Being the moderator of a presidential debate is not for the faint of heart. No matter what the moderator does, they are bound to be criticized by one side or the other and, at times, by both sides. The moderator for the first presidential debate, Lester Holt was no exception. Supporters of Hillary Clinton thought Mr. Holt did an excellent job while Donald Trump’s supporters felt that he favored Mrs. Clinton.
Is fact checking a good idea
One issue from the debate that merits some discussion is the practice of ‘fact checking.’ Mr. Holt several times ‘fact checked’ Mr. Trump and thus interjected himself and his views on the ‘facts’ into the debate. Unless Mr. Holt is blessed with an encyclopedic memory, he had to have had some advance preparation that particular questions would elicit a response from Donald Trump that might conflict with the ‘facts,’ or at least the version of ‘facts’ believed by NBC News. It’s probably good television to frame a ‘gotcha’ question, but is it good for a presidential debate?
Clinton campaign urged fact checking
The Clinton campaign made no secret that they wanted Lester Holt to ‘fact check’ Donald Trump. Campaign manager Robby Mook told Politico:
We’re really focused on this opportunity that Hillary has to speak directly to the voters on the issues. But we are concerned that Donald Trump may lie, he may throw misinformation out there, and that Hillary will have to spend all of her time trying to correct the record rather than talking about the things she wants to accomplish, all that we’re asking is that the record be checked. So if Donald Trump lies, which he has repeatedly done in the past, that that be simply checked. — Robby Mook, Clinton campaign manager
Commission on Debates discourages fact checking
However, the Presidential Commission on Debates has taken the position that its moderators should not engage in fact-checking.
I think the job description is to get out of the way of the candidates. The candidates are the ones that have to fact-check each other. — Mike McCurry, Co-chair Presidential Debate Commission and former Press Secretary to President Bill Clinton.
The Executive Director of the Commission echoed a similar position:
But I have to say, in our history, the moderators have found it appropriate to allow the candidates to be the ones that talk about the accuracy or the fairness of what the other candidate or candidates might have said. I don't think it’s a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopedia Britannica. And I think it’s better for that person to facilitate and to depend on the candidates to basically correct each other as they see fit. — Janet Brown, Executive Director, Presidential Debate Commission
Holt refutes Trump over Iraq War
The most notable fact checking by Mr. Holt was over Trump’s claim that he opposed the Iraq War. Mr. Trump said he opposed the war from the beginning to which Mr. Holt responded, “the record shows otherwise.” Mr. Holt’s response appeared upsetting to Mr. Trump, who spent several minutes arguing with Mr. Holt. The split screen showed Hillary Clinton, with a bemused smile on her face clearly enjoying the exchange between Holt and Trump.
There are some who feel that a debate moderator has failed in their job if the discussion becomes about them rather than the views of the candidate. After all, the moderator is not the one running for office, nor is the public interested in the moderator's perception of the ‘facts.’
Both candidates tell a whopper now and then
Surely it’s not news to anyone that both candidates tell a whopper from time to time. Mr. Trump may, or may not, be more truthful than Hillary Clinton, but the job of calling out Mr. Trump on his misstatements should belong to Mrs. Clinton, not the moderator.