern University journalism professor and author of “Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV.”
“It seems to me the job of a moderator is to set up the issues and get out of the way, and I think he did that,” Schroeder said.
Some who watch debates prefer sharper, more challenging questions. But there are dangers to that approach, too, as illustrated last winter when Newt Gingrich attacked CNN’s John King for bringing up his ex-wife’s accusation that he had asked for an open marriage.
While acknowledging that moderating is a difficult job, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen said Lehrer lost control of the time and the topics during the debate.
“He didn’t really ask questions,” Rosen said. “I don’t know where he got the idea that saying ‘talk about the differences between you’ is a question. It’s not a question. It’s just an invitation to talk.”
Candidates often are coached to ignore the questions being asked, anyway, just to get across points that they want to emphasize, Sesno said.
After a rough night Wednesday, Lehrer may have gotten a rueful laugh from David Letterman. The “Late Show” comic’s Top Ten list, taped before the debate, was “signs you have a bad debate moderator.”
Among the signs: “Barely stops clipping his fingernails to ask a question” and “Performs Sade song parody, ‘Smooth Moderator.’”