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

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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