In Defense of Jim Lehrer

Jim Lehrer, moderator of last week's first presidential debate, was almost universally trashed for allowing the candidates, especially Mitt Romney, to control the pace of the encounter and for seeming to have no control of the event.

But the problem wasn't Lehrer. The format called for an open exchange to allow candidates to go at each other. Lehrer's role, by design (and by his nature throughout his career), was not to insert himself into arguments or questions but to offer topics for discussion.

He said as much after the debate and again on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Monday.

Part of the problem, I'm convinced, is that all of us have grown used to broadcast "journalists" yelling at guests and being more participants in issue discussions than observers who allow both sides to have their say.

Lehrer is old-school and correctly thinks moderators should moderate, not play along.

The problem in the first debate was that President Obama didn't play; he, not Lehrer, allowed Romney to run the show without challenge.

Lehrer is a classy guy, a respected journalist who began his career with newspapers in Texas. He's also a consumately fair interviewer who's won top broadcasting awards, including an Emmy and a Peabody.

(As a matter of full disclosure, I had the pleasure of working with Lehrer years ago on a national public TV project, have seen and talked with him since and so am a biased fan.)

But one thing this first debate did was get folks thinking of alternate formats.

Maybe we should have no moderator.

A friend in New Jersey suggests one of the "debates" be replaced with two editorial board sessions: Obama before the Wall Street Journal ed board taking questions for 45 minutes; Romney before the New York Times ed board doing the same.

Or just put the two on stage and let them go at it.

Both of these ideas are appealing. And either would put more pressure on the candidates than on any single moderator.

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