Journalists Call On Debate Moderators To Fact-Check Candidates

Journalists Call On Debate Moderators To Fact-Check Candidates

Journalists: Debate Moderators Should “Be Well-Prepared Enough To Assert The Truth In Real Time”

››› ››› NICK FERNANDEZ

Prior to the first presidential debate between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump, journalists are advising the debate moderators to “Be well-prepared enough to assert the truth in real time,” and arguing that a moderator should not “abdicate” their “role as a truth-seeker and a journalist” because moderators “play a constructive and vital role” in presidential debates.

Clinton And Trump To Face Off In First Presidential Debate

NBC News: “Republican Donald Trump And Democrat Hillary Clinton Will Face Off For The First Time In The First Of Three Scheduled Presidential Debates.” Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton will face off for the first presidential debate on September 26, in what is expected to be “one of the most watched political programs” of the election. NBC anchor Lester Holt will moderate. The second presidential debate will be moderated by ABC’s Martha Raddatz and CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and the third presidential debate will be moderated by Fox News’ Chris Wallace. [NBC News, 9/20/16]

Journalists Implore Debate Moderators To Fact-Check Candidates: Don’t “Abdicate Your Role As A Truth-Seeker And A Journalist”

NPR’s David Folkenflik: “I Don’t Think You Abdicate Your Role As A Truth-Seeker And A Journalist By Being A Moderator.” NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik argued that debate moderators should not “abdicate [their] role as a truth-seeker and a journalist” and “melt away into the backdrop” because “they can play a constructive and vital role” in the debates by fact-checking candidates. From the September 23 edition of NPR’s Morning Edition:

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: You have to pick your moments, you can't challenge on everything. But you also have to be present, I don't think you abdicate your role as a truth-seeker and a journalist by being a moderator. Candy Crowley came under some fire in 2012 for, I think rightly, contesting a characterization that Mitt Romney made about how President Obama reacted in his rhetoric to the deadly attack in Benghazi.

[...]

She was right, but there was such a back and forth that it made her more of a part of the debate than I think a lot of people were comfortable with, and certainly Republican partisans attacked her for that, although she was right on the points. I think journalists need to help the ball go back and forth to get a sense of these candidates, who they are, what direction they want to lead the country in, what the implications are of their policies. But I don't think they need to melt away into the backdrop either, I think they can play a constructive and vital role, some of them more willing to do so than others. [NPR, Morning Edition, 9/23/16]

Huffington Post’s Sam Stein: Debate Moderators “Have An Obligation To Point” Out Falsehoods. The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein maintained that debate moderators “have an obligation" to point out falsehoods from the candidates. Stein recognized “people think that there’s a risk of there being a bias,” but added that, “in the end, you do have to point out fact.” From the September 23 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe:

MIKA BRZEZINSKI (CO-HOST): Sam Stein, I mean, the moderator can point out if something is blatantly untrue, can they not?

SAM STEIN: Not only can they point it out, I would argue they have an obligation to point it out. First and foremost, they're a journalist and I think the idea here is that you try to get true information to the viewers. I know people think that there's a risk of there being a bias, a Candy Crowley moment, but in the end, you do have to point out fact. [MSNBC, Morning Joe, 9/23/16]

PolitiFact’s Angie Drobnic Holan: “Moderators Should Fact-Check The Candidates, And They Can Fact-Check Them Most Effectively By Asking Tough Follow-Up Questions.” PolitiFact’s Angie Drobnic Holan contended that debate “moderators should fact-check the candidates, and they can fact-check them most effectively by asking tough follow-up questions.” Holan added, “Too often, moderators look like they’re already thinking about the next question when the candidates are speaking. They need to concentrate instead on the substance of the answers.” From PolitiFact’s September 21 article:

Fact-check the candidates by asking the tough follow-up. One of the major debates of this cycle has been whether moderators should fact-check the candidates. I think fact-checkers do the best job of fact-checking debates, because we specialize in fact-checking and we’re most familiar with the evidence that backs up the claims politicians typically make. At PolitiFact, we’re constantly looking for ways to get our fact-checks of debates to the public faster.

Having said that, I think moderators should fact-check the candidates, and they can fact-check them most effectively by asking tough follow-up questions.

The best moderators listen intently to the candidates’ answers to see if they’re answering the actual question. Moderators should listen for vagueness or cliches or falsehoods, and then ask sharp follow-up questions. If the candidates don’t answer the question, moderators can point that out and pose the question again in a tough way. Candidates who give non-answers should be pressed for details.

Too often, moderators look like they’re already thinking about the next question when the candidates are speaking. They need to concentrate instead on the substance of the answers. [PolitiFact, 9/21/16]

Wash. Post’s Margaret Sullivan: Moderators Should “Be Well-Prepared Enough To Assert The Truth In Real Time.” Washington Post media columnist (and former New York Times public editor) Margaret Sullivan argued that debate moderators should “Be well-prepared enough to assert the truth in real time.” Sullivan specifically called out Fox’s Chris Wallace, who will moderate the final presidential debate, for saying his role as a moderator is not to be the “truth-squad,” and said of Wallace, “If journalists aren’t interested in being part of the truth squad, they should find another sport.” From The Washington Post’s September 13 article:

2. Be well-prepared enough to assert the truth in real time. Wallace, who’ll moderate the last debate — just two weeks before the election — has already said that he doesn’t see his role as fact-checking, otherwise known as calling the candidates on their lies.

“I’m not there to truth-squad,” he told his colleague Howard Kurtz. That was surprising because Wallace can be a very tough and effective interviewer; I hope he’ll change his mind about that. If journalists aren’t interested in being part of the truth squad, they should find another sport.

They can get some help with this, through some real-time fact-checking by the networks airing the debates. We’ve seen some from cable networks during the campaign in those bottom-of-the-screen captions known as chyrons. (“He’s not,” said one of them when Trump insisted President Obama was the founder of ISIS.) More of this, please! [The Washington Post, 9/13/16]

PBS’ Gwen Ifill: “It Is The Moderator’s Responsibility To Anticipate The Questions Well Enough To Add Clarity If Needed.” PBS’ Gwen Ifill, who has moderated vice presidential debates in the past, wrote that moderators should have a “follow-up” question ready if they hear a “scripted answer” from the candidates. Ifill added that it is “the moderator’s responsibility to anticipate the questions well enough to add clarity if needed.” From the September 22 article:

So much of the pre-debate debate has centered on whether the moderator should bird dog the candidate when they skirt the question, or to be honest, when they skirt the truth.

That's the wrong debate. What every moderator wants to be able to do is pull a "Tim Russert." The late Meet the Press moderator earned his reputation for being a tough interlocutor, because he studied. He anticipated the rote, scripted answer to come, and always had a "so how do you pay for that?" follow-up in his hip pocket.

You can't always use it in a debate with rigid rules and timing, but it is the moderator's responsibility to anticipate the questions well enough to add clarity if needed. [PBS, 9/22/16]

The Nation's Katrina Vanden Heuvel: Fact-Checking By Moderators Is "Vital." The Nation’s Katrina Vanden Heuvel said it is “vital” that “the moderator hold the candidates accountable,” adding that fact-checking is “not left-right” or “about liberalism” but “about journalism.” From the September 25 edition of ABC's This Week With George Stephanopoulos:

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: There's a democratic purpose to debates, to inform the voters. Call me crazy. I'm waiting for a big debate about serious issues. But I was struck by something Kellyanne Conway, Trump's campaign manager, said, George. It seems to me to say that the role of journalists is not to fact-check -- which I think will be a vital role in the debate tomorrow night -- is to say that journalists are stenographers, not those who hold the powerful accountable. Whoever they may be. But no but I think we're at a place, a very dangerous place in our country, where journalism -- it's a rewrite the rules election, it's a rewrite the rules moment for [the] election. We’ve talked about media malpractice. There's been some very good journalism in the last months, but it is vital tomorrow night that the moderator hold the candidates accountable, particularly Donald Trump. And it's not left-right. It is not about liberalism. It is about journalism. [ABC, This Week With George Stephanopoulos, 9/25/16]

CBS Contributor and Veteran Debate Moderator Bob Schieffer: Moderator Should “Set[] The Record Straight” If Candidates Don’t. Long-time CBS anchor, current CBS contributor, and former presidential debate moderator Bob Schieffer said that while “the first fact-checkers have to be the candidates themselves,” if they don’t, “then the moderator steps in and sets the record straight.” From the September 25 edition of CBS' Face the Nation:

JOHN DICKERSON (HOST): There's been a big question about fact-checking and what the moderator's role should be in that. How do you see that question?

BOB SCHIEFFER: Well -- and I've said and I've thought about this over the years, after doing these things -- the first fact-checkers have to be the candidates themselves. If one candidate makes a mistake, you want to give the other person a chance to call him out on that. If he or she doesn't, then the moderator steps in and sets the record straight. But if you don't give the candidates themselves that opportunity, you're being unfair to both of them. [CBS, Face the Nation, 9/25/16]

This post has been updated with additional examples. 

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