The second presidential debate, moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley, featured a question and extended discussion on the potential reinstatement of an assault weapons ban. Previously, debate moderators in 2008 and Jim Lehrer of PBS' NewsHour, the moderator of the first presidential debate, had ignored the issue of gun violence prevention.
Introducing the town hall participant who asked the candidates what they would do to limit the availability of assault weapons, Crowley noted that the topic of gun violence is one "that we hear a lot, both over the Internet and from this crowd."
CROWLEY: Because what I -- what I want to do, Mr. President, stand there a second, because I want to introduce you to Nina Gonzalez, who brought up a question that we hear a lot, both over the Internet and from this crowd.
GONZALEZ: President Obama, during the Democratic National Convention in 2008, you stated you wanted to keep AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. What has your administration done or planned to do to limit the availability of assault weapons?
At the start of Wednesday's presidential debate, moderator Jim Lehrer said he would place an emphasis on "differences, specifics, and choices." But Lehrer missed repeated opportunities to press Mitt Romney into offering specifics on his policy proposals -- just one of the ways in which he lost control of the debate.
During the debate, President Obama echoed the consensus among economic experts who have pointed out that Romney has consistently refused to detail which loopholes he would close to pay for his planned tax cuts, at one point stating that Romney has "been asked over 100 times how you would close those deductions and loopholes, and he hasn't been able to identify them." In each case, Lehrer failed to ask Romney which deductions and loopholes he would eliminate.
Similarly, Lehrer failed to press Romney for details on how he would replace Obama's health care reform plan, letting Romney assert that he has a detailed plan. But as MSNBC's Ezra Klein pointed out, the health care plan on Romney's website is just 396 words, "about half the length of an average op-ed column." Klein added that Romney "was able to hide in the sort of pockets of vagueness he created."
His failure to press Romney for details was one symptom of Lehrer losing control of the debate, a conclusion that was shared across various media outlets:
In this presidential election cycle's only debate devoted solely to domestic issues, moderator and former PBS host Jim Lehrer did not ask the candidates what they would do to address gun violence in America. This silence comes in the wake of several high profile mass shootings and a high-profile campaign by survivors and advocates to push the candidates to detail their plans to deal with the issue.
Every year roughly 30,000 Americans die from gun violence. In early 2011, a gunman used a semi-automatic pistol with an extended magazine to kill six people and wound 13 others, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, at a town hall event held by the congresswoman. This year has featured prominent mass shootings at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
Some in the media have distorted polling to claim that Americans are largely satisfied with gun laws. But other surveys show that large majorities of Americans support a wide array of specific laws that would bolster gun violence prevention, including requiring all gun buyers to pass a criminal background check and banning high capacity magazines and assault weapons.
Seeking to increase public discussion of an issue the American people have said they care about, the Brady Campaign asked Lehrer to ask the candidates to address the issue during this evening's debate, while Mayors Against Illegal Guns produced an ad featuring Aurora shooting survivor Stephen Barton telling viewers, "when you watch the presidential debates, ask yourself who has a plan to stop gun violence."
Thanks to Lehrer, Americans are no closer to an answer on that question.
Despite hundreds of thousands of petitions asking for a question on climate change, former PBS NewsHour host Jim Lehrer did not ask the candidates what they would do to address manmade global warming as moderator of the first presidential debate. Even more stunning, Lehrer did not ask a single question about the environment or energy issues.
Lehrer, who currently serves as NewsHour's executive editor, said at the outset of the debate that he wanted to focus on "specifics." Yet while both President Obama and Mitt Romney brought up energy issues frequently, the moderator never pressed them on distortions made on these issues. And neither Lehrer nor the candidates raised climate change, which was discussed in each of the last three sets of presidential debates. In both 2000 and in 2008, the debates featured specific questions on climate change, and Republican and Democratic candidates each acknowledged the issue.
Last week, groups including the League of Conservation Voters, Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation delivered more than 160,000 petitions to Lehrer urging him to ask Obama and Romney "how they will confront the greatest challenge of our generation -- climate change."
Their calls came amid increasing criticism of Obama and Romney for remaining largely silent on climate change, even as polling shows that a majority of undecided voters will weigh candidates' climate positions when they cast their ballots.
Just last month, NewsHour drew fire for turning to climate change contrarian Anthony Watts, a meteorologist, as a counterpoint to the scientific consensus on climate change. NewsHour did not disclose Watts' connection to the Heartland Institute, which is partly funded by corporations with an interest in obscuring climate science. Soon after, PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler acknowledged that the segment "was not the PBS NewsHour's finest 10 minutes" and said he found it "stunning" that Watts had been picked instead of "a university-accredited scientist to provide 'balance.'" But it remained to be seen whether PBS would re-commit itself to informing its audience and holding politicians accountable for the problems of the day. Tonight's debate indicated that PBS has not taken the criticism it has received seriously. Indeed, shortly after closing remarks, Watts gloated on his blog that climate was not mentioned.
In recent interviews with President Bush, Jim Lehrer and Scott Pelley did not challenge several false or misleading claims that President Bush made about Iraq.
Contrary to Karl Rove's pre-election assertions -- which the media accorded significance despited his presumable responsibility to express optimism -- Democrats won control of both houses of Congress. This raises the question of whether the media were wrong in treating Rove's optimistic predictions as anything more than a job requirement.
PBS NewsHour host Jim Lehrer reported without challenge or rebuttal that White House senior political adviser Karl Rove "dismissed Democrats' chances of winning control of Congress." MSNBC's David Shuster similarly reported without challenge that Rove "remain[s] very calm and optimistic about the election." But as CNN's Wolf Blitzer noted, Rove "ha[s] to say that."
PBS' NewsHour host Jim Lehrer allowed Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to mischaracterize a letter to Congress by five top uniformed military lawyers. Frist suggested that the letter supports the Bush administration's proposed legislation regarding the interrogation and trial of terrorism suspects. However, Lehrer did not mention that the letter addresses only certain provisions of Bush's plan, not the entire bill, and that the military lawyers reportedly refused to sign a letter endorsing Bush's entire bill. Lehrer also allowed Frist to misrepresent comments Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid made in a NewsHour interview the previous night.