Democracy Soup

Making sense out of the world of politics

Moderators aren’t helping us learn much about presidential candidates

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Originally published on on Wed, 10/08/2008 – 2:39pm

Are we learning anything from these presidential debates? Yes, I know debates are more like television shows. They aren’t there to provide you with information – this is what the Internet is for. They are provided for those with very busy schedules to be spoon-fed some basic information about the major party candidates.

Some of this fault lies with the two major parties and their interference in the negotiation process of the debates, so that their candidates can’t be challenged by each other or the moderator.

But in the first three of the four debates, we have also seen that the moderators aren’t helping to improve the process.

Yes, Jim Lehrer and Gwen Ifill are trusted TV reporters and anchors. Tom Brokaw and Bob Schieffer have been in our televisions in numerous roles for 35-45 years. And combined, they have moderated quite a few debates, and that might be part of the problem.

There is still this “Gotcha” mentality to debates, designed to get a capricious sound byte to make the politician noteworthy, and more importantly, add fame and prestige to the moderator who inspired the question.

Let’s start with Jim Lehrer. He starts the first debate, pounding home the point of the financial plan: “Gentlemen, at this very moment tonight, where do you stand on the financial recovery plan?”

Well, the details “at this very moment tonight” weren’t clear. How would anyone know how to react to a bill when they don’t know all that is in it? We had Congressmen who didn’t read all of the PATRIOT Act and voted “yes”; look at where that got us.

Now, you could give the benefit of the doubt: after all, Lehrer wanted to get the item out there right away. But his second question (in a foreign policy debate that allowed some 39 minutes of economy questions) was the same: “How do you all stand on the recovery plan?”

This isn’t a question that can get a direct answer without compromising integrity, but was designed for a “gotcha” moment. Neither Obama or McCain would help out Lehrer.

The question that was probably the most infuriating was this classic:

“As president, as a result of whatever financial rescue plan comes about and the billion, $700 billion, whatever it is it’s going to cost, what are you going to have to give up, in terms of the priorities that you would bring as president of the United States, as a result of having to pay for the financial rescue plan?”

I find it fascinating that moderators ask this type of question where blame can’t be assigned, and because Wall Street needs this money, we can’t possibly help those on Main Street. Why not? The moderators may not be biased (more on that later), but they are corporate-biased. You might think that’s funny coming from PBS, but corporations influence PBS coverage more than the commercial networks since an individual company doesn’t have much clout in 8 minutes of commercials in a 30-minute block.

In a 90-minute debate, Lehrer wasted time asking the same question FOUR times.

What made this question worse was that Gwen Ifill, upset that no one “answered” the question to Lehrer’s liking or hers, asked the same question to Sarah Palin and Joe Biden.

“I want to get — try to get you both to answer a question that neither of your principals quite answered when my colleague, Jim Lehrer, asked it last week, starting with you, Senator Biden. What promises — given the events of the week, the bailout plan, all of this, what promises have you and your campaigns made to the American people that you’re not going to be able to keep?”

So we had the same insipid question in two different debates. There are 360 minutes in the four debates to address everything, and Ifill wastes a question on a “gotcha” question from a different debate.

But Ifill didn’t have to rely on Lehrer’s retreads. She had a classic all her own:

“Senator Biden, we want to talk about taxes, let’s talk about taxes. You proposed raising taxes on people who earn over $250,000 a year. The question for you is, why is that not class warfare and the same question for you, Governor Palin, is you have proposed a tax employer health benefits which some studies say would actually throw five million more people onto the roles of the uninsured. I want to know why that isn’t taking things out on the poor, starting with you, Senator Biden.”

Assuming Ifill makes over $250,000 a year, her assumption is insulting that taxes on those making over $250,000 a year is suddenly class warfare when the Bush tax cuts never had that label. If she doesn’t make that much (it is PBS after all), then she needs to understand (as Charlie Gibson failed to learn earlier) that only 6% of Americans make $100,000 or more per year.

Now Ifill had a tough task: she had a participant who blatantly said she would not answer the question presented by the moderator. And Gov. Palin got away with it because she knew Ifill would do nothing. If a moderator can’t step up, then what’s the point. Ifill chastised both candidates if they didn’t answer a question, but if Biden did answer the question, and Palin didn’t, the Alaska governor had free rein. Ifill also guided Palin to follow up questions, as if this was Palin’s first day of high school.

Richard Cohen of The Washington Post had one of the better lines in a critique of Ifill.

“In spite of it all, much of the media saw a credible performance. I could quote the hosannas of some of my colleagues, but I spare them the infamy that will surely follow them to their graves. (The debate’s moderator, Gwen Ifill, used the occasion to catch up on some sleep.)”

When Ifill went on “Meet The Press” to reflect on the debate, she tried to be neutral by pointing out that Biden decided that he was going to debate John McCain and Palin decided to give a stump speech to the American people. But if Ifill had reflected back on previous vice presidential debates, they are rarely about the people but their bosses. What Biden did was normal expected behavior; what Palin did was insulting and degrading to the process, yet Ifill felt they were “equal.”

There were vague and horribly deceptive tactics on the part of the right wing to discredit Ifill since she (along with many other reporters) is writing a book about the campaign. Did the tactics succeed?

But let’s go on to the coup de grace so far: Tom Brokaw’s “performance” last night. Brokaw also has had numerous allegations against him recently, because unlike the Ifill concerns, Brokaw has had contact with the McCain campaign.

Brokaw was the worst offender so far when it came to “gotcha” moments:

“Obviously, the powers of the Treasury secretary have been greatly expanded, the most powerful officer in the Cabinet now. Hank Paulson says he won’t stay on. Who do you have in mind to appoint to that very important post?”

Presidential candidates don’t go on and discuss possible Cabinet posts; it’s usually seen as presumptuous given that the candidate may not make it to the White House. Now if Brokaw thinks this is a bad thing, he should have said so. And why did Brokaw give himself leeway to do discussion time? It felt like Brokaw got left out of the process, so he wanted his weight thrown in.

But Brokaw picked the questions of the people himself; he was the MSM filter Palin has railed against. And it showed.

The next major discussion was another “gotcha” question:

“Are you saying to Mr. Clark and to the other members of the American television audience that the American economy is going to get much worse before it gets better, and they ought to be prepared for that?”

How is a candidate supposed to know? Viewers get insulted when politicians dance around questions, but after remarks such as this, you can easily sympathize with Obama and McCain.

Brokaw certainly found the Internet questions to be scornful at times. He took the question from Langdon in Ballston Spa, New York “and that’s about huge unfunded obligations for Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs that will soon eat up all the revenue that’s in place and then go into a deficit position.”

But did Brokaw ask Langdon’s question? NO. Brokaw decided Langdon’s question wasn’t up to snuff, and asked his own question:

“Since the rules are pretty loose here, I’m going to add my own to this one. Instead of having a discussion, let me just ask you, as a coda to that, would you give Congress a date certain to reform Social Security and Medicare within two years after you take office, because, in a bipartisan way, everyone agrees that that’s a big ticking time bomb that will eat us up, maybe even more than the mortgage crisis?”

Greg Mitchell also didn’t have nice things to say about Brokaw:

“The first half was fine but then why go into the same foreign policy questions raised two weeks ago — knowing they were certain to draw the very same, almost word for word responses?”

“The transcript for the last half hour could have been typed up in advance.”

By the way, for those who wonder about Bob Schieffer, I don’t have hope this will change by the time Wednesday comes along.

Education, immigration, trade, judicial nominees, abortion – just some of the many topics that have been ignored or virtually ignored in the debates. If McCain is upset at the way the debates have gone so far, imagine if he had to explain his flip-flops on immigration.

The moderators repeat the same mantra in the beginning, a variation on this:

“The specific subjects and questions were chosen by me and have not been shared or cleared with anyone on the campaigns or on the commission.”

I believe this to be true, but the candidates, including Gov. Palin, weren’t surprised at the questions. Imagine if NAFTA or the Supreme Court or immigration came up in a question – even Obama and McCain might not be prepared. Imagine if real people came up with questions that affect them instead of being screened by a old white man who doesn’t want to rock the corporate boat and who clearly dislikes the Internet question process. Imagine if “gotcha” questions went away forever. Then democracy might be better served, and as an aside, it would make for much better television.


Written by democracysoup

October 8, 2008 at 2:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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