Balkinization  

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Time to put him out to pasture

Sandy Levinson

No, not John McCain. Rather, Jim Lehrer, who, we're informed has moderated eleven presidential debates since 1988. That's enough. If there were any reason to believe he were particularly good at it, that would be one thing. But he isn't. He asks "thoughtful questions," as defined by the Washington establishment, and has no instinct for any kind of jugular. He asked a couple of followup questions when the candidates clearly didn't want to answer his question, such as what programs would be sacrificed to pay for the bailout, but that really was it so far as probing was concerned.

I'm still furious at him for failing to ask a single question about Abu Ghraib in 2004, which helped to take the issue of torture off the table until George W. Bush was kind enough to nominate Alberto Gonzales for AG after his election. He muffed it again on torture this year: Both Obama and McCain declared their opposition to torture, but, of course, McCain has refused to support banning torture by the CIA and other non-military agencies. And Obama, who already has most of the anti-torture vote, has no incentive to call McCain on this because I suspect that many undecided voters may actually support torture by the CIA. So it was up to Lehrer to press the issue when it emerged, and, of course, he didn't. And, while McCain was telling us the benefits of world travel and meeting foreign leaders, Lehrer left entirely unasked why in the world he picked the tragi-comically unprepared Gov. Palin to be one heartbeat away. Does he really think she's equipped to take over should anything happen to him? Enquiring minds would have been interested in McCain's answer, but Jim Lehrer was apparently too incurious to ask it (or perhaps he thought it would be too impolite).

And, of course, the debate feeds my own obsession about our treating the President as our "constitutional dictator." Even I recognize that, along with the "Great Decider," there's also an administrative apparatus. So why not ask them if they're prepared to name, say, five or six people they are considering for Secretary of State or Defense? Why do we absurdly continue to elect presidents without any real knowledge of what their administrations will be like. Or Lehrer might have asked them the best book on foreign policy they've read in, say, the past year. McCain would undoubtedly have picked Terror and Consent, by my friend Philip Bobbitt, which could certainly serve as the basis for further questions by an informed moderator.

I never want to see Jim Lehrer moderating a debate again. I have no reason to think he's a bad person, and, who knows, perhaps the News Hour is pretty good. (As should be obvious, I rarely watch it.) But it's way past time to find someone new to moderate the debates. Far, far better if the moderators over the three sessions included people like Andrew Sullivan, Peggy Noonan, Paul Krugman, EJ Dionne, or Charles Krauthammer (and maybe even Bill Kristol), which might produce some real intellectual sparks instead of the Lehrer, Bob Schieffer and Tom Brokaw, with their insufferable tones of high-minded and polite blandness.



Comments:

Better yet, I would like to see these men in town hall, Lincoln/Douglas free style debates. No canned questions from a moderator. This way we can see how these men think on their feet. If Saddleback is any indication, I can see why Mr. Obama avoids this format.
 

"Why do we absurdly continue to elect presidents without any real knowledge of what their administrations will be like."

'Cause there's this really stupid law that treats announcing your cabinet in advance as a form of corruption? At any rate, I think that's part of it.

And to an extent it's not true that we lack that knowledge; It would be closer to the truth that people who pay attention can gather such knowledge, but they're doing it in the teeth of the candidates' efforts to deceive them. For instance, we know that Obama would be seriously hostile to the first two amendments of the Bill of Rights. The 13th amendment, too, I'd say based on his enthusiasm for widespread involuntary servitude... McCain, OTOH, would be out to eviscerate freedom of political speech in the name of fighting 'corruption', (Defined as anybody other than the candidates getting a word in edgewise.) and his temper is only going to get worse as he starts into senile dementia.

It's true Lehrer has no "instinct for the jugular", he doesn't think that attacking people is part of his job as a journalist. Me, I find that a bit refreshing, for all that these clowns could use some genuinely probing questions. This is supposed to be a debate, not two interviews that happen to take place in the same room.

Probing questions ought to be handled by the candidates themselves. My dream debate? Just the candidates on a stage, with alternating time periods to speak, their mikes dead while it's not their turn.
 

I have to say that one of what I perceive as a serious weakness of the US election process is the absence of any serious interrogation of the candidates by skilled interviewers such as in this BBC news interview: Paxman Interviews Michael Howard 1997

Paxman also did it to Kissinger in 1999:-
Kissinger Fury at Paxman Grilling

How can the public form a view of the qualities of a candidate from the sort of deferential interviewing which appears to be the US norm?
 

The candidates negotiated a new format for this debate designed to reduce the role of the moderator. It is a step in the direction of Lincoln Douglass debates and a welcome one, in my view. To be sure, there is a need for tough journalistic questioning during the campaign, but that is not a debate. The heavy hand of journalism has destroyed the art of debate in American political discourse and these candidates should be commended for moving, however hesitantly, back to a robust idea of debate. Jim Lehrer did a superb job of executing the format that was designed by the Commission on Presidential Debates. If you have a problem with the format, your complaint was misdirected. The moderator received well deserved praise from much of the punditocracy after the event. They seemed to understand the job he was assigned, another welcome development.
 

I suspect that many undecided voters may actually support torture by the CIA.

Professor Levinson, I would have said the same before yesterday, but watching the debate on CNN with the opinion tracker, it would seem this assumption is wrong. Both Obama and McCain got large, immediate positive responses when they disavowed torture. (I'm sure there are clips on youtube that include the tracker if you're interested in seeing this response for yourself). There was a more immediate response to this answer than there was to just about anything else I saw all night--most other favorable responses tended to be slow swells, not immediate jumps. It's possible that the CNN polling was unrepresentative or poorly designed or had some other inherent flaw of which I am unaware. But taking it at face value for a moment, it would seem that the evils of torture are, perhaps, one of the more unifying issues in the current election.
 

The problem, Mourad, is that in this country our media are almost entirely of one of the two parties. Which rather precludes insightful interviewing, because one side gets treated with kid gloves, the other is just attacked.

You need a media that doesn't see itself as on one of the sides for that sort of thing to work.
 

Does Sandy want the debates to be more of an "intellectual feast" (if I have Bork's terminology right)?

Whether or not the moderator was tough, I think the two candidates acquitted themselves quite well.

Having watched Sarkozy and Royal debate across a table from one another, I thought the two American candidates were easily as substantive and persuasive as their French counterparts. The Americans even spared us the feigned shock/outrage that was so memorable in the French encounter.
 

Both Obama and McCain declared their opposition to torture, but, of course, McCain has refused to support banning torture by the CIA and other non-military agencies. And Obama, who already has most of the anti-torture vote, has no incentive to call McCain on this because I suspect that many undecided voters may actually support torture by the CIA.

I think most voters think of McCain, wrongly, as opposed to torture. In fact, he enabled it when he refused to ban the CIA from using it. Obama should take advantage of this to educate the public and call him out on this.
 

Recently an insurance company nearly wind up....

A bank is nearly bankrupt......

Who fault?

Now using tax payer money, $700B is used to save finance industry only, how about the industry that you are in.....retail industry, construction industry, manufacturing industry, R&D, electronics, electrical, mechanical, chemical, IT etc.... each industry will be able to enjoy at least $10B.......



The top management of the Public listed company ( belong to "public" ) salary should be tied a portion of it to the shares price ( IPO or ave 5 years ).... so when the shares price drop, it don't just penalise the investors, but those who don't take care of the company.....If this rule is pass on, without any need of further regulation, all industries ( as long as it is public listed ) will be self regulated......




Sign a petition to your favourite president candidate and ask for their views to comment on this......If you agree on my point, please let as many people know as possible....

Media and finance sector is the only two sector ( hopefully Hacker can also ) which can overcome political incorrect power, so it is time to fine tune to the correct path, so hopefully media can united to report the truth......

http://remindmyselfinstock.blogspot.com
 

Recently an insurance company nearly wind up....

A bank is nearly bankrupt......

How it affect you? Did you buy insurance? Did you buy mini note or bonds?

Who fault?

They only talk about how bad the crisis will be, but they did not give regulation measures…..

Now using tax payer money, $700B is used to save finance industry only, how about the industry that you are in.....retail industry, construction industry, manufacturing industry, R&D, electronics, electrical, mechanical, chemical, IT etc.... each industry will be able to enjoy at least $10B.......



The top management of the Public listed company ( belong to "public" ) salary should be tied a portion of it to the shares price ( IPO or ave 5 years ).... so when the shares price drop, it don't just penalise the investors, but those who don't take care of the company.....If this rule is pass on, without any need of further regulation, all industries ( as long as it is public listed ) will be self regulated......




Sign a petition to your favourite president candidate and ask for their views to comment on this......If you agree on my point, please let as many people know as possible....

Media and finance sector are the only two sectors ( hopefully Hacker can also ) which can overcome political incorrect power, so it is time to fine tune to the correct path, so hopefully media can united to report the truth......
 

Prof. Levinson:

o why not ask them if they're prepared to name, say, five or six people they are considering for Secretary of State or Defense?

McInsane has heaped praise in the past on Cheney and Rumsfeld, and suggested those are people he'd be inclined to appoint....

Cheers,
 

"Bart" DePalma:

Better yet, I would like to see these men in town hall, Lincoln/Douglas free style debates. No canned questions from a moderator. This way we can see how these men think on their feet. If Saddleback is any indication, I can see why Mr. Obama avoids this format.

Obama didn't "avoid" Saddleback.

But Saddleback was not a "debate". It was Warren asking Obama questions first, some "loaded", and McInsane (or his aides) getting to hear them in advance and the reply, and having a stock answer ready for their turn.

Despite that, Obama did well.

Cheers,
 

Brett:

The problem, Mourad, is that in this country our media are almost entirely of one of the two parties. Which rather precludes insightful interviewing, because one side gets treated with kid gloves, the other is just attacked.

Indeed. See, e.g., the voluminous archives of The Daily Howler.

Or Greenwald's recent criticism of the media.

Cheers,
 

I appreciate Jeff Tulis's comment, and I am sure he is correct. Criticizing Lehrer may be the equivalent of wanting to shoot the messenger instead of directing criticism where it should really be directed. That being said, Lehrer has the right, I believe, to ask whatever questions he wants, including hard-hitting followups. Ted Koppel used to do that when he was interviewing people, though one advantage, I gather, of putting people in another room rather than right in front of him was that he felt freer to be a stronger interviewer. In any event, I'd take Koppel in a sec over Lehrer.

As to Brett's comment, I consider myself something of a political junkie, but I am not confident as to whom Obama will choose as Secretaries of State, Defense, and Treasury. I'm even less confident re McCain, given that his views on foreign policy are somewhat schizoid. Is he a neo-con (his principal adviser) or a realist (Kissinger)? But Brett may be right that some people interpret an existing federal law as prohibiting "promising" a job in advance of election. One can understand its purpose, but it is stupid and, what is worse, absolutely pernicious if applied to presidential elections.

I see no reason at all to assume that Obama is not a vigorous proponent of the First Amendment. As to te Second, I suppose it all depends how robustly one reads Heller, and, frankly, there is no good reason to read it as protecting anything more than Dick Heller's right to have a handgun in his own home.
 

For once I agree with Bart. The candidates should engage in real debates, each raising whatever issues he or she likes and putting the other on the spot if the opponent is unable to answer effectively. A first step would be to put the debates back in the hands of a non-partisan organization like the League of Women Voters, from whom the parties took control precisely in order to lower the quality of the debates. In addition to such Lincoln/Douglas style debates, I'd like to see the candidates, perhaps in some cases with appropriate members of their "shadow cabinet", interviewed by panels of experts on subjects such as foreign policy, economics, the environment, etc., not by talking heads.
 

"And Obama, who already has most of the anti-torture vote, has no incentive to call McCain on this because I suspect that many undecided voters may actually support torture by the CIA. So it was up to Lehrer to press the issue when it emerged, and, of course, he didn't."

And you've just explained why. Undecided voters don't care or may favor torture, and those who do care already know who they're voting for. So what good does it do the American people to ask a question that they don't care about? Help confirm your anti-McCain biases? No, you ask questions that matter to undecided voters.
 

The assumption driving a lot of this discussion is, "If only we had better presidential debates, we'd have better presidents and/or a better democracy." I think this assumption is seriously deficient.

There is no particular reason to think that debating skills are an essential ingredient in a successful presidency, or, for that matter, in a successful progressive presidency. Moreover, I do not think no-holds-barred debates would expose for all to see and comprehend the lies and distortions that often drive presidential campaigns these days. The information is already there for those who wish to avail themselves of it.

I think there is a serious rationalist bias here.
 

pinkerd:

I'm afraid that you are probably largely right. However, one thing that more rigorous debates would bring out is how much the candidates know about the various topics, which some voters might consider relevant. It could also provide the opportunity to pin candidates down on false or contradictory statements.
 

Brett said:

"The problem, Mourad, is that in this country our media are almost entirely of one of the two parties. Which rather precludes insightful interviewing, because one side gets treated with kid gloves, the other is just attacked.""

Actually, Brett, this may be a regulatory problem rather than anything else. The hundreds of gallons of ink that are expended on political news and comment in the print media hardly impact on politics any more - because so few voters pay much attention to the press any more. They get their political news and comment from TV and Radio. But when licensing stations to occupy the frequencies the FCC does not appear to impose much by way of standards.

In the UK we also licence - and we have quite stringent content standards including a requirements for a given proportion of air time to meet "public service" requirements.

One sees the results with the difference between Murdoch's "Sky News" in the UK and his "Fox News" in the USA. "Sky News" is "fair and balanced" and regularly wins awards for the quality of its output, while in the USA his product which actually claims to be "fair and balanced" is often referred to as "Faux News".

What we get out of regulation is programme makers competing to produce quality news and public affairs - and quite a lot of the public prefers that programming to the eternal mindless soaps.

A good example would be the BBC Question Time programme. This is a roadshow which goes round the country. There is an invited audience whose participants are selected to broadly represent the national political preferences.

Political parties put up panelists - and there will usually one or two others (a journalist or a clergy man or a union leader). The questions are submitted by the audience as they go into the venue and are selected by the programme staff for topicality. The panel have no advance knowledge of what the questions will be. There is of course a moderator.

It makes for good television and gets high ratings. As an example see last week's episode which, as it happens, discussed the US and UK financial bailouts: Question Time - Manchester

Look at it and see whether the format would work in the USA. I think it might.
 

I'm all for regulating the crap out of cable news. Or even publicly financing the whole thing. Political reporting's too important to be left to profiteers.
 

The News Hour is very good -- in fact, it's the only thing going as far as television news is concerned. And your reason for being "furious" at Lehrer -- that he failed to ask your preferred question about a 4-year-old incident in a debate half devoted to the economy -- is, frankly, weird.
 

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