USA TODAY US Edition
Rieder: Debate moderator must be the heavy,
Matt Lauer showed what not to do; can Lester Holt do better?
When the current presidential campaign’s first debate gets underway on Sept. 26 at Hofstra University, there will be a great deal at stake for rivals Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — and Libertarian Gary Johnson if he makes the cut. Not to mention the moderator,
NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt.
Moderating a presidential debate has always been a high-profile undertaking, but never more than this year.
Rarely has the media’s role in a campaign been subject to as intense scrutiny as it has this time around. Republican Trump has made press-bashing a leitmotif of his campaign. The forces of Democrat Clinton complain that their candidate is held to a higher standard. Critics rail that an abundance of “free media” has fueled the rise of Trump.
And the debates, with their big buildup and massive audience, serve as particular flash points.
We got a preview of what can happen with last week’s commander in chief forum on NBC. Moderator Matt Lauer was brutally lambasted for his performance, for waking from a deep, long sleep and discovering Clinton’s emails, for going too easy on Trump. (And wouldn’t NBC have saved itself a lot of headaches if it had given the reins to Meet the
Press host and political guru Chuck Todd rather than Lauer?)
But the biggest knock on Lauer was his failure to call out Trump on his demonstrably false assertion that he had opposed the war in Iraq from the get-go. Fact Check.org says there is no evidence to support Trump’s claim, and the bumptious billionaire in fact told radio bad boy Howard Stern six months before the war started that he supported it.
Despite that Trump’s claim has been widely discredited, Lauer let the assertion go unchallenged.
Which brings us to a major question for this year’s debate moderators: If one of the candidates says something that is clearly untrue, is it the moderator’s job to point that out?
Fox News’ Chris Wallace, who will moderate the third and final debate on Oct. 19, says that’s simply not part of his job description.
“I do not believe that it’s my job to be a truth squad,” Wallace told Fox’s Howard Kurtz. “It’s up to the other person to catch them on that.”
(What about the other upcoming debate moderators? ABC says Martha Raddatz isn’t talking predebate. Holt and CNN’s Anderson Cooper didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
Wallace was pilloried on Twitter for his remark. But former PBS anchor Jim Lehrer, who has moderated 12, count ’em 12, presidential debates, supports Wallace’s position.
“I usually left (fact checking) for the candidate or used the candidate to do it,” Lehrer told Politi
co. “Usually the way you do that with simply the candidate there, you say, ‘Would you agree with that, is that how you see it?’ ”
But that’s just the wrong approach. That’s turning it into a partisan thing, a he-said, she-said. It’s a fine way to approach a policy question. But not a question of facts, or lack thereof.
One of the more encouraging journalistic developments in recent years has been the rise of the fact-checking movement, where the assertions of officials and candidates are put to the test. Rather than just printing what the rivals say, this approach involves going the extra mile and determining the truth — doing journalism. FactCheck.org, PolitiFact and
The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler have been in the forefront of this undertaking and deserve a great deal of credit. Now their efforts have spread to many other news outlets. The key is to make sure the fact-checking is guided by, well, facts, not fueled by partisan spin.
It’s frustrating that myths and lies often endure even after they have been totally blown out of the water. (The birther nonsense is a perfect example.) But that’s no reason to give up the fight.
It’s also a reason for real-time fact-checking when possible. The longer a canard is out there unchallenged, the longer it will endure.
It’s particularly critical for this year’s debates because of the antics of one Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton is often chastised for her lack of transparency, and with good reason. The deceptive approach to her recent medical adventures is a case in point.
But when it comes to being truth-challenged, Trump is in a league of his own. According to PolitiFact, of the Trump statements it has investigated, 71% were rated “mostly false,” “false” or “pants on fire.” For Clinton, that number was 28%.
FactCheck.org once said of The Donald, “In the 12 years of FactCheck.org ’s existence, we’ve never seen his match. He stands out not only for the sheer number of his factually false claims, but also for his brazen refusals to admit error when proven wrong.”
It proclaimed him the “king of whoppers.” (Both of these outfits are non-partisan. President Obama once won PolitiFact’s coveted “Lie of the Year” Award for “If you like your health plan, you can keep it.”)
Under the bright debate lights, fact-checking is a weapon that should be used sparingly. Constant interruptions would blow up the whole thing. And it needs to be brought to bear only when there is incontrovertible evidence that the statement is false.
“Because doing so interrupts the flow of the debate,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, FactCheck.org ’s parent.
But when the evidence is clearcut, a la Trump and the Iraq War, the moderator must pounce.
The public deserves it.
Of the Trump statements PolitiFact has investigated, 71% are rated “mostly false,” “false” or “pants on fire.” For Clinton, it’s 28%.