Sixty million viewers are expected to tune in to the first presidential debate on Wednesday between President Obama and Governor Romney, but few are watching to see the third character in this political theater: the debate’s moderator, Jim Lehrer. The choice of moderator has become increasingly important and controversial in recent years, as candidates have come to engage more directly with moderators, and the public expects moderators to solicit participation from viewers. With Lehrer facing criticism that he is a “safe choice,” he may throw us a curve ball in the first debate.
To say the selection of Lehrer as moderator was predictable would be an understatement. This will be the 12th presidential debate he has moderated since 1988.
Lehrer certainly has the experience and qualifications to make him a reasonable selection. He anchored PBS’s primary news show, the “PBS NewsHour,” from 1975-2011 and now serves as the program’s Executive Editor. His journalism has received dozens of awards, and his objectivist style makes him a likeable debate moderator.
But this year, the choice of Lehrer has drawn greater criticism. Is his 12th presidential debate the straw that broke the camel’s back? Do we really need another old white male selecting the questions asked to the presidential nominees?
This year marks the first time in 20 years that a woman has been selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) to moderate a presidential debate, but many would like to see even greater diversity among moderators. Diversity matters because the moderator has the sole responsibility of selecting the questions asked (while the topics are pre-selected in a process involving the major campaigns and the CPD). Choose a female moderator, and a question about gender inequality in the U.S. might come up. Throw in a Hispanic moderator and the debate may take a turn toward immigration issues. Choose a Millennial moderator — gasp — and who knows what could happen!
In an age where America’s thoughts and opinions can be monitored by a quick glance at Google Trends and Twitter hashtags, presidential debates could involve more participation from the voting public. Imagine an “American Idol” meets “Meet the Press” event where viewers could text in their votes for the next question asked.
But Lehrer isn’t too interested in social media, and he hasn’t taken the criticism of his selection particularly well either.
“It’s a rough, rough world — I know that,” Mr. Lehrer told the New York Times. “And those of us who have decided to play in that world have to play by those rules. I’m susceptible to the same smears as anyone else.”
Lehrer is reportedly “seething” and “exasperated” by the increased attention paid to his selection this year, which may lead him to venture out of his comfort zone and prove that even an “old white guy” knows what matters most to Americans.
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