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Brokaw Angered by Debate Slight

Aug 23, 2004  •  Post A Comment

NBC News’ Tom Brokaw doesn’t like the implication of the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates that he and his counterpart anchors are “preening, egocentric performers” unsuited to moderate any of the four planned candidate debates sponsored by the commission because the anchors might divert attention from the candidates and the issues.

The anchor also wrote in an Aug. 16 letter to commission Executive Director Janet Brown that he is “particularly outraged that the commission failed to choose anyone from NBC News personnel for a moderator’s role.”

Two of the moderators selected by the commission come from PBS: “NewsHour” anchor Jim Lehrer and “Washington Week” host Gwen Ifill. Bob Schieffer, moderator of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” and Charlie Gibson, co-host of ABC News’ “Good Morning America” and “PrimeTime,” round out the list of moderators.

Mr. Brokaw, for whom this election campaign is part of a last big hurrah before he cuts back his NBC News commitments and turns over his “Nightly News” anchor desk to Brian Williams, mentioned his two interviews with President Bush in the past year and his bona fides as a moderator of two Democratic candidates debates in the past year.

“Not once did candidates, campaigns or press critics suggest that I was more concerned with my role than with the role of the candidates,” said Mr. Brokaw, who concluded that “for a commission that has assumed primary power in the exercise of democratic principles, you have a peculiarly autocratic style.”

Ms. Brown was unavailable after Mr. Brokaw’s letter was revealed in the New York Daily News last Friday. However, she said earlier in the week, “The public wants as understated a moderator as possible” so that the issues and the candidates get the spotlight. She added that heavily promoted and branded network anchors are “not just reporters, they are celebrities.”

Mr. Brokaw accused the commission of “flawed reasoning for excluding anchors.”

Mr. Lehrer and Ms. Ifill have the low-key PBS style, Mr. Schieffer is famously folksy and Mr. Gibson has a comfortable style that wears well in the morning.

Mr. Gibson also has a son-in-law, Robert Rosen, who works for Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and who met Mr. Gibson’s daughter Jessica when both were working on an advance team for former President Bill Clinton.

There were suggestions last week in some politically attuned TV circles that Mr. Rosen is a member of the Kerry-Edwards team that negotiates debate arrangements.

Mr. Gibson and his assistant were on vacation last week, but an ABC spokeswoman said, “To avoid any potential conflict of interest, Charlie disclosed his son-in-law’s relationship when the commission approached him.”

Repeated requests for clarification from the Kerry-Edwards campaign and the Kennedy office in Washington went unanswered.

Ms. Brown said Mr. Rosen is “not part of any group” with which the commission had spoken.

A source who has direct knowledge of the Kerry-Edwards team, which is led by power broker Vernon Jordan, said the campaign had no negotiations with the commission about the details of the debates before agreeing to them. The source in fact said no negotiations will take place until after the Bush campaign comes to an agreement with the commission on the proposed debates.

The commission is proposing one vice-presidential debate (Tuesday, Oct. 5) and three presidential debates (Thursday, Sept. 30; Friday, Oct. 8; and Wednesday, Oct. 13). The Bush campaign reportedly wants only two presidential debates.

Meanwhile, the early indications are that the major broadcast networks will carry each of the commission-sponsored debates, with one exception.

Fox Broadcasting’s commitment to postseason Major League Baseball creates a conflict on two debate dates. On Oct. 5 and Oct. 13 baseball will air live on the network, the debate will air live on Fox News Channel and the network will offer its broadcast affiliates the debate on delay.