Fact-checking has definitely become The New Hotness as the first presidential debate approaches, and that’s true in more ways than one. The Washington Post’s Callum Borchers interviewed presidential debate historian Alan Schroeder about the pressure from the media on Lester Holt to get aggressive in fact-checking the candidates. Schroeder tells a seemingly skeptical Borchers that moderators didn’t do fact-checking before Candy Crowley, and that experience shows why they shouldn’t try it unless it’s so obvious it can’t be missed:
SCHROEDER: It has not traditionally been the role of the moderator to engage in a lot of fact-checking. Other than the Candy Crowley incident, it really doesn’t tend to happen. I’ll give you an example: In 1976, Gerald Ford very famously said that Europe was not under Soviet domination, and that was in response to a question that a journalist on the panel had asked. And the journalist goes back to him, doesn’t fact-check him but says, “I just want to clarify. Is that what you really mean?” And then Ford went back and more or less reiterated it. So there have been moments where questioners have asked for clarifications of remarks by the candidates, but not so much “you’re right, and he’s wrong.”
THE FIX: Why do you think that is? Because many of the moderators are journalists who, when they’re conducting one-on-one interviews, are accustomed to doing some on-the-spot fact-checking.
SCHROEDER: Well, because it isn’t a one-on-one interview. It’s something very different. I think it is entirely appropriate to do fact-checking in a one-on-one interview, and Matt Lauer ought to have challenged Donald Trump’s assertion about the Iraq war in that interview. But debates are a different animal. First of all, the focus has got to be on the candidates. The journalists are there to facilitate the conversation but not to become protagonists. When a journalist gets involved in that way, all of a sudden it’s a back and forth between a particular candidate and the journalist, and you’ve lost the point of the exercise, which is that the candidates are supposed to be engaging.
Schroeder points out the obvious: voters have plenty of ways to do their own fact-checking, in real time as well as after the fact. He doesn’t mention another point that bolsters his case, which is that news agencies will produce a number of fact-checks after the debate even if voters don’t want to do the leg work themselves. Borchers then asks whether it’s safe to leave that in the hands of the hoi polloi:
THE FIX: The counter to that is you’re counting on voters to do extra work. You’re counting on them to read follow-up articles or perhaps monitor live fact-checkers online during the debate. Is that a reasonable expectation?
SCHROEDER: Look, it’s a democracy, and citizens have responsibilities beyond just watching TV. If the only source of information you’re getting is what the candidates tell you on TV, then that’s your choice. But I think we’d be crazy to take anything any politician said to us at face value and just assume it’s objective truth. The debate is a really important part of the education process during a campaign, but it is not a standalone thing.
Indeed. Schroeder’s main point, though, is that the expectation for fact-checking by moderators is new, and it’s ill-advised for the same reasons I outlined in my column at The Week earlier:
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.
Let’s hope Lester Holt learns from history, rather than trying to repeat the Candy Crowley debacle.