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What Does It Take To Moderate A Successful Presidential Debate?


This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, KPCC and Kaiser Health News. NBC host Matt Lauer was thrown into the lion's den this past week when he was tasked with hosting the Commander-In-Chief Forum, two back-to-back interviews with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Critics piled on, saying Lauer didn't challenge Trump's claim that he's always been against the war in Iraq. We thought we'd call up someone who has been in that kind of hot seat.

Jim Lehrer hosted "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report," "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" and the "PBS Newshour" over many years and has moderated 12 presidential debates. He joins me now. Welcome to the program.

JIM LEHRER: Hey. Thank you, Rachel. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: I am interested in your take on all the criticism that was levied at NBC's Matt Lauer after that town hall event. Did you think it was warranted?

LEHRER: I think that what was missed in the criticism was that he was not moderating. He was interviewing. Those were two back-to-back, one-on-one interviews.

And they're two very different workloads. And if they had been - for instance, if Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had been together and Lauer was running a discussion between them, there wouldn't have been an issue about, for instance, when Donald Trump supported or didn't support the war in Iraq, etc., etc., etc. She would've taken him on right there.

But if you're running a one-on-one interview, the interviewer is the one who has to say, no, no, no, wait a minute. What about this? What about this? What about that? What you don't want to do as a moderator is think you're doing interviews. You're not. That's a different game.

You want to hear the candidates do the fact-checking, do the challenging, do the - hey, no, no, no, no, that's the wrong way to go at defeating ISIS. Here's my plan. Your plan stinks. Mine's better. You know, rather than the interviewer - to say, well, this is a different blah, blah, blah, let the candidates do it. Forget the questions. This isn't about questions. It's about subject. It's about listening to the candidates talk and deciding when to react and how to react and when to move on and when not to move on.

It isn't about sitting down hours and hours and writing these really, really nifty questions that are going to turn somebody up and down - it's not about that.

MARTIN: Have you been seeing that in this election cycle and perhaps the last couple? Is there a different style moderators have taken where there is more of an interview approach, where they're grilling candidates in a different way?

LEHRER: Well, there's always been a little bit of that. But now, see, the emphasis is all the other way. And people have not picked up on this. The 2012 presidential debates and the 2008 - it really began in 2008 - where there are 15-minute segments.

And you ask a first question. And then it's open time between the candidates. And the moderator has to move it back and forth and whatever. And people - they can talk directly to each other, ask each other questions. I mean, the candidates can. And...

MARTIN: Do you think that's a good idea or no?

LEHRER: Oh, I think it's terrific. I mean, I think a debate should be a debate between the candidates. And the other thing about moderating - right? - it's very different in that no matter what happens, a moderator is going to be criticized. If you don't want to be criticized, don't be a moderator of a presidential debate...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

LEHRER: ...'Cause there's no way to win it.

MARTIN: How did you measure success for yourself after you would come off one of these things?

LEHRER: Well, the best example was the last one I did, which was in 2012. It was the first debate between Obama and Romney. And it was wide open. And I let it run. And I was criticized by some people after for doing it. But that was exactly what the debate commission wanted me to do and what I wanted to do.

The chaos is when the real world starts. And that's what I think these debates should be - is real discussions, real exchanges between the candidates about things that matter. And as long as that's happening, to me, that's a successful debate.

MARTIN: Jim Lehrer, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us.

LEHRER: Oh, Rachel, the pleasure was mine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.