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18 October 2000

The Daily update: Lehrer (pretty much) gets it right

Synopsis: Correcting his error (but saying too much), Jim Lehrer (almost) got it right.

Commentary by Jim Lehrer
Presidential debate, 10/17/00


The analysts began rising out of their chairs when they heard Jim Lehrer's correction starting. Soon the host was confessing all to a jam-packed town hall forum:

LEHRER: Before we begin, a correction from last week's debate. I was wrong when I said Vice President Gore's campaign commercials had called Governor Bush a bumbler...

We'd have been happy if he'd just left it there. In truth, though, it wouldn't have hurt if he'd gone ahead and said something like this:

LEHRER [coulda shoulda]: This gave some the impression that Vice President Gore had misrepresented the content of his campaign ads. That was a misimpression, caused by my error, which I regret.

Lehrer's error in last week's debate clearly gave some viewers this misimpression. It would have been good to make it clear that Gore had not misspoken.

But that, of course, would have been fair, and therefore out of place in our discourse. And it wouldn't have done the important thing—it wouldn't have helped #1. Alas! As Lehrer continued on in his statement, a bit of CYA began. Here is Lehrer's complete statement, as it was made Tuesday night:

LEHRER: Before we begin, a correction from last week's debate. I was wrong when I said Vice President Gore's campaign commercials had called Governor Bush a bumbler. That specific charge was made in a press statement by Gore campaign spokesman Mark Fabiani, not in a TV guide—in a TV, a TV ad.

What a shame. There was no good reason to include the last part (which included another small error!). Well—there was no good reason to include that last part, except to say that Lehrer hadn't been that far wrong. But Lehrer was quite wrong last week—and his error did make a real difference.

You're going to think that we're picking nits. Sorry! Last week, Lehrer—inexplicably trashing Gore for two minor errors—went ahead and made an error himself. He should have made good on the damage and left it at that. By mentioning what Fabiani had said, he reinforced negative images.

None of this would have happened, of course, if the press corps—and Lehrer himself—had shown better judgment last week. Gore's errors in Debate I were quite minor. They shouldn't have called for so much fuss. People do in fact make small mistakes. Lehrer—almost getting it right—made that clear once again Tuesday night.