Brokaw had an ideal opportunity to shed some light. Given the recent jamboree of talk about “small towns” and “Main Street” as constituting an America that is more “real,” more “authentic,” more “heartland” than the rest of America, wouldn’t you think this would be an teachable moment for telling people how much of the country is actually rural? The 2000 census classifies 19.7 percent of the country as living outside metropolitan areas. Of these, it classifies 11.6 percent of the population as strictly rural—smaller than the percentage of African-Americans or Hispanics in the population, although these are frequently called “minorities.” Must the anchors go on genuflecting to a shrinking “heartland,” pandering as if its residents are the “real” American soul? There are 3.6 times as many Brooklynites as Alaskans, for example—are they chopped moose?

Brokaw closed with this: “Isn’t it also time for these candidates to…say to the American people, ‘You’ve got a role in this, too. You’ve got to step up.’ We’re not going to make gain without some pain here in the next year, and, in fact, the American people have been part of the problem that we have right now. A lot of them took loans that they should—ought not to have taken. Credit card debt is very high. And they want to turn a blind eye to things like entitlements, Medicare and how we’re going to pay for it.”

Evidently, Brokaw, like Noonan, is attached to an abstract idea of evenhandedness. The assumption is that, until proven otherwise, everyone’s equally nasty in a nasty world. Everyone’s equally greedy, equally guilty.

On nastiness, Brokaw did refrain from false equivalence. Earlier in the show, he noted that the McCain campaign has announced that smears directed against Obama’s “absence of character” and “absence of leadership qualities” constituted its systematic strategy. Meanwhile, according to Evan Tracey, who tracks national ad spending for the Campaign Media Analysis Group, McCain is devoting almost all his advertising to negative ads, while, to quote Greg Sargent of Talking Points Memo, “of [Obama’s] $2.4 million weekly, Tracey says, well over half —$1.4 million—is funding the spot called ‘Real Change,’ which criticizes the status quo but doesn’t mention McCain once.” So credit Brokaw with refraining from phony equivalence on that score.

But as for Brokaw’s parting statement, it reflected a largely Republican view of the world, camouflaged as a tribute to fairness and balance. “The American people have been part of the problem.” How much? Ten percent? A quarter? Three quarters? Half? Such a statement, while balanced, is empty. Of course those who availed themselves of cheap back-loaded loans, assuming the bubble would never burst, are complicit. Missing from this account: the deregulation that permitted the banks to pass the bucks and conceal the bubble’s dimensions. Missing from this account: the marketing apparatus that shoves credit cards into people’s hands. Missing too, under the general rubric of “entitlements”: the excellent solvency of the Social Security system, whose efficiency is a modern marvel—thanks to Congress for refusing the Bush privatization that John McCain supported.

Brokaw’s bland evasiveness here does not bode well for what we can expect from his turn as moderator, at this Tuesday’s debate. But then again, Brokaw lowered his own bar.

Todd Gitlin , who teaches journalism at Columbia, is the author of a new book, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.