Debate moderators aren't fact-checkers
Donald Trump has rebounded from a terrible August to pull back into a dead heat with Hillary Clinton. That's really astounding. Despite a 7-to-1 advantage in advertising, 24 years in Washington, and the Democratic Party establishment in her corner for years, Hillary Clinton might blow this election.
The polling deadlock has made the debates even more critical to both candidates. Given the lack of focus on actual policy — most efforts from both campaigns have focused on character and temperament issues — we can expect to see and hear a lot of personal attacks during the first debate on Sept. 26.
With the importance of the debates increasing, so has scrutiny of the process and the participants. For instance, the role of the Commission on Presidential Debates has come under fire for excluding Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, who will appear on every ballot in this cycle, for failing to meet an arbitrary 15 percent polling threshold. Normally that would not raise the ire of voters, but in a cycle where the two major parties have produced broadly disliked and distrusted nominees, the CPD's refusal to expand the debates to those who might have more to say on policy seems less defensible on practical grounds than in previous cycles.
The expected lack of substance has put even more scrutiny on the role of the moderators, the first of whom will be NBC anchor Lester Holt. His media cohorts started sending messages about their expectations of aggressive moderation and fact-checking by lambasting Holt's NBC colleague Matt Lauer for his performance in a townhall forum earlier this month. Lauer failed to challenge Trump's claim to have opposed the Iraq War, an argument that began in the Republican primary debates and has percolated ever since. The forum's design, however, was to facilitate interaction between the candidates and the participants rather than act as a live-audience exclusive interview.
The presidential debates have a similar design issue when it comes to moderator intervention, but that's not likely to change many minds. 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.