De­bate mod­er­a­tors shouldn’t duck

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - >> By E.J. Dionne Jr. E.J. Dionne’s email address is ej­dionne@wash­post.com. Twit­ter: @EJ­Dionne.

I don’t envy Lester Holt. No mat­ter what he does in the first pres­i­den­tial de­bate, he’ll be de­nounced. But this cer­tainty should be lib­er­at­ing. If you know the brick­bats will come one way or the other, you might as well do the right thing.

But is there a “right thing” that doesn’t co­in­cide with some­one’s po­lit­i­cal agenda? That is pre­cisely the wrong ques­tion, since any choice he makes will be in­ter­preted as fa­vor­ing one can­di­date over the other. What should mat­ter are the obli­ga­tions of jour­nal­ists in a demo­cratic so­ci­ety.

For de­bate mod­er­a­tors, both on Mon­day and in fu­ture en­coun­ters, three du­ties stand out. The first is to do all they can so view­ers come away with an ac­cu­rate sense of the facts. The sec­ond is to pro­mote a real ex­change of per­spec­tives be­tween Don­ald Trump and Hil­lary Clin­ton, not only on is­sues jour­nal­ists deem to mat­ter but also on what a pres­i­dent can re­al­is­ti­cally do to leave the coun­try bet­ter off four years from now.

The third is the trick­i­est: Holt and his col­leagues Martha Rad­datz, An­der­son Cooper and Chris Wal­lace need to keep in mind that they are far more af­flu­ent than most of the peo­ple watching the de­bates. They should think hard about what life is like for those — from Ap­palachia to Compton, from the work­ing-class in Youngstown, Ohio to the farm work­ers in Immokalee, Florida — who find them­selves in less com­fort­able cir­cum­stances than those at the me­dia’s com­mand­ing heights.

It tells us a great deal that the Clin­ton camp wants the mod­er­a­tors to call out the can­di­dates when they lie, while Trump wants to leave this task to his op­po­nent. Never has a can­di­date sig­naled as clearly as Trump that he is ter­ri­fied of fact-check­ing.

But let’s re­move this ar­gu­ment from a par­ti­san frame. The no­tion that mod­er­a­tors can take them­selves out of the de­bate is ab­surd. I wish we had Lin­coln-Dou­glas style de­bates in which a mod­er­a­tor was sim­ply a time­keeper, but we don’t. As they are cur­rently or­ga­nized, de­bates al­ready give mod­er­a­tors enor­mous in­flu­ence over their out­comes by virtue of the ques­tions they ask or don’t ask, by how and when they en­force the rules, and by which ques­tions they choose to fol­low up on.

De­bates also need to catch up with so­cial me­dia. Tens of thou­sands of jour­nal­ists and ci­ti­zens will be check­ing the ac­cu­racy of what the can­di­dates are say­ing. De­bates should not be her­met­i­cally sealed from the truth-gath­er­ing go­ing on around them. If those busy in­for­ma­tion-mon­gers find that a can­di­date has said some­thing ut­terly un­true, a mod­er­a­tor should use the in­for­ma­tion to chal­lenge the can­di­date and in­vite a re­sponse.

We all have con­cerns we want ad­dressed. Per­son­ally, I want Trump pressed about whether for­eign in­ter­ests have helped prop up his busi­ness em­pire, and then asked how vot­ers can pos­si­bly judge the truth­ful­ness of his an­swer if he re­fuses to re­lease any tax re­turns. I am sure Trump sup­port­ers want Clin­ton queried about servers and emails.

But this cam­paign has been billed as the one in which Amer­i­cans who have not fully shared in our pros­per­ity would fi­nally have their say. Please, mod­er­a­tors, don’t let can­di­dates get away with vague prom­ises — or pledges they can never keep. And in­sist that they lay out the steps they can plau­si­bly take to make the lives of strug­gling in­di­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies bet­ter. The same goes for na­tional se­cu­rity. You know a lot about the world. Don’t fear bring­ing that knowl­edge to bear when can­di­dates try to slip through with neb­u­lous or scary talk.

And, to go back to the be­gin­ning, for­get about the crit­ics and think in­stead of how you will feel years from now about how you dis­charged your re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as jour­nal­ists. Your job is not to bend over back­ward so you of­fend no one. It’s to help your fel­low ci­ti­zens learn as much as they can in pre­par­ing to make one of the most con­se­quen­tial de­ci­sions they will ever ren­der in a vot­ing booth.

EJ Dionne Colum­nist

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