A Moment of Truth for Presidential Debate Moderators

by Placerville Newswire / Sep 26, 2016 / comments

The 1976 Democratic presidential nominee, Jimmy Carter, left, and President Gerald Ford, during their second debate in October of that year. CreditTeresa Zabala/The New York Times

By; Jim RutenbergMEDIATOR  --  If this hasn’t been the worst year ever for truth in politics, I can’t think of what was. Nor can anyone tell me.

The Republican presidential nominee has produced more falsehoods than the major fact-checking sites have identified from a major presidential candidate since they came into existence. The Democratic nominee hasn’t come anywhere close to that. But she’s not exactly dwelling in Honest Abe territory, either.

It’s almost at the point where “truthiness” — Stephen Colbert’s old word for the from-the-gut canards that helped to lead to the Iraq war — would be preferable to what we have now: unsubstantiated nonsense and outright lies. In too many cases, they have taken hold as the basis for people’s voting decisions.

Traditional journalism has struggled to keep up with it all. It has been overwhelmed by the legion of assertions that scream out for fact-checking; undercut, at times, by journalists’ human failings and the economic imperatives of ratings and page views; and under siege from partisan attacks intended to bully it out of doing its job.

The good news is that the debates are finally upon us, providing the fourth estate with a great chance to set the record straight and to nudge the presidential discussion onto the level ground of established facts. In other words, a chance to live up to its calling.

And, yes, that is going to require the debate moderators to interject with the truth when either candidate makes an obviously false statement.

Inexplicably, the pre-debate debate has been dominated by the question of whether it is within the debate moderators’ purview to do that.

Donald J. Trump has said, as he did on Thursday on “Fox & Friends,” that the NBC anchor moderating Monday’s debate, Lester Holt, should stay out of the way and leave it to him and Hillary Clinton to “take each other on” over the facts.

Not surprising. But at least one of this year’s moderators, Chris Wallace of Fox News, said the same thing, as have some well-known television-news graybeards like the former PBS anchor Jim Lehrer, once a regular debate moderator himself.


The 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, left, and President Obama during a debate in October of that year. Candy Crowley of CNN, the moderator, was criticized for fact-checking Mr. Romney.CreditJustin Lane/European Pressphoto Agency

That treats falsehood like a hockey puck being moved up and down the ice, and forces each candidate into goalie pads. What this political season really needs is a confident and credible referee, or a few thousand.

Sites like FactCheck.org and PolitiFact, and news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post, will be there to separate truth from lies after the fact. But let’s face it, their combined readerships won’t come anywhere close to the size of the debate audience, which television executives and political strategists say could be as big as 100 million people.

For many viewers, a well-honed lie will stick to the candidate on the receiving end of it — who, if past is prologue, is more likely to be Mrs. Clinton than Mr. Trump.

And the Commission on Presidential Debates will be failing in its own mission “to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners.”

The commission has put its thumb on the noninterventionist side of the scale. When I spoke recently with the co-chairman, Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., he said that the moderator’s job was “to be a facilitator — to raise the issues and draw out the candidates and hopefully get them to interact themselves.”

That, he said, is different from a news program on which “you’ve got your notes of what so-and-so said: ‘Governor, you said this three weeks ago and now you’re changing the story.’ That’s an interview, not what’s supposed to happen in a debate.”

In 1987, Mr. Fahrenkopf, then the chairman of the Republican National Committee, co-founded the debate commission with Paul G. Kirk, who was chairman of the Democratic National Committee. And it is no small thing that they chose to put journalists at the center of the action.

It was before interparty civility skipped town, and before internet-enabled, ideology-infused news sites and partisan press critics undermined the prominence and credibility of the mainstream news media. It was a time when a news outlet’s success was dependent upon its track record of getting stories right, not on how far it was willing to go to make its coverage hew to the worldview of its readers.

The gatekeeper role the news media used to play has been rightly criticized for stanching those views that fell outside its decidedly mainstream perspective. But it also meant that campaigns generally sparred within the confines of the same set of established and true facts.

Take the second presidential debate between President Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976. Max Frankel of The New York Times pressed Mr. Ford on the Soviet Union’s dominance of Eastern Europe, and responded with incredulity as he invited Mr. Ford to clarify his remark that the Soviets were not dominant there. The focus the next day was on Mr. Ford’s politically catastrophic geopolitical misstatement, not on his inquisitor, Mr. Frankel.


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Had that exchange happened today, political operatives and Twitter provocateurs surely would have found a way to make it about Mr. Frankel — whose follow-up was actually an attempt to offer Mr. Ford a lifeline, he told me. And some American media voices would have sought to dispute the facts on the ground in Eastern Europe (perhaps even on a Russian-financed American network like RT).

In our current environment, half of Mr. Trump’s voters can believe the false notion that Mrs. Clinton knew the 2012 Benghazi attacks were set to occur before they happened and chose not to act, as a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll found in the spring. In a more recent New York Times/CBS poll, roughly half of Trump supporters said they believed that undocumented immigrants were more likely to commit crimes than American citizens were. (The preponderance of research has found that the opposite is true.)

Such findings should bring a new appreciation for fair-minded journalists to those who care about having government policies that are based on the truth. As the historian Michael Beschloss put it during a phone conversation last week, “We are now in an age where there are so many fewer gatekeepers that you need what few are possible.”

Can the moderators this fall turn their debate stages into falsehood-free zones? What does that look like in this election? Debate organizers say they want to avoid a situation in which the debate becomes one big fact-checking or hectoring exercise and never gets to important policy differences. They also don’t want the stage to be a hill for the moderator — and thus the whole debate process — to die on, amid charges of partisanship and a “rigged” system.

The most common example that people point to is Candy Crowley’s performance at a 2012 town-hall-style debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama, in which she disputed Mr. Romney’s assertion that Mr. Obama waited 14 days to call the Benghazi attack an act of terror.

Mr. Obama had more or less done so the next day, though, as Ms. Crowley sought to point out, his administration spent several days thereafter connecting it to protests against an incendiary, anti-Islam video. PolitiFact called Mr. Romney’s statement “half-true,” which gave more ammunition to Republicans who accused Ms. Crowley of singling out their candidate unfairly.

But one clumsy attempt at fact-checking, and the partisan attacks it drew, should not be used to muzzle this year’s moderators.

Yes, the candidates can challenge each other, but some things should not be left to a “he said, she said” stalemate and will require a moderator to weigh in — like Mr. Trump’s offensive attempts to claim he did not aggressively promote a campaign that questioned Mr. Obama’s citizenship or Mrs. Clinton’s mischaracterization of the F.B.I.’s assessment of her handling of email.

Nobody wants a repeat of Matt Lauer’s performance a couple of weeks ago when he let Mr. Trump’s claim that he always opposed the Iraq war go unchallenged.

Actually, scratch that. One person does — Mr. Trump, who portrayed critics of Mr. Lauer as liberals seeking to push debate moderators to be tougher on him than on Mrs. Clinton. There’s one way both he and Mrs. Clinton can avoid lopsided treatment: Tell the truth.


Research was contributed by Megan Thee-Brenan and Zachary Wichter.