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NEW YORK ― For Lester Holt and his TV journalist colleagues who are moderating the upcoming presidential debates, the opportunity to question the future commander in chief in front of tens of millions of viewers brings prestige ― and potential pitfalls.
The high-profile anchor selected will inevitably be part of the debate story. The fear is becoming the whole story.
This is the first time in recent memory that the moderator’s role has come under such intense scrutiny in the weeks leading up to the first presidential face-off. The pressure for network executives to make sure their marquee journalists are up to speed has only increased after the widespread criticism leveled at Matt Lauer, who moderated a presidential forum Wednesday night. (The Commander-in-Chief forum, featuring Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, was widely seen as a dry run for the Sept. 26 main event.)
Even before the Lauer debacle, journalists were already expressing concerns that debate moderators would refrain from challenging candidates’ outright lies. Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, the moderator for the third debate, said on Sunday that he doesn’t intend to be “a truth squad” and that the candidates are responsible for rebutting one another’s claims. The other three presidential debate moderators ― NBC’s Holt, ABC’s Martha Raddatz and CNN’s Anderson Cooper ― along with vice presidential debate moderator Elaine Quijano, of CBS News, have kept silent all week as to whether or not they agree.
Wallace’s perspective prompted me to imagine Monday how, without a moderator who pushes back, Trump could get away with repeating his lie about being a staunch opponent of the Iraq War. That scenario played out 48 hours later when Lauer didn’t fact-check Trump’s false Iraq claim, along with failing to point out that the Republican nominee supported the 2011 U.S. intervention in Libya.
In response to Lauer’s poor performance, The New York Times editorial boardominously warned Friday of a “debate disaster waiting to happen.”
“If the moderators of the coming debates do not figure out a better way to get the candidates to speak accurately about their records and policies — especially Mr. Trump, who seems to feel he can skate by unchallenged with his own version of reality while Mrs. Clinton is grilled and entangled in the fine points of domestic and foreign policy — then they will have done the country a grave disservice,” the editorial board wrote.
On Wednesday night, Trump blustered his way through a primetime event without any discernible grasp of foreign policy and lied about his pre-Iraq war position. This surely isn’t the first time. In March, Trump made 71 claims deemed “inaccurate, misleading or deeply questionable” in the course of a single CNN town hall. Clinton, too, has made false or misleading statements this election season, according to fact-checkers, but with nowhere near Trump’s frequency or brazenness, such as claiming to have watched events that never happened.