Study: Candidates cut Lehrer off three times more than in 2008

President Obama and Mitt Romney talked over moderator Jim Lehrer 30 times during Wednesday’s debate, a study from George Mason University’s Center for Media and Public Affairs says. In the first debate between Obama and John McCain in 2008, the candidates cut off the moderator — also Lehrer — 10 times. “Neither candidate was mainly to blame; most often the questions dissolved into crosstalk, with both candidates talking over the moderator,” a press release announcing the study says.

According to CMPA President Dr. S Robert Lichter, “Lehrer was just as aggressive in his questions as he was four years ago. But the candidates were less willing [to] let him ask them.”

CMPA found that 21 percent of Lehrer’s 2008 questions pushed back on the candidates, while 26 percent did Wednesday.

Lehrer drew a lot of criticism for his performance in Wednesday’s debate. In a statement yesterday he said, “Part of my moderator mission was to stay out of the way of the flow and I had no problems with doing so.”

He elaborated in an interview with The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi:

It was frustrating as it began happening, when they didn’t answer the questions directly and they went over time. But I kept reminding myself: “Hey, wait a minute. Waaait a minute. This isn’t about rules. This is about the reality of the exchange of the two candidates.” So I just backed off. . . . I had no problem doing that. Yes, there were times when I pushed them, and sometimes they ran over and ignored me and all that sort of stuff. So what? I mean, it isn’t about my power, my control or whatever. It was about what the candidates were doing, what they were talking about and what impression they were leaving with the voters. That’s what this is about.

He said something similar to Politico’s Dylan Byers: “The moderator should be seen little and heard even less. It is up to the candidates to ask the follow-up questions and challenge one another … I don’t consider that being passive, I consider it being effective.”

Democratic co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates Mike McCurry said the new format served viewers well.

“Both candidates challenged each other,” McCurry told Poynter Thursday, “Jim Lehrer gave them an opportunity to challenge each other. The key thing is it’s not about the moderator, it’s about the candidates. I think the American people certainly got a very clear sense of the two candidates during the debate.”

Lehrer told Farhi that this debate would be his last.

Related: Press more critical of Obama than social media was

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  • Clayton Burns

    Callum, I don’t want to get picky about it, but I never put a period (dot) after my e-mail address.

    The performance of the Commission on “Presidential” Debates has been feeble, inane, and second child-hood-ish. But at least the media have agreed largely to let it pass.

    In a debate, there cannot be notes in any form, shape, or intent. Zero. That is implicit in the rule mentioned by The Daily Beast.

    If the President (whom I support) can’t get his working memory working, he no longer deserves to be President.

    Clayton Burns PhD Vancouver.

    The Daily Beast: The Commission on Presidential Debates has not released debate rules for 2012, but in the past, the commission has said that “no props, notes, charts, diagrams, or other writings or other tangible things may be brought into the debate by any candidate.”

    Obama advisers say president disappointed himself with debate performance By Callum Borchers Globe Correspondent October 07, 2012

    …The advisers were grilled about some specific criticisms of the president: that he appeared unprepared, spent too much time looking down at notes, and didn’t use some of his best weapons…

    On looking down, Axelrod said “the president was taking notes on what was being said because he wanted to make sure that he was responsive.”

    Callum Borchers can be reached at

  • Clayton Burns

    Not only did Lehrer formulate questions poorly, he also exhibited poor instincts in relation to issues as they arose.
    Obama looked bad when he failed to challenge Romney’s denial of the loopholes for companies moving overseas. (Romney said he needed a new accountant).
    That was a memorable point in the debate. Obama had already neglected to give specific examples of the loopholes, and then Lehrer moved him off the topic after Romney’s dramatic challenge.
    At the beginning of the debate, education was in the air, but the moderator ignored the subject.
    There are profound issues in American education that should have been raised. For example, the admissions rat race, for Harvard, no less, was directly relevant since Romney promoted education in Massachusetts.
    I condemn the SAT. I find Harvard undergraduates to often be uninformed and silly.
    Let’s have a national grade 12 curriculum in English for college admissions: the new Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Twentieth Century and After; the Arden “Hamlet;” “The Great Gatsby,” Penguin Modern Classics; Beidler’s “The Turn of the Screw;” “The Scarlet Letter;” the beautiful book I am looking at right now, “Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries,” Helen Vendler, Harvard University Press, 2010; the COBUILD English Grammar; the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.
    Instead of making off-the-cuff insulting comments about China, we could explain to them how to do national testing in English for the GaoKao, the high test for university admission.

  • Clayton Burns

    Jim Lehrer criticized for moderation of his 12th presidential debate
    by Julie Moos Published Oct. 3, 2012 10:16 pm Updated Oct. 4, 2012 3:18 pm
    –Albin•2 days ago
    …As practical fact, Lehrer set up a narrow discussion of Romney’s most favorite talking points and did not choose topics or control the timing of debate to cover even a semblance of live domestic issues. Not to forgive Obama for being asleep on his own job, but Lehrer is unacceptable.

  • Clayton Burns

    Paul Farhi, The Washington Post, Oct 5, “It’s Jim Lehrer’s Turn…”: Q: One last thing: What was your reaction when Governor
    Romney said he intended to end funding for PBS? Did it sound to you like he was
    saying, “I’ll take the rug right out from under you if I’m president?”

    A: He’s said that before. That didn’t bother me or surprise