So often our most stunning advances come by accident. Penicillin was discovered when a Scottish doctor examined rather than discarded a flu culture infected by mold. Likewise the chocolate-chip cookie, which was born when a Massachusetts woman put bits of Nestlé chocolate in her batter, thinking (incorrectly) that they would melt and give her chocolate cookies.
To this roll of honor we must now add what we saw on Oct. 3 in Denver: the near-ideal form of a U.S. presidential debate.
In this face-to-face matchup, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney overrode moderator Jim Lehrer whenever they wanted to say something while he was trying to call time. Even if it was simple serendipity, the debate it yielded is something ABC’s Martha Raddatz, CNN’s Candy Crowley and CBS’s Bob Schieffer would do well to emulate as they prepare for their own role as moderators in the remaining vice-presidential and presidential debates.
This high opinion of Mr. Lehrer’s achievement is not unanimous, of course. “Lehrer sucked,” tweeted comedian Bill Maher. NBC’s Al Roker chimed in, saying he hoped Mr. Lehrer got the license of “the truck that drove over him in the debate.” These complaints echoed the snark from President Obama’s deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter: “I sometimes wondered if we even needed a moderator because we had Mitt Romney.”
In fairness, though the criticism was loudest and most bitter from the left, the notion that Mr. Lehrer had botched it also came from the right. Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday declared that Mr. Lehrer “seemed to lose control over the debate occasionally.” Radio host Laura Ingraham likewise found Mr. Lehrer “a bit overwhelmed.”
Mr. Lehrer himself remains unbowed. To Politico he asserted that what happened in Denver went down just the way he’d planned, in part the result of a new debate format. “I’ve always said this and finally I had a chance to demonstrate it,” he told Politico. “The moderator should be seen little and heard even less.”
He followed up Monday on radio’s “Imus in the Morning,” saying he wasn’t in the least “apologetic” for how things went. In particular Mr. Lehrer insisted that it wasn’t his job to challenge Mr. Romney on issues favored by the cognoscenti—including the Republican’s now notorious crack about half of America mooching off the other half.
“If somebody was going to challenge Romney about the 47%,” Mr. Lehrer said, “it was going to have to be . . . the president and vice versa. They were there to do the challenging.” What a novel idea: Instead of leaving it to the press to decide what issues take priority, let the candidates choose and go at it.
Now, Mr. Lehrer’s campaign for moderator modesty may well be a post-debate defense designed to fit his performance. Even so, it is a welcome shot against the prevailing ethos of America’s Fourth Estate. In this worldview the responsibility of the modern press corps isn’t simply to report or present the news; it is to set the framework for what is and isn’t deemed acceptable to report.
It’s no surprise that most of the stories that don’t make the cut are the ones most likely to interest conservatives. Remember JournoList? Back in 2010, the Daily Caller website embarrassed a number of liberal reporters and commentators when it published comments they had posted on a Google GOOG -1.28% Groups forum for one another to read. Among the subjects they discussed during the 2008 presidential campaign: How to bury the story of Mr. Obama’s fire-breathing pastor, Jeremiah Wright, for example, by calling the preacher’s critics “racist.”
It follows from this approach that a presidential debate ought to be all about the Republican war on women, Mr. Romney’s 47% gaffe, or what he paid in income tax. Call it the George Stephanopoulos standard, for the ABC News commentator who in January abused his position as moderator of a GOP primary debate by pestering Mr. Romney repeatedly with a question at issue nowhere in America: Should contraception be outlawed?
In the days since 67 million Americans tuned in to watch Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama go at it, Mr. Lehrer’s performance has been attacked or spoofed by everyone from his fellow newscasters and the Obama campaign team to Jimmy Kimmel and “Saturday Night Live.” All fair enough, as far as it goes. Then again, Mr. Lehrer is in a good position to weather the opprobrium because he has already mostly retired.
In a statement issued the day after the debate, the Commission on Presidential Debates defended Mr. Lehrer, saying he delivered “exactly” what it had hoped for with its new format. That was a “serious discussion” of the major issues with “minimal interference by the moderator or timing signals.” If the commission means what it says, we ought to expect no less in the remaining debates from Ms. Raddatz, Ms. Crowley and Mr. Schieffer.