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Jewish World Review Oct. 23, 2000 / 24 Tishrei, 5761

Nat Hentoff

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The basic flaw in the debates -- THE REVERENCE accorded Jim Lehrer -- acclaimed by his colleagues as "America's moderator" -- is not only unmerited, but is also the basic reason that the televised presidential debates never get to many of the key issues in the compaign. But Lehrer is not solely to blame, because the horde of reporters covering the candidates all these months also fail to ask many of the questions Lehrer omits.

In a tribute to Lehrer in The Washington Post, even Tim Russert of "Meet the Press" -- who is far superior to Lehrer in the depth of his research and the precision of his follow-up questions -- said that Lehrer's "steady, methodical style is perfect." Only Jack Shafer, deputy editor of Slate, preferred candor to genuflection. Said Shafer of Lehrer:

"He's so inside Washington. He's so plugged into a civil, placid, friendly unaggressive Washington that it speaks poorly of the political process and the press in general that this is the guy who gets picked to moderate the debates."

Shafer could also have derided many of the commentators throughout the media -- from newspaper Op-Ed pages to the constant brouhaha on cable television. The latter "experts" can be very aggressive; but they, too, ignore vital issues.

During the foreign-policy section of the second televised presidential debates, Lehrer did not ask any questions about the candidates' views on the increased relentless repression in China of people who simply advocate democracy. Nor was there any reference to the imprisonment and beatings of Catholic priests who refuse to reject the Vatican for the "official" Chinese Church.

The most vicious violator of human rights in Africa is Sudan, whose government in the north raids black Christian and animist villages in the south, enslaving the women and children. Meanwhile, the Sudanese air force bombs hospitals and black Christian schools in the south. Shouldn't President Gore or President Bush say something about that? The present incumbent is silent. So was Jim Lehrer.

In all the questions about education, Lehrer did not note that despite the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision -- declaring all segregated public schools unconstitutional -- there are more segregated public schools now than in 1954. Do Bush and Gore have any ideas on how to deal with the nation's segregated schools? Lehrer didn't ask.

Both candidates talk about keeping the booming economy going. But a Sept. 8 United States Agriculture Department study -- as reported in the New York Times -- reveals that "more than 21 percent of all black people went hungry or lived on the edge of hunger in 1999, the highest percentage of any racial group. A large percentage of Hispanics, 20.8 percent, faced a similar situation."

What would President Bush or President Gore do about that? Lehrer didn't ask.

Both Gore and Bush are vigorous supporters of capital punishment, but there is growing evidence that some people on death row were deprived of elementary due process in their trials; indeed, some have been proven innocent shortly before they were scheduled to be executed. Lehrer let that one pass, too. During the last debate, a member of the audience did bring the subject up.

Neither candidate was asked about the increasing judgments by lower federal courts that affirmative action -- as currently practiced and encouraged by the Clinton-Gore administration -- is unconstitutional because it violates the 14th Amendment's "equal protection of the laws." We ought to know what the next president intends to do if the Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action.

Bush has accused Gore of engaging in class warfare. But class divisions in this country are getting deeper, and that subject was not addressed in the debates. As the Sept. 27 issue of Education Week reported: "'The fact that poverty rates have increased so sharply among children of non-college graduates ought to be particularly disturbing in a society where 70 percent of young children have parents without a college degree,' says Neil Bennett, director of the National Center for Children in Poverty."

But again, how many of these questions have been raised by the reporters who are constantly with the presidential candidates? Thomas Jefferson said that this experiment in constitutional democracy would only work if the citizens were sufficiently informed to vote intelligently for their representatives. The press, he said, has to be the people's means of information.

The press saved Clinton's presidency by failing to focus on his serial violations of the Constitution, thereby leading an uninformed public to keep his popularity high during the impeachment proceedings. Once more, during these presidential campaigns, the press, like Lehrer, misses too many points.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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© 2000, NEA