Friday Night: Keeping Up Appearances

Jim Lehrer wants a “fair” debate

In anticipation of Friday night’s first presidential debate (which, if John McCain has his way, might be postponed), the campaign press and the candidates are focused, in their own ways, on the impression that Senators McCain and Obama will make on the American people. Both sides are setting and managing expectations; talking about what this candidate needs to do (and avoid doing).

Jim Lehrer, the journalist moderating the debate, is thinking about appearances as well.

Leher recently told the Baltimore Sun (italics mine):

Fairness and the appearance of fairness are critical because everything must appear to be absolutely straight and driven by the views of these people who want to be president rather than by some agenda that the moderator may have. This is not me saying, ‘Hey I want to reveal this or I want do that.’ This is a different purpose.

A higher purpose, presumably. Which sounded good (reasonable and serious and sincere and maybe just what we need in this age of hysterical barking punditry). Until I looked again.

- “Fairness is critical.” OK. Great. Be fair. (Although… fair to whom? Voters seeking information? The candidates?)

- “The appearance of fairness is critical.” Critical to what, exactly? To avoiding accusations of bias and the inevitable, ensuing distraction from that? (And such accusations do have a way of sucking up all the attention, no doubt).

- “Everything must appear to be straight and driven by” candidates’ views and not some moderator “agenda.” This focus on not appearing to have an agenda—the appearing to have being as bad or worse than any actual having? And: Are all agendas bad? What if your agenda is truth and information? Does maintaining “the appearance of fairness” trump informing people (say, holding a candidate to his record?) What happens when being fair to voters might not look fair to candidates (“fair” here meaning treating both candidates equally on an issue in which an inequality exists.)

Could this focus on appearances stem from all the “working the refs” the campaigns have done this election season? It could. But it also reminded me of an exchange I had with Lehrer during a Q&A in 2006:

ME: How do you approach reporting when a public official has said something that is blatantly untrue?

LEHRER: I don’t deal in terms like “blatantly untrue.” That’s for other people to decide when something’s “blatantly untrue.” There’s always a germ of truth in just about everything … My part of journalism is to present what various people say about it the best we can find out [by] reporting and let others — meaning commentators, readers, viewers, bloggers or whatever … I’m not in the judgment part of journalism. I’m in the reporting part of journalism. I have great faith in the intelligence of the American viewer and reader to put two and two together and come up with four. Sometimes they’re going to come up with five. Best I can do for them is to give them every piece of information I can find and let them make the judgments. That’s just my basic view of my function as a journalist.

ME: That goes beyond presenting a claim and several counter-claims that appear to call into question the original claim?

LEHRER: That’s part of it. Absolutely that’s part of it. I mean, if somebody says — doesn’t matter if it’s the president or who —if somebody says, “It rained on Thursday,” and you know for a fact it didn’t rain on Thursday, if the person was of a nature that you felt you should quote him, “It rained on Thursday.” Second paragraph, third paragraph — or in television terms second or third sentence — you would say, “However, according to the weather bureau it didn’t [rain Thursday].” But you don’t call the person a liar. The person who would call that person a liar would be the person who’d read that story and say, “My god, Billy Bob lied.” But I’m not doing that. I’m providing the information so that the person can make their decision. People might say, “Well the weather bureau has lied. Or I was out that day and it was raining …”

ME: Is there any place for writing, “Billy Bob said it rained Thursday. The weather bureau said it didn’t. I was out that day and I say it didn’t.”

LEHRER: I would never do that. That’s not my function to do that.

ME: Is it a newspaper’s function?

LEHRER: Look, I’m just telling you what I do, ok? I’m an expert on the NewsHour and it isn’t how I practice journalism. I am not involved in the story. I serve only as a reporter or someone asking questions. I am not the story.

Back to Lehrer’s words this week (to the Sun):

It isn’t about pressing the candidates. It’s to make it possible for the people who are running for president to exchange their ideas rather than to bounce off mine.

Hey, I complained about all the “Russert-based questions” in a 2007 primary debate moderated by Tim Russert. I hear Lehrer’s it’s not about me point.

And yet Lehrer’s vision of A Presidential Debate (“the people who are running for president exchange their ideas”) sounds like an event at which a moderator would be superfluous, and one that therefore works well only if “exchange their ideas” is really, in earnest, what “the people who are running for president” aim to do at the debate. Is it?

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.