Tom Brokaw has an accomplished career as a broadcaster. But if his performance as moderator in the “town hall” debate between John McCain and Barack Obama is any indication, Brokaw wouldn’t have made for a very good editor. Here’s why:
NEWS JUDGMENT: Brokaw got to pick the questions, which were submitted by the “town hall” audience and from others online. His task was to find the "front page" questions, focusing on the important news of the day while offering a range of topics. He got things going well enough on the economy, but he failed to pose questions about issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and immigration. Instead he asked foreign policy questions on Iraq and Pakistan that were nearly identical to questions from the previous debate, hosted by Jim Lehrer. Those repeated questions drew the same responses from the candidates, making this segment of the “town hall” redundant. Brokaw is like the editor who doesn’t read his own paper and ends up running the same story on successive days.
LENGTH: Brokaw failed to rein in long answers. He occasionally chided Obama and McCain for exceeding the time limits — but only after letting them go on and on. Brokaw is like the assignment editor who talks tough about story length but then allows his reporters to write long, letting the copy desk and designers deal with the consequences.
WORD CHOICE: Brokaw picked an oddly worded question to wrap up the debate. “What don't you know, and how will you learn it?" Both candidates were understandably stumped, with McCain’s response echoing Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “known unknowns” remark from a few years ago. Brokaw is like the feeble editor who chooses cuteness over substance when unsure how to end a story.
These problems would have been less likely to pop up under the watch of an assertive editor. Perhaps it’s time for a copy editor to moderate one of these debates. Candidates would have to speak within the time alloted — or else. Questions would reflect the interest of the voters and complement questions from previous debates. More information would be packed into the 90-minute "news hole" of the debate.
I nominate John McIntyre of You Don’t Say. His measured tone and bow tie make him a natural for the role. Plus, he’s good on camera.
UPDATE: In comments to this post, Mr. McIntyre has politely declined the nomination. We'll open it up to suggestions.