‘The Newsroom’ and the Presidential Debates – Part I
By Leslie Gottlieb
In Aaron Sorkin’s popular HBO series “The Newsroom” the lead character played by Jeff Daniels is the anchor of a CNN style evening news program. A major premise of the show is that TV news should not be “infotainment” but should question misleading statements or lies in interviews and “square rhetoric with facts.” In one episode Daniels and the newsroom staff want to change the format of Presidential primary debates to ask tougher, hard hitting questions based on the candidates’ statements and votes. In this hypothetical new format the moderator refuses to let the candidates off the hook with easy answers. However, the Republican National Committee, which would sponsor the debate, says the station has gone too far and rejects the idea.
The Presidential and Vice Presidential debates were hardly the vision of “The Newsroom” format, but they offer some insights and lessons. Jim Lehrer, the moderator of the first Presidential Debate is a highly respected news anchor. He may have tried to open up and change the debate and its dynamics, but I believe he failed to carry out the responsibilities of a moderator.
First, most of his questions were not pointed and specific but broad and open ended. Those of us who have done media interviews know how much easier it is to answer an open ended question like one that Lehrer asked: “What are the differences between the two of you as to how you would go about tackling the deficit problem in this country?” And he let the candidates to go on with little restraint or push back. How much more difficult it would have been to answer this question, “Governor Romney, you have repeatedly stated that President Obama cut $716 million from Medicare. Yet the facts are that the $716 million was cut from providers not from the Medicare system, how do you explain that?” That would have been a better question and it may have elicited a clearer answer and sharper policy difference between the 2 candidates. Lehrer could have asked a similar tough question to the President.
Second, Lehrer failed his responsibilities when he did not challenge unclear or misleading statements. For example, when Mitt Romney repeatedly stated that he is not proposing a $5 trillion tax cut Lehrer let that go unchallenged. Yet, according to the NY Times, Gov. Romney has proposed cutting all marginal tax rates by 20% which would cut tax revenue by $5 trillion. Perhaps Lehrer did not know the facts. More likely he did not see it as his role to try to elicit the truth. He could have been more aggressive and followed up with specific questions and pointed out statements that were vague or simply false.
During the Vice Presidential debate last week Martha Raddatz, a veteran ABC TV journalist, got a bit closer to “The Newsroom” ideal. She was more pointed and aggressive and did not let the candidates off the hook so easily. For example, in one question about unemployment she asked “… will both of you level with the American people? Can you get unemployment to fewer than 6 percent, and how long will it take?” And, when the answers were not specific she followed up. She also pushed back on other issues.
While the format was different in last night’s second Presidential debate, Candy Crowley the moderator from CNN followed on the Martha Raddatz approach. She started by announcing that her goal was to “give direction to the conversation and make sure the questions get answered.” She also followed up and asked for specifics and brought the context of prior votes and positions into the debate.
Of course, it is also clearly up to the opponent in any debate to point out his or her position and the flaws in the other candidates’ arguments or data. However, while the moderator may not be an umpire in a major league baseball game ready to call the candidate “out” he or she should not be passive either. While being fair and even handed, the role of the moderator in a political debate should be to arbitrate, push back, clarify and illuminate positions and facts for the audience.
What is the role and responsibility of the TV news media in presenting and televising presidential debates?
Is there a better way to balance the demands of a televised debate with the public’s right to know the facts?