NBC News anchor Lester Holt will moderate next week’s presidential debate, and already everyone wants to work the refs. Thanks to a foolish remark from Donald Trump, for example, we now know that Holt is a registered Republican, but his own colleagues have done their best to push Holt in their preferred direction, too. The avalanche of criticism for Matt Lauer’s performance in a town hall last week was hardly a subtle signal to Holt from nearly everyone else in the media to attack Trump if and when he tells something less than the truth. The estimable Ron Fournier spent a significant time on Twitter arguing that moderation without fact-checking is like a boxing match without punches being thrown (more on that in a moment).
Joe Scarborough told Willie Geist and Chuck Todd this morning that moderators need to stay out of the way rather than insert themselves as combatants in the debate. If whoppers get told, why not let the opponent point it out instead? (via Media Matters)
SCARBOROUGH: Moderators are extraordinarily important. And so, yes, it is about Lester and it is about the candidates and it is about does Donald Trump get to on stage and completely blow through all of the guard rails. So, I think its extraordinarily important —
TODD: I’m with you on — it’s up to Hillary Clinton. If he’s going to flout the rules, this becomes the challenge and this is probably why she’s spending more time in prep. And this is where I think he’s going to regret not doing prep. They’re throwing every fastball. They’re throwing, you know, they’re going to hit her with everything. The nastiest stuff. It won’t be new to her. I think they’re expecting the kitchen sink. So I think if Trump is really not prepping very well, he may regret it.
SCARBOROUGH: And by the way, on the Lester front, I just want to — there’s been this great debate out there, like Ron Fournier said you need to be the fact-checker. No. Bob Schieffer is not a fact-checker. [Jim] Lehrer wasn’t a fact-checker.
WALLACE: Chris Wallace has said I’m not going to be a fact-checker.
SCARBOROUGH: Chris Wallace said “I’m not a fact-checker.” I totally agree with that.
Actually, Bob Schieffer himself disagrees with that assessment. Among the tidbits of advice that the retired CBS News anchor offered to moderators in this cycle, Schieffer included having the fortitude to challenge untruths … at least, as the moderators see them. He does advise to wait to see whether the other candidate will take up that duty on their own first, but if not, fact-check away:
I believe the chief fact-checkers are the candidates. If one of them says something that is dead wrong or inconsistent with what he or she has said previously, the other candidate should have the first opportunity to call his or her opponent on it.
This gives the viewers a chance to judge how knowledgeable both of the candidates are.
If neither candidate catches the inaccuracy, then the moderator must step in, set the record straight and, if necessary, ask a question about it. With more and more misleading, distorted and downright wrong information finding its way into campaign dialogue this year, moderators should be prepared to say, “Candidates, for the record, there is no evidence to support that,” or words to that effect.
Count me on Scarborough’s side on this, for both theoretical and practical reasons. As I write in my column for The Week, moderators are not supposed to be participants in arguments but facilitators of them. And in practical terms, we have seen what happens when moderators assume that mantle:
The Atlantic‘s Ron Fournier has actively campaigned on Twitter for moderator fact-checking and challenges during the upcoming debates. Responding to Ari Fleischer’s argument against moderator intervention, Fournier offered sports and television analogies in rebuttal. “Telling a journo to moderate debate but don’t fact-check is like telling a boxer to climb in ring but don’t fight,” Fournier wrote. “Moderator is a journalist, not a game show host. Can’t sit there and let Trump and Clinton lie without challenge.”
Both analogies miss the mark. If the debates are boxing matches, then the candidates are the boxers, and the moderator is the referee. The referee’s main function is to keep the candidates fighting each other without breaking the rules, not jabbing at the fighters himself. Game show hosts have a different role as scorekeepers, but debates aren’t game shows, and moderators don’t have all the answers either — as Fleischer pointed out in his argument. Former CNN host Candy Crowley derailed the second presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in 2012 by “fact checking” Romney’s statement that Obama waited more than a week to call the Benghazi attack terrorism. It was immediately impossible to undo the damage the “moderator” did to the debate.
The argument for moderator score-keeping ignores the purpose of the debates. Moderators do not perform a journalistic role during the debate; their job is to facilitate the process, not comment or report on it in real time. They exist to put both candidates on stage at the same time to challenge each other, and to force them to respond to the same question at the same time. If one candidate tells a whopper, the other candidate has plenty of opportunity to challenge them on it. In fact, one measure of preparedness would be whether a candidate recognizes falsehoods or mistakes and can set the record straight.
What happens if they don’t? Journalists, including the moderator, will have hours, days, and weeks to parse through the arguments and fact-check responses. Voters will only have a few scarce hours to see for themselves how candidates respond to the questions on policy and the challenges they launch at each other in real time. Moderators need to keep from getting in the way of that process.
What Schieffer and Fournier advise is to conduct parallel interviews rather than moderate a debate. But this cuts both ways, too. If Hillary Clinton claims that no classified information crossed her e-mail and that Colin Powell told her to use a secret server, it’s up to Donald Trump to be alert and adept enough to call out the lies. If Holt does his job properly, those opposed to Hillary had best not complain about allowing those claims to go unchallenged; if they do, it’s on Trump.
Don’t miss the rest of the MoJoe debate on the upcoming debate. Does Hillary stand more to lose, or to gain, or both from Monday night?