Jim Lehrer’s debate moderation mauled by critics

Dylan Stableford
The Ticket

It was a rough night for President Barack Obama and Big Bird at the first of three presidential debates. It was even worse for Jim Lehrer.

The 78-year-old moderator, who is executive editor and former anchor of "PBS NewsHour," was torn apart by critics who said he lost control of the debate, held at the University of Denver, as the two candidates talked over him throughout the 90-minute exchange.

The trouble began early, when Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney interrupted Lehrer—moderating his 12th presidential debate—as he tried to change topics.

"I get the last word of this segment," Romney said.

"Romney just ran right over Lehrer," tweeted Dana Loesch, the conservative radio talk show host.

The New York Times' Ashley Parker described it as a steamroll.

Some compared Lehrer, who came out of semiretirement to moderate Wednesday's debate, to NFL replacement officials. Others said he was like a rug or, worse, an empty chair.

"Lehrer has completely lost it," Reuters' Felix Salmon wrote.

"I feel badly for Jim Lehrer tonight," The Washington Post's Ezra Klein tweeted.

It wasn't long before "Poor Jim" began trending on Twitter.

"Regardless of who you think is winning," ABC News legal analyst Dan Abrams wrote on Twitter, "Jim Lehrer is losing."

"New drinking game," he added. "When Jim Lehrer is ignored ... DRINK!"

BuzzFeed promptly produced a sizzle reel of Lehrer's pummeling.

Lehrer's "open-ended questions frequently lacked sharpness," Associated Press television critic David Bauder wrote, noting that at one point Lehrer asked Romney, "Would you have a question you'd like to ask the president about what he just said?"

"I wondered if we needed a moderator since we had Mitt Romney," Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said on CNN.

"It's likely that he knew most of his efforts to move the candidates off their talking points were going to fail," USA Today's Robert Bianco wrote. "Which might be why, fairly quickly in, he seemed to give up."

Bianco was one of the few critics who defended him:

To be fair, the format put Lehrer in an almost impossible situation. If you give the candidates free rein, as he pretty much did, you end up with a debate that wanders, sometimes incomprehensibly, from surface point to surface point. If you step in too often, you risk grabbing the focus at an event that is supposed to be centered on the two candidates—and you get slammed as biased by whichever candidate suffers under your tighter control.

"Still," he added, "some control might have been nice. Perhaps Lehrer can keep that in mind if a 13th debate comes his way."

That may not happen.

As CNN contributor Erick Erickson tweeted: "I think it is safe to say last night was the last debate Jim Lehrer will moderate."