Why Debate Moderators Should Not Fact Check Candidates

Update

Well, the debate happened. Hillary Clinton cleaned Trump’s clock. Trump fell apart. And, by all indications, Lester Holt did a good job.

See? This is the way it’s done:

In both cases, Holt called out Trump’s lies in advance. He called the questions Trump raised about President Barack Obama’s birthplace “false claims” and noted in his question about the Iraq War that Trump had supported the war when it began. Holt then followed up to reiterate contradictions with Trump’s past statements.

Earlier

When Fox News Chris Wallace stated he would not be fact checking the Presidential candidates during the debate he moderated, people’s heads seemed to spontaneously explode.

It is a given that one of the Presidential candidates this year is known for the sheer number of lies he can state within a surprisingly short period of time. The New York Time clocked him at 31 lies in just the last week. And his ability to tell a lie is only matched by his breathtaking level of ignorance about governance and foreign policy.

Combined, the two should generate, at a minimum a great deal of misinformation, and at a maximum, some real whoppers.

It is important to fact-check this and every candidate; even the ones we like and adore. But it is not the job of debate moderators to insert themselves into the debate. If they do, the debate can only result in a “You said this”, “I did not”, “Did, too”, “Did not” point and counter-point.  Not only does this disrupt the debate, it makes the debate about the moderator and the candidate(s), rather than just the candidates.

It is the job of the other candidate to fact-check their opponent. It then becomes the moderator’s job to ensure that such fact-checking doesn’t degenerate into a case of “Did, too”, “Did not”, “Did so”, “No you didn’t”, which benefits no one.

Now, what a skilled moderator can do is be aware of a candidate’s proclivity to stretch the truth on various issues, and coach questions in such a way that they short-circuit this tendency. So, instead of asking a candidate a broad, open-ended question such as “Did you support the invasion of Iraq?”, they can ask, “When you were on Howard Stern’s show in 2002, you said you supported the invasion of Iraq. Why did you feel this was a good move at the time?”

It reminds the candidate of previous fact-checking and forces them to respond to a specific event. If the candidate lies at that point, then it’s obvious. It gives them no room to run, no doorway in which to escape.

In addition, though it may not be the moderator’s job to fact-check, it is most definitely the job of the media. Not only should journalists and pundits point out inconsistencies and fabrications, they should do so in whatever immediate manner they can. This can include TV banners, post-debate discussions that include fact-checking, and even annotating the debate transcripts with asides providing additional information.

However, when a journalist is a debate moderator, they stop being a journalist at that point.

A debate moderator’s job is to ask pertinent, relevant questions that elicit information voters need in order to make an informed choice. To enable this they have to ensure that the point/counter-point between the candidates stays on point and is relevant. And they have to ask questions specific to the individual’s qualifications for the position. It becomes, in effect, a job interview. It provides a way for people to compare the candidates on the issues, not their personalities.

This also means that the debate moderator must avoid pandering to whatever is popular, or focusing on past events that have already been talked to death. In other words, they should avoid asking questions about specifics to the individual and focus, instead, on specifics of the job of President of the United States. This may include asking questions about issues related to past events, and using the event as a locus, but the focus shouldn’t be on the past event, itself.

Yeah, fat chance on that one.

The image is of turkey vultures. It seemed appropriate to the discussion.

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