On PBS, Biden Toasted As 'Crisper,' Palin 'Hanging On for Dear Life'

Screen cap of John Harris, 10/2/08 on PBS | NewsBusters.orgOne candidate for Biggest Biden Spinner on Thursday night was John F. Harris, the editor-in-chief of Politico.com and a former political reporter for The Washington Post. In Jim Lehrer’s half-hour of post-debate analysis on PBS, Harris declared that "just as a neutral observer," it was obvious: on "whose answers were more substantive, who was more detailed, who responded to the question that was asked, there’s really no reason to assert a false equivalence -- Senator Biden won this debate." Historian Michael Beschloss agreed they weren’t equals, and insisted Biden "was a lot more human."

Harris also insisted that the reporters around him found Biden won: "I don’t think there’s any question that Senator Biden had the more substantive night, the crisper, at least to my ear more spontaneous night – because so many of Governor Palin’s answers were clearly points she was going to make irrespective of whatever good questions Gwen asked....If seemed to me and a number of us coming out of the filing center here that an awful lot of those questions, she got through the evening, but was hanging on for dear life."

David Brooks, the NewsHour analyst and New York Times columnist, led off the evaluations of Biden and Palin by insisting Palin was "every bit his equal," which rankled historian Michael Beschloss as well as Harris. After the team of Brooks and Mark Shields evaluated the debate, and the historian panel of Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith, and Ellen Fitzpatrick, PBS anchor Judy Woodruff interviewed Harris alongside New York Times reporter Kate Zernike on the scene in St. Louis.

Woodruff was asking for the official reactions of the campaigns, and Zernike tried to relay what the McCain-Palin campaign was telling her about any Biden misstatements they found. But when Woodruff asked Harris what he was hearing from the Obama campaign, he quickly jumped off that question of relaying information to offering his own opinions as a "neutral observer." (This is mildly funny for someone who would slam Palin for not answering moderator Gwen Ifill’s questions.) He said the Obama campaign loved Biden, and then added his "neutral" agreement:

"Well, they think clearly it was a far superior performance for Senator Biden, and I have to say, just as a neutral observer, if you’re measuring this, judging this the way you would typically with a debate – whose answers were more substantive, who was more detailed, who responded to the question that was asked, there’s really no reason to assert a false equivalence -- Senator Biden won this debate – if you’re judging by those, through that prism.

"The prism that a lot of us were viewing this, coming into the debate, would Governor Palin really have a poor answer, the way she faltered badly in the interview with some of her questions to Katie Couric on CBS. I didn’t see any of those moments here, she never really had a belly-flop moment. But I don’t know if that’s how typical viewers are viewing this. They’re going to look at these as two candidates to be vice president, or potentially president. I didn’t think there’s any question that Senator Biden had the more substantive night, the crisper, at least to my ear more spontaneous night – because so many of Governor Palin’s answers were clearly points she was going to make irrespective of whatever good questions Gwen asked."

Woodruff asked if Harris was saying Palin didn’t answer the questions, and he replied on behalf of the media in general: "It seemed to me and a number of us coming out of the filing center here that an awful lot of those questions, she got through the evening, but was hanging on for dear life."

Earlier, historian Michael Beschloss offered several anti-Palin comments. "I think she almost went over the line when she said Biden and Obama, if elected, would wave the white flag of surrender. I thought that was really not of the stature of a potential vice president."

He disagreed with Brooks claiming Biden and Palin looked like equals:

"But I don’t think they look equal tonight. I think she got through without saying something that would damage her the way some of these interviews with Katie Couric and others have done in the last week. I think Bdien gave the sense of someone who was a lot more human, more willing to confess human error. He was sort of ‘here I am, warts and all.’ I think that’s appealing in a public figure."

On the Charlie Rose show that came on after Lehrer, there were no real outrageous pro-Biden or anti-Palin comments (although there were repeated comparisons of Palin to her Tina Fey caricature on Saturday Night Live). There was also no one to represent a Republican or conservtive viewpoint. The guest list included the liberal media (Cokie Roberts of ABC, Al Hunt of Bloomberg News, Mark Halperin of Time, Katty Kay of BBC) and just plain liberals (historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and Cleveland columnist Connie Schultz, the wife of liberal Sen. Sherrod Brown). After the first presidential debate on Friday, Rose interviewed David Brooks and Byron York of National Review, but there was no real debate after the veep debate.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis