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Hail to the Coverage

Despite the Bush and Kerry campaigns' best efforts, something approaching a debate broke out last week in the middle of what could simply have been scripted dual press conferences.

Props to Fox, which handled the pool feed, and the other networks for essentially ignoring the 32-page rulebook that handlers for President Bush and Sen. Kerry crafted, which included prohibiting reaction shots. Had networks not shown Bush's irritated and strained reaction to some of Kerry's remarks, an estimated 63 million viewers would have missed the biggest story of the night.

There had been no reason to expect much. The campaigns had done their best to produce a surprise-free, micromanaged appearance by both. In fact, prior to the event, CNN's Lou Dobbs dismissed the debates, pointedly, as "presentations," and CBS's Dan Rather termed them "joint appearances" by the candidates.

The campaigns' staffs tried to control every part of the debate, and will with the ones to come. They even stipulated what kind of pens the men could use to jot notes to themselves.

The campaigns have been trying their hardest to spin the "debates" ever since wresting them away from the League of Women Voters in 1984 because they had become too much like, well, debates.

It could have been a very different debate had the networks accepted the PR straightjacket the campaigns were fitting them for and not allowed us to see the whole picture. Fox showed the candidates in split screen, effectively a cut-away without cutting away. There were no crowd reaction shots, but then, the crowd wasn't reacting. It may have been the first time in modern memory that a crowd that was asked to be quiet actually complied.

It's also one of the few times throughout this campaign that we've heard more than a sentence or two from the candidates about actual issues in this election. That is not so much a pat on the back to the debate organizers as it is a complaint about the penchant for news organizations to succumb to presenting a steady diet of meaningless one-sentence sound bites.

That didn't happen last week, and we should also offer kudos to moderator Jim Lehrer. He was criticized for not asking tough questions during 2000's debate between Al Gore and then-candidate George W. Bush. Last week, he did. Not only that, but he loosened the rules a bit to allow the sort of rebuttals that should be the currency of real debate. With the candidates prevented from asking each other any direct questions, the moderator has enormous power. Lehrer wielded it well.

The Kerry campaign had earlier complained about the warning lights on the podium that would be in clear camera range, fearing that the dreaded red light would be a "gotcha" for their candidate, who tends toward long answers. Instead, it had something of the opposite effect, with Kerry forced into a deft wrap-up that showed him in command of the lights, not at their mercy. The president was generally able to meet or beat the lights with answers that were short and oft repeated.

As a result, Lehrer was not forced to cut off the candidates. It may have made for less heat, but there was more light, with the differences between the two, except their heights, spotlighted effectively. By most accounts, including some critics—even including Fox News commentators—Kerry came across as presidential in a way not captured before.

The parties should be ashamed of themselves for trying to create a big photo op, but their goal will always be victory rather than enlightenment. That's why the media must never agree to cover 'em as the politicians see 'em.

Tonight Without a Fight

What a disappointment. After the carnival of clawing ambition, ham-fisted negotiations and bitter grudge-holding that erupted the last time the job of hosting The Tonight Show went up for grabs, we expected something more entertaining than this. An orderly transition from Jay Leno to Conan O'Brien in five years? That sounds more like a decorous transfer of power arranged by the Swiss parliament than the sort of blood-on-the-carpet saga immortalized a decade ago in Bill Carter's Late Shift: Letterman, Leno and the Network Battle for the Night.

Jeff Zucker is to blame. When O'Brien began making noises lately about wanting to work in an earlier timeslot, the situation looked ripe both for inter-network warfare over O'Brien's services and for a counterstrike by a threatened Leno. The Tonight Show host is, after all, the guy who, during the scramble for Johnny Carson's mantle in the early 1990s, was so desperate for the job that he hid in a closet to eavesdrop on negotiations. By some measures, including Nielsen's, NBC chose well. Leno is famously a workaholic, gladly socializing with small-market affiliates just to keep everything sweet at NBC or doing stand-up in Vegas when he's not hosting the show. It was fair to assume that, when the time came to move on, he would have to be carried off the Burbank set, his fingernails still attached to the desk.

And yet Zucker, president of the NBC Universal Television Group, managed to engineer a solution that satisfied O'Brien and Leno and the network, which reportedly makes a $150 million annual profit from the show.

Despite O'Brien's antsiness, the comedian agreed to hang out in his late-late slot for half a decade, awaiting a guaranteed two-year gig in the hallowed 11:35 spot on NBC. (It's amusing now to recall the cries of disbelief that greeted O'Brien when the unknown writer was picked to fill the Late Night chair in 1993 after David Letterman lost his bid for the Tonight Show job and decamped to CBS. Guess the kid worked out after all.)

Leno not only consented to passing the microphone to a younger generation in 2009 but also demonstrated enormous civility in the process. Last week on the show, he noted that, back when he was vying with Letterman for Tonight, "a lot of good friendships were permanently damaged. Quite frankly, I don't want to see anybody go through that again."

It was a classy moment in a shockingly bloodless, civil transaction. Hats off to Zucker, O'Brien and Leno for making it all happen. Of course, five months is an eternity in the television business, so it remains to be seen whether the agreement will still be standing so far down the road (let's see, will President Hillary Rodham Clinton make her first late-night appearance on The Tonight Show or sit down with Jon Stewart at CBS or Dave Chappelle at ABC?). For now, though, the Tonight Show deal represents a new kind of late shift, toward farsightedness and sensible management.