Bringing order to election madness

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Debates: Many people will remember in the voting booth how Al Gore and George W. Bush respond to moderator Jim Lehrer's questions.

September 27, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

For years, Walter Cronkite defined integrity in television news. At once commanding and calm, the veteran newsman elicited trust from viewers, competitors and public figures alike.

Two decades after Cronkite's departure from CBS, network news programs are drawing a smaller share of the viewing audience, and softer stories on consumer and health trends often dominate. Many cable talk shows are more likely to generate 1,000 points of heat than shed any light.

So who has inherited the mantle of the nation's most trusted newscaster? The next president of the United States, whoever that may be, has suggested an answer: Jim Lehrer of PBS.

In the search for debate moderators, Lehrer's name - and his alone - passed muster with the rival camps for George W. Bush and Al Gore, who would be inclined to clash over the hours of operation at a 7-Eleven .

Lehrer is best known as the anchor of "The NewsHour," a most grown-up newscast on PBS insulated from the ratings chase, a program where complexity is explored and nuance embraced. As in 1996, Lehrer will be the sole questioner in the three presidential debates.

Kim Hume, Washington bureau chief for Fox News, considers Lehrer a strong journalist and calls him "an obvious, uncontroversial choice, which is exactly what both campaigns are looking for."

Other prominent journalists sure show more fire. In 1988, CNN's Bernard Shaw, the moderator of this year's vice presidential debate, futilely sought evidence of passion in Michael Dukakis by asking whether he'd support the death penalty if his wife were raped and killed - a question Dukakis misinterpreted simply as a question about policy. This month, NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert asked Hillary Rodham Clinton during a Senate debate if she were ashamed for misleading the nation about her husband's affair with Monica Lewinsky.

That's just not Lehrer's style. "The browbeating question, the tough-sounding question, is often the easiest for the politician to slip out of," says Robert MacNeil, Lehrer's longtime collaborator. "The tough question is the one that really gets the subject thinking, and may get them to say more than they expected - giving him enough rope to hang himself."

Lehrer himself puts it this way: if "all people remember, when it's over, are the questions, rather than the answers, then we have failed. I'm lucky; I'm very comfortable with people not remembering me at all."

That Lehrer loves these debates emerges in a documentary he put together that includes interviews with all the living presidents and most of their opponents. Although WETA (Ch. 26) broadcast the two-hour documentary on Sunday evening, MPT (Ch. 22), astonishingly, carried more than four hours of "Mystery!" that night and has no plans to air the documentary in the future.

There are those who reject the worth of the debates, saying they are too controlled by the candidates. Don Hewitt, the executive producer of "60 Minutes" who directed the first presidential debate program for CBS, dismisses them as "joint press conferences."

Lehrer bristles at that characterization. "The whole point is here are some folks who want you to vote for them as president of the United States, the most powerful job not only in the country but the whole world, and here is some of what they believe," he says. "It is literally part of a voters' guide."

It may surprise some viewers that Lehrer has a subversive sense of humor, which surfaces with a vengeance in his novels. In his 1995 satire, "The Last Debate," knowingly written like yet another insider account of Washington scandal, Lehrer conjures up a debate panel that decides to take a presidential election into its own hands. One candidate, a venomous racist, is simply too wretched to be allowed to stomp his hapless liberal opponent, the four reporters on the panel ultimately decide.

Initially, before revealing his scheme, the moderator mouths all the right platitudes to his fellow journalists on the panel: "We all are here as invited guests, as professionals willing to contribute our services on behalf of voter education and edification." He rails against "the New Arrogants" - a class of celebrity reporters who set the agenda for the rest of the country.

But 40 pages on, the same moderator has convinced his colleagues to destroy the career of a major political figure by abandoning almost every precept of fairness known in newsrooms.

The idea for "The Last Debate" took hold in 1988, when Lehrer stood in a Winston-Salem, N.C., hotel lobby clutching a folder that held the questions for a presidential debate he was to moderate that night. Lehrer turned to his wife, the author Kate Lehrer, and said, "Boy, the Dukakis and Bush campaigns would give a lot of money to get their hands on these."

Not skipping a beat, she said, "There's probably a novel in there somewhere."

Lehrer recalls thinking later: "There's a lot of power in the hands of these folks, these journalist types."

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