What Role Should Debate Moderators Play?

Posted on September 29, 2016 by

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gty_obama_romney_2_er_160926_12x5_1600.jpgDespite the performance of each party’s candidate, come the end of the debate, it always seems as though there’s one clear loser: the moderator. Perhaps no one knows this feeling better than NBC’s Matt Lauer. After hosting the Commander-in-Chief Forum several weeks ago, Lauer drew criticism for his overall handling of the event, most notably for the differences in his line of questioning between the two candidates. Political commentators such as Norman Ornstein pointed to moments like when Lauer asked Hillary Clinton to be brief before addressing an audience question on defeating ISIS, as further evidence of the added burden of sexism Clinton must navigate as the first female presidential nominee. After the forum Orenstein took to Twitter writing, “Lauer interrupted Clinton’s answers repeatedly to move on. Not once for Trump. Tough to be a woman running for president.

But what drew even more heat from critics was Lauer’s lack of fact-checking, particularly with regard to Donald Trump’s statement about his opposition to the war in Iraq and stance on intervention in Libya. Vox’s Matt Yglesias was a major critic of this aspect of the forum, and had this to say about Lauer’s performance:

“It’s not a great idea, in general, for journalists to let politicians get away with bald-faced, on camera lies. But it’s particularly important not to let them do it when, as is the case with Trump on these two issues, the lies are so predictable. Trump says these things about Iraq and Libya all the time. It’s not incidental, it’s the core of his message. He says it over and over again. And it’s not true. People need to know that. And Lauer totally blew it.”

Although the forum itself wasn’t a formal presidential debate, Lauer’s performance did raise questions about what the role of a moderator should be, specifically whether or not they should engage in real time fact-checking. When Jim Lehrer, a seasoned twelve-time presidential debate moderator, was asked his opinion on the function of moderators, he responded by saying that their primary goal was to keep a constructive flow of conversation going between the two candidates, adding that he believed fact-checking should be left to the candidates themselves.

Lehrer’s rationale behind not fact-checking is the most prominent amongst those against the notion, essentially arguing that the practice undermines the debate itself. If one candidate is lying, it should be the responsibility of another, well-prepared candidate to point that out. Thanks to Lester Holt’s apparent adherence to the Lehrer moderation philosophy, last Monday night, the American public got to witness (somewhat painfully) what happens when you leave fact-checking to the candidates themselves: utter chaos.

trump-clintonDuring the course of the debate, Trump interjected Clinton a whopping 24 times, with the vast majority of these injections criticizing Clinton’s presentation of the facts. Is shouting “You’re wrong,” and “No,” without any substantive rebuttal the kind of robust, debate-worthy “fact-checking” that Lehrer and Holt had in mind? To their credit, probably not. But could the dumpster fire that took place on Monday night have been avoided? Yes.

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Let’s get one thing clear: all politicians stretch the truth in some way or another. Some politicians periodically flat-out lie. But one (pseudo) politician specifically, lies a lot.

Politico reporters rigorously fact-checked both Clinton and Trump for a week on the campaign trail, and found that Trump’s lies far exceeded Clintons. On average, Politico found that Trump lied about once every three and half minutes compared to Clinton’s once every twelve. Additionally, they found that Trump lies in far more categories than Clinton, most notably in major policy areas pertaining to the economy, immigration, and healthcare. Clinton, on the other hand, struggles to stay truthful when addressing issues surrounding herself (previous positions on policy, etc.). The Politico reporters did note that one explanation for Trump’s staggering number of lies versus those of Clinton could be attributed to the length of his rallies, which last, on average, twice as long as Clinton’s. With this in mind, however, it was still found that after a data extrapolation, putting Clinton and Trump rallies at roughly the same length, Trump’s lies would outnumber Clinton’s 4:1.

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Although it’s disappointing to find that lies are commonplace at rallies, in some respects, who cares? Those lies take place in smaller settings with fewer consequences. But in a formal debate setting with nearly 84 million people watching, every word, expression, and inflection matters. The audience deserves to know what’s real and what isn’t, even if the wool being lifted from their eyes exposes a harsher reality–they have the right to know the truth. And at the end of the day, that burden rests on the moderator, who should be aggressive in following up with factual clarifications to maintain the integrity of presidential debates.

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