NEW YORK ― For Lester Holt and his TV journalist colleagues who are moderating the upcoming presidential debates, the opportunity to question the future commander in chief in front of tens of millions of viewers brings prestige ― and potential pitfalls.
The high-profile anchor selected will inevitably be part of the debate story. The fear is becoming the whole story.
This is the first time in recent memory that the moderator’s role has come under such intense scrutiny in the weeks leading up to the first presidential face-off. The pressure for network executives to make sure their marquee journalists are up to speed has only increased after the widespread criticism leveled at Matt Lauer, who moderated a presidential forum Wednesday night. (The Commander-in-Chief forum, featuring Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, was widely seen as a dry run for the Sept. 26 main event.)
Even before the Lauer debacle, journalists were already expressing concerns that debate moderators would refrain from challenging candidates’ outright lies. Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, the moderator for the third debate, said on Sunday that he doesn’t intend to be “a truth squad” and that the candidates are responsible for rebutting one another’s claims. The other three presidential debate moderators ― NBC’s Holt, ABC’s Martha Raddatz and CNN’s Anderson Cooper ― along with vice presidential debate moderator Elaine Quijano, of CBS News, have kept silent all week as to whether or not they agree.
Wallace’s perspective prompted me to imagine Monday how, without a moderator who pushes back, Trump could get away with repeating his lie about being a staunch opponent of the Iraq War. That scenario played out 48 hours later when Lauer didn’t fact-check Trump’s false Iraq claim, along with failing to point out that the Republican nominee supported the 2011 U.S. intervention in Libya.
In response to Lauer’s poor performance, The New York Times editorial board ominously warned Friday of a “debate disaster waiting to happen.”
“If the moderators of the coming debates do not figure out a better way to get the candidates to speak accurately about their records and policies — especially Mr. Trump, who seems to feel he can skate by unchallenged with his own version of reality while Mrs. Clinton is grilled and entangled in the fine points of domestic and foreign policy — then they will have done the country a grave disservice,” the editorial board wrote.
On Wednesday night, Trump blustered his way through a primetime event without any discernible grasp of foreign policy and lied about his pre-Iraq war position. This surely isn’t the first time. In March, Trump made 71 claims deemed “inaccurate, misleading or deeply questionable” in the course of a single CNN town hall. Clinton, too, has made false or misleading statements this election season, according to fact-checkers, but with nowhere near Trump’s frequency or brazenness, such as claiming to have watched events that never happened.
There’s nothing stopping the presidential debate moderators from fact-checking Trump or Clinton if they stray from the truth, according to the co-chairs of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the bipartisan group that’s overseen the events since 1988.
“We give our moderators full discretion,” Republican co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf told HuffPost. “They’re the ones who run the debates. We have no idea what the questions are going to be. Once the light goes on, the show is theirs.”
Fahrenkopf said his personal view is that the “the job of the moderator is not to be a fact-checker” and that the candidates should challenge each other’s claims during the debate. “If the candidate doesn’t do it, it is a very fine line the moderator has to walk down because the moderator doesn’t want to be the story,” he added.
That’s essentially what happened four years ago when former CNN anchor Candy Crowley controversially waded into a dispute between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney as to whether the former had used the words “act of terror” on Sept. 12, 2012, to describe the Benghazi attacks.
Obama used those three words on the day after the attacks, as Crowley pointed out in backing up the president’s point. But conservative critics ― and even some nonpartisan voices like Washington Post “Fact-checker” columnist Glenn Kessler ― argued it wasn’t absolutely clear that Obama was referring to Benghazi on Sept. 12 and that the administration had dragged its feet in calling the attacks terrorist in nature, as Romney more broadly contended.
In the months after the debate, Fahrenkopf said it was a “mistake” to have Crowley moderate. Mike McCurry, the Commission’s Democratic co-chair, told HuffPost that he and Fahrenkopf “mildly disagree” about Crowley, though he also expressed reservations about moderators fact-checking during the debates.
“I thought Candy was just trying to move it along but it shows the hazard of the ‘fact check’ by the moderator,” McCurry said. “In general I think with the candidates side by side it is their responsibility to fact check each other. I have no doubt in the ability of the leading candidates this time around to do that.”
In addition to calls for the moderators to point out lies, the networks themselves could do real-time, on-screen fact-checking, as Daily Beast columnist Michael Tomasky argued on Thursday. Both CNN and MSNBC have fact-checked bogus claims on screen in recent months.
Fahrenkopf said the networks carrying the debate feed are permitted to use graphics on screen as they wish. He noted that some, in the past, have run real-time focus group results during the debates.
But he generally disapproves of networks running anything potentially distracting on screen while the candidates speak.
“It’s up to the network, but I frown on it,” he said. “I think it interrupts what the people are seeing. They get their talking heads after the debate.”