Jim Lehrer Offers Advice to Debate Moderators: It's Not About You (Q&A)

Jim Lehrer First Presidential Debate 2012 - H 2012
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Jim Lehrer First Presidential Debate 2012 - H 2012

"The single most important thing we do in this country is electing our president. This isn't about entertaining people. It can be very tempting to try to show [off]. It isn't about the moderator furthering their career."

Jim Lehrer has moderated 12 presidential debates. His final debate was the first face-off between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in 2012. It was watched by more than 67 million viewers; that marked a record since 1980, when 80 million watched President Jimmy Carter debate Ronald Reagan. But Lehrer expects Monday night’s Lester Holt-moderated debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to easily eclipse that.

"People want to see these two folks. And that’s what these debates are all about. It’s the only time in the campaign that the two candidates are on the same stage talking about the same thing and people get to take the measure of them. Not only for what they believe and don’t believe, but how they handle themselves. What kind of people they are, their temperament," says Lehrer.

The veteran newsman retired from the anchor chair of PBS’ NewsHour in 2011; he came out of semi-retirement to anchor the Obama-Romney debate. (He is now on the board of the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonprofit that sponsors and produces the presidential and vice-presidential debates.) Lehrer came under intense criticism for his handling of that debate in 2012 — the first of a new, more free-wheeling format — especially from supporters of President Obama, who turned in a disengaged performance in the face of verbal jabs from Romney. Lehrer talks to The Hollywood Reporter about the evolution of the debate format, Matt Lauer's handling of that Commander-in-Chief Forum and offers advice for first-time moderator Holt.

Any guess at how many will tune in to the debate?

It’s going to be probably the most watched presidential debate in history. And the reason is obvious: We’ve got two candidates who are sharply divided in all kinds of ways, on what they believe, what they stand for and also in personality. And the campaign has gotten very personal between them. And now they will be on the same stage at the same time talking to each other. And that changes the whole dynamic and it makes it very interesting (Laughs.) It could be more than interesting.

How has the moderators’ role evolved?

When they began, they were very controlled. Now the formats are much loser, much more open. The candidates can now talk to each other. They can ask each other questions. The moderator is now in a position to ask follow-ups and, more importantly, generate a give-and-take between the candidates, which is more work for the moderator. The moderator's role has changed because the format has changed. A lot of folks have not picked up on that. It’s a different. The controversy that everyone has been talking about is mostly a misunderstanding; I’m talking about Matt Lauer [who was much criticized for a Sept. 7 forum with Trump and Clinton]. That was not a debate. Those were back-to-back interviews. People called him the moderator. But he wasn’t a moderator. When you moderate, the whole thing is different. The candidates do the fact-checking back and forth, and the moderator's job is to facilitate that, to encourage it, to get it done.

So the moderator's job is harder now?

Absolutely. The moderator is the one who alone makes the decision about what the subjects are. The moderator alone makes the decision about what questions will be asked. The moderator alone makes the decision about when to move on and when to stay on a subject — and, yes, has much more power. In the beginning, there was a moderator and a couple panelists who would also ask questions. I was the first sole moderator. It’s a whole different ballgame. It’s changed dramatically for the moderator as well as the people watching.

Obama has called out the media for grading Trump “on a curve.” Trump has criticized Holt and Anderson Cooper, who is co-moderating the second debate with ABC’s Martha Raddatz. What do you make of all of this noise?

We’re in a different world, a different time. Everything is amplified much more than it ever was before. There are more outlets. There are more people involved in the process, in terms of reporting and commenting and analyzing and fact-checking. It’s a huge operation. The commotion is part of the importance of the event, in other words, electing the president, and is also the result of all the new ways that are available to amplify the differences, amplify the overall debate, amplify the charges and the counter-charges. It’s just a much larger exercise than it was before. In terms of criticizing the moderators beforehand, it just goes with the territory. If you don’t want to be criticized, don’t be a moderator because there’s no way to do it without being criticized. It’s oh, you moved on too quickly, oh you didn’t stay on that long enough, you didn’t do this, this, and this. A lot of people do not understand how these debates have changed. As a consequence, sometimes they’re using the wrong standard to judge the outcome, which I’m very sensitive to, of course.

A recent Gallup poll found that trust in the media has hit a nadir, since 1972, when Gallup has been doing the poll. How do you feel about that?

It disappoints me, obviously. I’ve spent my whole professional life, 50 years, in that business. And so the fact that people have grown to distrust it more than they have in the past, that’s not a good thing. But remember, there’s more of it now. Even 20 years ago, the media was your local newspaper, the nightly news on television, local and national programs, and three or four national publications. Now there are hundreds of ways to get information. So when somebody says the media, it isn’t just the New York Times or NBC or CBS. It’s blogs and cable and talk radio. The fact is there are so many ways to express your opinion, the end result of that is people are going to have more opinions. Serious journalism is shrinking in terms of the piece of the pie of journalism generally. It’s a tsunami of information and opinion, and it rushes to the right and the left, it rushes where you want it to go, where you don’t want it to go. It’s a great thing in that there are many more outlets. It’s a bad thing in that we don’t have shared information, a shared set of facts. We used to have that.

Do you think Trump has flouted the unwritten protocols of running for office?

One thing about journalism also is that it’s divided into what used to be three different categories; straight news reporting, analytical and opinion reporting. I’m in the first category, not the third. That’s a pundit question. I’m not a pundit. I report on what others say. I’m not going to analyze or give an opinion about Trump as a candidate, or Clinton as a candidate. 

What’s your advice to this year’s moderators?

It’s less about preparing questions than it is about preparing to listen, being comfortable enough to listen to the answer from the candidate and make a decision, live in the moment, about whether to follow up, or go to the other candidate for a response, or move on. So you have to be comfortable enough to make these kinds of split-second decisions, and the only way you get comfortable is to do your homework. You have to know what the candidates’ positions are now and what their positions may have been in the past. You can’t be thinking of the next question, you’ve got be listening. You have to be at the ultimate comfort level and the only way you can get there is to do your homework, to get it in your head, not written down on pieces of paper because you’ll never be able to read anything. And all moderators have to keep in mind that these debates are not about them. There are two players on the stage, Clinton and Trump. The moderator is not there to show off how smart, or tough he or she is. The more a moderator can stay out of it and facilitate the discussion between the candidates, the better off everybody is going to be. This is done solely for the voters, so they can make a decision for whom to vote. The single most important thing we do in this country is electing our president. This isn’t about entertaining people. It can be very tempting to try to show [off]. It isn’t about the moderator furthering their career. And these folks know this. These are solid professionals.

What was the most challenging debate in your many years as a debate moderator?

The most challenging was the last one I did, which was the first of the Obama-Romney debates, which was the first one where the candidates were encouraged to talk to each other and question each other. And that was hard going. And I was criticized – a lot – by some folks who thought I let Romney [talk] too much. Most of that came from partisans. A handler doesn’t tell the candidates that he or she screwed up. They say it’s the moderator's fault. So it was extremely difficult for me. But it was also very exhilarating. I laid back and it wasn’t easy to do. And I was criticized: "Why didn’t you step in? Why did you let him talk over [Obama]?" Because that’s what a debate is! That’s what I was there to do. That’s what I had signed on to do. And that’s going to happen in these 2016 [debates]. And the moderators will be criticized just like I was. Because somebody is going to come out a little bit better. And the people who don’t like the result are not going to blame their candidates, they’re going to blame the moderator.