"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 18 October 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Master of Ceremony


[The Men]

The presidential debates are a

story we tell ourselves about

ourselves: We're a deeply

intellectual, issue-oriented,

content-rich, free, democratic

society that wants nothing more

than... yawn.... Pass the Fritos

and the PlayStation.


[The Men]

Wouldn't you rather be watching a

cockfight? Anthropological

analysis can make even a

cockfight bloodless -

metaphorically speaking, of

course. Under the microscope of

Clifford Geertz, a cockfight isn't

meaty, it's meta. And this

despite (or perhaps because of)

the ceremony's having had its

"practical consequences removed

and reduced... to the level of

sheer appearances."



In the most recent presidential

instance, however, we weren't

faced with "a chicken hacking

another mindlessly to bits";

instead, it was more like a

contest between two

piano-playing chickens in a

fairground vending machine, the

winner decided by who pecked

out the more convincingly

appealing version of our

favorite political tunes.


So it hardly matters whether you

liked Bob Dole's edgy, carping

version of "So What' Cha Want?"

or Bill Clinton's sonorous,

wonkish rendition of "What You

Got" (including a plaintive

chorus of "Baby, baby, baby,

gimme one more chance!") The

stupefying sameness of the

debate after its first 90/60/30

exchange led us to realize that

chickens will always be

chickens: They strut and preen

and have sharp, pointed beaks -

instruments largely unsuited to

articulating policy visions, but

highly useful when pecking PAC

pockets for advertising scratch.

What was most telling, then, was

not the shrill, chattering

debate machine, but the man

chosen to pump it full of

quarters. Who was that ask-man?



Why Jim Lehrer, of course, host

of the NewsHour on PBS and

reportedly the only name floated

by both camps. It is telling

that during protracted

negotiations over knotty issues

like dates, format, and dais

height, the one issue both sides

could agree on was moderation.


Comically overrouged and sporting

more dye in his hair than even

Bob Dole, the 62-year-old Lehrer

was the perfect choice for a

major television nonevent

intended to stroke the nation's

collective ego. Lehrer was an

avuncular, collegial, and

ever-so-slightly journalistic

presence nonpareil, and he

deserves much of the credit for

making the presidential debate

series what it was: a meandering

mush, a free-form duophony of

prepackaged talking points and

half-hearted sucker punches,

barely worthy of notice and not

even quite up to the nettling

sound-and-fury level of a

NewsHour panel discussion.



Lehrer's career has been an

interesting and slightly tragic

one, a life which mirrors in

many respects the decline in

fortune of one of our favorite

moribund technologies, "public"



Twenty-six years ago, Lehrer, a

talented city editor for the

now-defunct Dallas Times Herald,

was invited by KERA-TV to

participate in an experimental

roundtable program called

Newsroom. In an era well before a

hydra-headed News Corp. and her

Gorgon alter ego, Turner

Broadcasting, Newsroom contained

an element of seat-of-the-pants

media criticism. Such a

description may raise more than

a few cynical eyebrows, but

sincere adherence to "public

service" missions back then led

even the local ABC affiliate in

Dallas - WFAA-TV, a station

owned, along with the Dallas

Morning News, by newly-inducted

corporate cephalopod Belo

Broadcasting - to put its homely

curmudgeon of a general manager,

Mike Shapiro, on the air once a

week for a viewer-mail show

called "Let Me Speak to the




Such idealistic beginnings!

Inside of three years, Lehrer

was in Washington, D.C., flush

with Fred Friendly's Ford

Foundation money and teamed with

Robert MacNeil to produce

national public-affairs

programming, including

gavel-to-gavel coverage of the

Watergate hearings. Lehrer has

admitted that he was, at first,

a bit out of his depth: In a

1992 C-SPAN interview, he

described how it took stern

words from the more suave and

telegenic MacNeil for him to

learn to stop rocking his head

back and forth, saucer-eyed,

while reading the TelePrompTer.

Still, at the time the very idea

of "public" television was

considered so "dangerous" that

the Corporation for Public

Broadcasting was formed to

insulate individual member

stations (as well as programs

like MacNeil/Lehrer) from

political pressure.


[Race Logo]

But now look how far he's fallen,

this Icarus of Insiders. John

Malone's Liberty Media, a

subsidiary of TCI, now owns

controlling interest in

MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and

thus the NewsHour. (Perhaps it's

merely to gain easier access for

his intended drive-by on Reed

Hundt.) And instead of

aggressive, idealistic reporters

eager to serve the public trust,

Lehrer is surrounded by the

likes of Mark Shields, who

receives (as Fairness and

Accuracy in Reporting noted a

year ago) a weekly paycheck from

Lockheed Martin - the nation's

largest military contractor -

for his appearances on WMAL-AM's

Look at Today radio program.

Given the lingering possibility

that the CPB will be "zeroed

out," Lehrer may even find

himself privatized and back at

work for Gannett or Time Warner.



So maybe it's no wonder, really,

that Jim Lehrer was chosen to

spend three evenings tossing

whiffleballs at the candidates,

or, in this last instance,

helping those of others over the

plate. Maybe it's to be expected

that he didn't ask pointed

questions about specific issues

like telecom reform, or about

major media donations

(Seagram/MCA, Disney,

Dreamworks, Time Warner,

Ticketmaster) to both men's

political campaigns. Even

Lehrer's attempt to lure Dole

into bullying Clinton on the

character issue had all the

subtlety of Porky Pig propping

up an orange crate with a stick

and a string tied to it. Lehrer

long ago stopped reporting the

news, and instead now passively

"moderates" a flow of

unquestioned political press



[The Finger]

Apparently, no one knows the

difference. Wednesday's debate

resembled less a "town-hall

meeting" than a Ricki Lake set,

with Lehrer in a space-age

swivel desk presiding over a

ghoulish parade of

citizen-impersonators, whose

questions belied the criticism

that major media is out of touch

with citizenry. Given the chance

to get in the ring ourselves, it

seems, we all behave a little

like chickens.

courtesy of LeTeXan