Media Matters’ Do’s And Don’ts For Moderators And Media Covering The 2016 Presidential Debates

The 2016 presidential debates will kick off on September 26, giving voters one of their last chances to judge the candidates on the substance and breadth of their policy proposals. With over 100 million people expected to watch, the stakes could not be higher. Voters are mere months away from selecting the person who will become the president of the United States and whose actions will have an immense impact on their everyday lives. Informing this decision is a responsibility that media cannot afford to take lightly.

Ahead of the first debate, Media Matters has compiled a list of do’s and don’ts for moderators and media commentators to keep in mind.

Do: Fact-Check The Candidates In Real-Time

Don’t: Perpetuate Media’s Double Standard

Do: Use On-Screen Text And Graphics To Rebut Lies In Real-Time

Don’t: Get Bullied By Trump Into His No-Lose Debate Trap

Do: Talk About Candidates’ Specific Policy Plans

Don’t: Feed Into A False Equivalence Between Clinton and Trump

Do: Fact-Check The Candidates In Real-Time

Fact-checking is a crucial responsibility of debate moderators -- and commentators covering the debates -- who will give voters one of the last chances to judge the candidates on the substance and breadth of their policy proposals.

As Huffington Post senior media reporter Michael Calderone explained, a failure to fact-check lies in the debates “leaves the viewing public with a ‘he said, she said’ situation when the journalist picked to be onstage could say, decisively, who is right.” This, in turn, enables misinformation -- an injustice to voters -- and normalizes this behavior -- a threat to democratic and journalistic processes. As New York Times reporter Yamiche Alcindor unequivocally said following NBC’s widely panned Commander-In-Chief Forum, journalists and reporters have a duty to fact-check lies and inconsistencies:

I think last night we saw Donald Trump say that he did not support the war in Iraq. Many people have fact-checked him and said that that's a false statement. BuzzFeed broke that big story, saying here is him on Howard Stern saying that, that he does support the war. So I think being able to do that as journalists, we have to do that. Even if it's tenuous and we want to move on to the next question and we want to have multiple broad conversations, we have to stop and say, wait, you really need to answer this question.

Fox’s Chris Wallace, tapped as the moderator for the final debate, already conceded (much to the dismay of numerous journalists) that he will not fact-check candidates’ lies, stating, “I do not believe it’s my job to be a truth squad.” Given his concession, it’s imperative that the other moderators step up to the challenge of fact-checking candidates, because letting falsehoods go unchallenged does a disservice to voters and puts a strain on journalistic integrity.

Challenging mendacity in the presidential debates is paramount for a number of reasons, first and foremost because Republican nominee Donald Trump’s entire campaign has been grounded in lies and conspiracy theories. PolitiFact found that 70 percent of Trump’s claims are either “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire.”

Among Trump’s countless lies, there are several that he recycles so frequently that moderators have a special responsibility to rebut them.

Trump regularly claims he “was totally against the war in Iraq,” but that has been proved false time and time again. NBC’s Matt Lauer was roundly castigated when he let that lie stand in NBC’s September Commander-In-Chief Forum and Chris Wallace has enabled this lie at least twice before.

Trump has frequently lied about his tax returns, claiming that he cannot release them while he’s under audit and that there’s nothing to learn from them. Trump’s surrogates have also lied on his behalf by saying that voters “aren’t interested” in his tax returns. None of this is true.

Trump has also claimed both that he put to rest the racist conspiracy theory that President Obama was not born in the United States by spurring Obama to release his long-form birth certificate in 2011 and that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was the one who started the birther rumor during the 2008 presidential campaign. As numerous reporters and fact-checkers have pointed out, these are outright lies.

Researcher Tyler Cherry contributed to this section.

Don’t: Perpetuate Media’s Double Standard

Throughout the primaries and the campaign, media have created a double standard of treating Trump differently than Clinton, either by applying different levels of scrutiny to each candidate’s behaviors, policies, statements, and networks, or by blatantly acknowledging that Trump has a lower bar for success. Moderators must choose debate questions carefully, and pundits must be deliberate in their commentary leading up to and following the debate so as not to perpetuate this double standard.

The stakes couldn’t be higher given that we’re already hearing rumblings that Clinton has more to lose at the debate, and that if Trump manages to not insult large portions of the electorate, the event will represent a victory for him.

The double standard is perpetuated when media:

Grade Trump On A Curve. Media grade Trump on a curve when they perpetuate the logic that so long as he doesn’tvomit all over himself and [he gives] a decent” performance, he’ll succeed. Fox News media critic Howard Kurtz has acknowledged that Trump has a “lower bar” to clear in debates than Clinton does. CNN’s Dana Bash has asserted that “expectations are higher” for Clinton in debates “because she is a seasoned politician,” while Trump “is a first-time politician.” And Bloomberg’s John Heilemann has said, “We're setting the bar low [for Trump], but that's sometimes where you have to set the bar.” Media figures will be failing viewers if they set Trump up for a debate win so long as he abandons his usual name-calling and racist or sexist attacks, or simply doesn’t do anything outlandish for one night -- or if they heap disproportionate praise on him for any of these things after the fact.

Set And Accept A Lower Bar For Trump And Thus Ask Him Easier Questions Or Neglect To Fact-Check Him. Moderators’ questions create the lens through which candidates are graded. When moderators ask Trump easier questions, or fail to fact-check him, they’re perpetuating the double standard. Similarly, commentators do the same if they announce leading up to or following the debate that Trump has a lower threshold for success or that Clinton has more to prove or lose, or if they hold Trump accountable only when he is responding to easy questions. NBC’s Matt Lauer was criticized for feeding into the double standard with his questions during the September Commander-In-Chief Forum, when he allowed Trump to lie about opposing the Iraq war, yet he used eight of his first nine questions for Clinton to grill her about her emails.

Pardon Trump’s Rhetoric, Policy Flip-Flops, And Lies Because He’s “Not A Politician” And Is “Learning As He Goes.” CNN political executive editor Mark Preston told New Day host Chris Cuomo in May that he was not surprised Trump “took a half-step back,” as Cuomo put it, on banning Muslim immigrants because he can't be thought of in “conventional terms,” but rather “in Donald Trump terms.” And Daily Beast Washington bureau chief Jackie Kucinich claimed that while “consistency should be an argument against” Trump “in a normal political system,” Trump “isn’t a normal candidate” and thus his policy reversals might not affect him. If debate moderators do not ask Trump substantive questions about his policies or his record -- following the logic that he’s new to presidential debates or not a real politician -- that’s a failure. If media reporting on the debate beforehand or afterward don’t hold Trump accountable for his answers and policy ambiguity, that’s also failure.

Applaud Trump For Adopting Even The Slightest Veneer Of Conventional Behavior. Trump has been the beneficiary of misplaced praise for reading a speech from a TelePrompter, going one day without calling an opponent names, rebutting a joke about his penis size, and delivering one speech devoid of racist attacks. MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace praised Trump’s August visit with the Mexican president, saying that “the fact that he did not ... get run out of the place, that was a good day for Trump.” Pundits must not fall into the trap of applauding Trump for completing basic campaign tasks after the debates. Avoiding racist or sexist attacks and behaving like an adult should be the most basic expectations of a presidential candidate and under no circumstances are such things worthy of praise.

Obsessively Scandalize Clinton’s “Optics” While Glossing Over Damaging Investigative Reports On Trump. Cable news outlets regularly devote substantially more coverage to “optics” stories about Clinton while glossing over more substantive stories about Trump. They’ve devoted 13 times more coverage to Clinton’s pneumonia diagnosis than to The Washington Post’s reporting that Trump spent money from his charity on items meant to benefit himself. Both the reports on the Trump Foundation’s illegal activity and the “serious conflicts of interest and ethical quagmires” that the Trump Organization would pose in a Trump presidency were given short shrift by the broadcast news programs in favor of coverage of Trump’s Dr. Oz stunt. As The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman has explained, media take an “all hands on deck mentality” when reporting Clinton news where “everybody will investigate every nook and cranny to see if there’s anything there that looks untoward. And even if there isn’t, it becomes this story that drags out over the course of days and even weeks” -- as opposed to “a whole string of … issues” about Trump that are reported once and then forgotten. Asking an inordinate amount of questions about so-called Clinton “scandals” while ignoring Trump’s genuinely shady networks both during and after the debate perpetuates this double standard.

Claim Clinton Has A Transparency Problem And Punish Her For Disclosures While Ignoring That Trump Doesn’t Disclose Anything. Media adopt a double standard when they set different expectations of transparency or apply different levels of scrutiny to the two candidates both during and after the debates. Media have long claimed that Clinton stubbornly refuses to disclose information to voters, suggesting that if she’d be more willing to disclose more information, these stories wouldn’t be a problem for her. Yet even when Clinton is unprecedentedly transparent, reporters often attempt to twist mundane facts into something controversial, or to simply ignore facts that exonerate the Clintons. For example, when Hillary Clinton was diagnosed with pneumonia, the press made the story about condemning Clinton for not disclosing her diagnosis sooner, suggesting that a lack of candor and “transparency” created a campaign “mess.” When the Clintons released their 2015 taxes -- which showed they gave more than $1 million to charity -- media, in an attempt to find a gotcha story, erroneously and falsely claimed that most of that money went to the Clinton Foundation. By contrast, Trump has refused to release any tax information, while constantly lying about why he supposedly cannot. And for most of 2016, Trump has paid a very small price for that omission in the press. Media claimed Clinton tried to “ditch” her press pool when she left a 9/11 memorial because she was ill, but most left unmentioned Trump’s record of hostility to the press and the repeated ways he has left his campaign reporters stranded.

Do: Use On-Screen Text And Graphics To Rebut Lies In Real-Time

Networks can and should utilize on-screen text (chyrons) and graphics to fact-check the candidates. This is crucial in what The Washington Post calls a “post-fact world,” where Trump “lies repeatedly and is fact-checked repeatedly, with no noticeable impact on either his own behavior or that of his supporters.”

CNN and MSNBC have already earned considerable praise from the media after using chyrons to fact-check the Trump campaign’s lies.

According to Poynter, these types of fact checks have become increasingly important:

American television has been accused of not stepping up its game to combat misinformation in this election cycle.

In many ways, the failure has been one of formats rather than content. When TV hosts have tried to correct the record they have sometimes done so by replaying long clips of the claim with no clear indication of its falsehood. In other occasions, they have not done enough homework to shut down a lie when the candidate hits back — even if they were entirely correct.

Networks airing the debates or featuring commentary after the fact are presented with a prime opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the truth. The networks that take this opportunity seriously are making a statement -- not only to their viewers, but also to other networks -- that the role of newsrooms is not just to idly cover the news but to cover the truth.

Don’t: Get Bullied By Trump Into His No-Lose Debate Trap

Trump has repeatedly tried to manipulate the presidential debates to create a no-lose situation for himself. Through his repeated claims that the debates are “a rigged system” and that the moderators will treat him unfairly, Trump is setting it up so that he can either prevent moderators from holding him accountable for his lies, bigotry, and conflicts of interest, or he can attack them as biased for doing so. Knowing this is a deliberate strategy, moderators cannot allow Trump to bully them out of asking crucial questions or holding him accountable.

Trump has repeatedly complained that the media is biased against him, even as outlets fail to adequately emphasize his scandals under the pretense of false balance. Trump’s complaints reportedly made it harder for the Commission on Presidential Debates to select moderators. The commission’s choices ultimately included Fox’s Chris Wallace (despite his glaring conflict of interest), who has said he will not fact-check candidates, and NBC’s Lester Holt, whom “Trump is comfortable with,” according to Politico, indicating that Trump successfully influenced the debate commission.

Trump has also taken to using his appearances on Fox News to set expectations that the debates will be unfairly rigged against him. On September 18, Trump phoned in to Fox’s Sunday morning media criticism show, MediaBuzz, and complained to host Howard Kurtz that the debates are “a rigged system,” pointing to recent criticism of NBC’s Matt Lauer, who moderated NBC’s Commander-In-Chief Forum. Lauer was widely panned for his fact-challenged effort, in which he failed to note that Trump was lying about his position on the Iraq war. Trump told Kurtz that “they hammered Lauer” to “game the system” so that the debate moderators will “go after Trump.” Trump’s solution, he told Kurtz, is to “not even have a host.”

Asked by Kurtz if debate moderators Lester Holt of NBC News, Martha Raddatz of ABC News, Anderson Cooper of CNN, and Chris Wallace of Fox are currently being “pressured into not being fair” to him, Trump replied, “Sure.”

And Trump has attacked nearly all of the other debate moderators in his crusade. He’s said Anderson Cooper treats him “very unfairly” and has threatened Lester Holt, saying, “I have a set of things that I’ll be doing” if Holt is “unfair” to him.

Because Trump has all but abandoned networks other than those that are friendliest to him (Fox News and CNBC), the debates may very well present the last opportunity for Trump to be held accountable for responding to substantive questions about his policies.

Do: Talk About Candidates’ Specific Policy Plans

It’s imperative that moderators ask detailed questions about the candidates’ policy proposals and that media coverage leading up to and following the debates focuses on those proposals.

Matt Lauer’s moderation of NBC’s Commander-In-Chief Forum serves as a cautionary tale yet again for the moderators of the upcoming debates. Lauer drew widespread backlash for failing to ask tough questions and spending an inordinate amount of time on questions about Clinton’s emails while not giving her sufficient time to give detailed responses to policy questions. As The New York Times noted, Lauer repeatedly “spoke over Mrs. Clinton to remind her that their time was running short,” including “When an Army veteran in the audience asked Mrs. Clinton to describe her plan to defeat the Islamic State.” In contrast, as Jonathan Chait wrote for New York magazine, “Lauer’s attempt to press Trump was the completely ineffectual technique of asking repeatedly if he is ready to serve as commander-in-chief.” Trump was able to avoid providing any straight or substantive answers, and instead he made “a series of wild and dangerous statements.” Moderators and commentators covering the upcoming debates must contend with the reality that the “average undecided voter is getting snippets of news from television personalities like Lauer.” And if they follow Lauer’s example -- “failing to convey the fact that the election pits a normal politician with normal political failings against an ignorant, bigoted, pathologically dishonest authoritarian” -- those viewers will be ill-served.

Because moderators have sole discretion over the topics covered, it is up to them to ensure voters’ last few chances to get real policy details out of the candidates are not squandered.

As numerous journalists have explained, Trump has virtually no real, detailed, specific policy proposals, and the proposals he has shared are short on specifics and either change rapidly or are roundly criticized by experts. It’s up to the debate moderators and media commentators to make sure Trump is forced to answer for them.

Evan Osnos explained in the New Yorker that a potential Trump “victory is no longer the stuff of dark comedy or fan fiction,” and thus media has a responsibility to let voters know what a Trump presidency would actually entail. Trump’s statements on policies have been vague and unreliable, with Trump adopting and abandoning policies, walking them back then doubling down at the drop of a hat, but, as Osnos explained, “campaigns offer a surprisingly accurate preview of Presidencies.” A look at Trump’s promises includes: “inhumane” mass deportation modeled after Eisenhower’s disastrous and racist “Operation Wetback,” a ban on Muslims, overhauled U.S. support for NATO, elimination of 70 years of “American efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons” (as Osnos put it), punishment for women who obtain abortions, and, according to Osnos, guns for school teachers, and abolishment of “gun-free zones.” Those are just a few examples. Trump would also “be the first Commander-in-Chief with no prior experience in public office or at high levels of the military,” as Osnos explained. He noted that Trump “has said that he would not trust American intelligence officials (‘the people that have been doing it for our country’) and declared, ‘I know more about ISIS than the generals do.’”

As Osnos explained, “The full spectacle of Trump’s campaign—the compulsive feuds and slurs, the detachment from established facts—has demanded so much attention that it is easy to overlook a process with more enduring consequences: his bureaucratic march toward actually assuming power.”

It cannot be overstated that these debates present one of, if not the, last opportunities for voters to take in information about the person they will ultimately elect to be president of the United States, who will make an immense impact on their lives. If moderators and commentators squander this opportunity by asking about poll numbers, or optics, or by responding to immature criticisms, the consequences could be dire.

Don’t: Feed Into A False Equivalence Between Clinton and Trump

Media create a double standard when they apply scrutiny to Clinton that is not applied to Trump; conversely, they present a false equivalence by pretending that the two candidates’ actions are equal and thus should be covered equally. This approach turns issues where there is a clear right and wrong -- like the racist birther conspiracy theories -- into a he said, she said situation. As Univision’s Jorge Ramos explained, Trump “has forced journalists to revisit rules of objectivity and fairness” because “if a candidate is making racist and sexist remarks, we cannot hide in the principle of neutrality,” by just simply “providing both points of view.” That’s false equivalence. Media figures create and perpetuate a false equivalence when they report on Clinton and Trump as if they are equally credible or equally at fault, implying that they behave in a similar or proportionate fashion.

For example, media created a false equivalence when they lent both oxygen and credence to Trump’s claim that Clinton is a “bigot” by reporting on it as a legitimate, debateable opinion. Numerous reports claimed that Trump and Clinton were “exchang[ing] racially charged attacks,” even though Trump’s remarks consisted only of outlandish, evidence-free insults while Clinton reasonably and accurately described Trump’s racist rhetoric and very real ties to white nationalists and the alt-right.

When Trump claimed he put to rest the racist birther conspiracy theory that President Obama was not born in the United States by spurring Obama to release his long-form birth certificate in 2011, he also falsely claimed the lie was started by Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential campaign. As numerous reporters and fact-checkers have noted, both claims are nonsense. Yet in their reporting, media asserted that Clinton and Trump were “pointing fingers at each other.”

Reporters have promulgated an absurd false equivalence that Clinton and Trump have both “offended the notion of a free press.” As The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple pointed out, this is blatantly outrageous. Trump has an incredibly long track record of hostility toward the press, as Wemple described:

The campaign of Donald Trump has offended the notion of a free press in some of the following ways:

  • Bashing outlet after outlet after outlet in his speeches, often using descriptors like “disgusting” and even calling one reporter a “sleaze” on national television;
  • Singling out camera operators at his rallies for failing to pan the crowd. “Look at the guy in the middle. Why aren’t you turning the camera? Terrible. So terrible. Look at him, he doesn’t turn the camera. He doesn’t turn the camera,” said Trump[;]
  • Promising to “open up” the country’s libel laws so as to make it easier to sue media organizations;
  • Denying press credentials to various news organizations based on unfavorable coverage. They include the The Post, Politico, the Daily Beast, Univision, Fusion, the Des Moines Register and the Huffington Post;
  • Expressing frustration with the media for investigating his record of charitable donations;
  • Suing a former campaign aide for violating a confidentiality agreement by speaking with the media;
  • Hassling reporters for not staying in their designated pen at rallies;
  • Boycotting a Fox News debate over vague concerns about one of its hosts;
  • Grabbing and pushing reporters;
  • Hyping a bogus National Enquirer story that spun conspiracy theories about the father of Ted Cruz;
  • Failing to condemn the anti-Semitic backlash against a reporter who’d written about Trump’s wife, Melania Trump.

The campaign of Hillary Clinton has offended the notion of a free press in some of the following ways:

  • Herding media reps into a roped-off area at a New Hampshire event in 2015;
  • Failing to make herself available to reporters on the campaign trail and in news-conference settings.

As Media Matters’ Carlos Maza previously pointed out, at this point it’s silly to list all of the reasons that Trump deserves to be treated differently -- his ties to white nationalists, his ties to Russia, his calls for an unconstitutional Muslim ban, his racist attacks on Mexican immigrants. The differences between the two candidates are not merely “partisan,” which is why so many high-profile Republicans have come out against their party’s candidate. As Maza noted, pretending the two are the same: “ignores how the editorial judgments that journalists make help shape how the voting public weighs those facts and reports. If the Times publishes 16 front page articles on the Clinton Foundation before it gets around to reporting on the Trump Foundation, readers will be left with the impression that the former is more important, no matter how damning the latter story may be.”