Why do presidential debates have moderators
America's fact-checker would moderate the presidential debates
There is a healthy discussion on how to address evidence-based claims made during the debates. Here are some of the options.
Democratic Senator John Kennedy (left) and Republican Richard Nixon (right) discussed campaign issues in a Chicago television studio on September 26, 1960. Moderator Howard K. Smith sits at the desk in the middle. (AP photo)
This article was originally published on September 26, 2016, the day of the first presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. We are now republishing it in light of the moderators' expected announcement for this week's presidential debates between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, due to take place on September 29, October 15 and October 22.
Moderating a presidential debate is one of the most difficult tasks in American journalism. Only seven people have fulfilled this role over the course of 19 debates held between 1988 and 2012.
The rest of us have no idea what it takes. Tens of millions of Americans watch the political equivalent of the Super Bowl. And as with any sporting event, much of the anger will be directed at the referee from both sides.
This year the umpire must wage a duel between one candidate who is so negligent with the facts that he has inspired a home industry of articles heralding the era of "post-truth" and another so careless with the facts What is guarded is that she and her rival have been the most suspicious candidate for at least 20 years.
One question arose most of all in the first debate, which will take place at 9 p.m. tonight. Eastern, hosted by Lester Holt from NBC. A question that has been dissected in all directions by media commentators. Even the Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaigns got heavily involved.
The question, of course, is: should the moderator review the candidates?
The (ridiculous to me) argue that it is up to the candidates to check each other for facts. There are good reasons for the moderators' reluctance to correct the candidates.
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The default example of the “no fact-checking” page is the 2012 debate, moderated by then-CNN presenter Candy Crowley. And yet it is an imperfect example.
Crowley was in a difficult position. She was asked by President Obama to intervene on a question of semantic nuance: how did he characterize the attacks in Benghazi the day after? Additionally, GOP nominee Mitt Romney had botched his punch line by using 'act of terrorism' instead of 'terrorism', which allowed Obama to be technically correct but contextually misleading.
The Washington Post Fact Checker has a good play-by-play of this spit and it takes a few minutes to wrap your head around it. Good fodder for fact checking in the air, it isn't.
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Top fact checkers agree. "The Crowley example was difficult because Obama's words after Benghazi were deliberately nuanced," said Angie Holan, editor of PolitiFact. 'It was one of those things that wasn't that straightforward, but on the other hand, if you wanted to explain what the problem really was, you'd have to make a significant distraction.'
Glenn Kessler from the Swiss Post Fact Checker is less diplomatic. 'This is a good example of how the moderator tried to check the facts and got it wrong. Obama got involved in a revisionist spin. "
Overall, Kessler is cautious about having a moderator check live facts during the debate. 'People following the debate want to see the candidates respond, react, they really don't care about the moderator.'
A more persuasive fact-checking by the moderator came in February during the GOP primary debate in South Carolina. Ted Cruz discussed the vacant seat of the Supreme Court from Colonel Antonin Scalia, arguing: "We have 80 years of precedent in which we failed to confirm the Supreme Court justices in an election year."
Dickerson tried to politely point out that Cruz should have said nominated rather than confirmed (he was not crystalline about the historical context himself). Cruz fumbled, Dickerson apologized, the audience booed.
Holan says Dickerson "warned the audience that something was wrong," but whether the intricacies of the Supreme Court's story were understood is unclear.
The moderators' reluctance to delve into nuanced topics was appropriate, she said. Eugene Kiely, director of Factcheck.org, agrees, 'The moderator and fact-checker credibility is at stake' during a presidential debate.
However, that type of nuance was not the focus of this campaign. The current debate over the moderators' role as fact-checkers began again this month after Today host Matt Lauer let Donald Trump get away with the widely debunked claim that he was against the invasion of Iraq from the start.
Nuance was also missing when Trump, in one of the first GOP primary debates, accused host Becky Quick of fabricating an attack on Marco Rubio - an attack that was on Trump's website the entire time.
Even if Quick had persisted, it probably wouldn't have been an election change. But it could have provided future moderators with a model for introducing simple, undeniable on-air corrections.
Outrageous lies, like Trump's light against Rubio, should be called out. "The moderator shouldn't sit there like a potted plant while a candidate says something that is obviously imprecise," says Holan.
Kiely said, moderators could also push candidates to be more factual without resorting to a full review of the facts in the air. For example, they could ask questions based on false statements from the campaign path. Also, Kiely says, if a candidate is using an outdated statistic - as Mike Pence did on poverty numbers - then move on quickly, Kiely said.
In addition to raising factual questions, moderators can get candidates to uncover flaws in their arguments by urging them to clarify their point of view, says Kessler. In the 1976 debate, the New York Times' Max Frankel was probably more effective as a puzzled panelist repeating President Ford's statement that "there is no Soviet rule over Eastern Europe" than a fact-checker.
(Tradition has it that the Gaffe lost Ford in the election, but we didn't check.)
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Reality aside, what would the debate be like if the fact checkers had a free hand to determine the format?
"My ideal is that you let fact checkers work for 15 minutes after each segment and let the moderators ask follow-up questions based on this," says Holan. "I think candidates need to be fact-tested near the time they are making claims."
Kiely is more cautious, fearing that including fact-checking in the debates could pervertly give viewers the wrong idea that anything that wasn't directly challenged was right.
It might be worthwhile for Kessler to end up doing a blitz round of five statements that fact checkers from the campaign identified as false, similar to what Glenn Thrush suggested.
But we shouldn't imagine that fact-checking in the debate will influence the election, says Kessler. “The American people do not vote on the basis of who makes the most accurate statement. […] American presidential elections are often based on emotions, courage, whether you would get a beer with this person, whether you 'like them. It's a much more personal vote than in other democracies. '
Kiely suggests an alternative to having the moderator verify the facts. 'Just let the networks check more facts after the debate,' he says. Currently, “they are spending more time discussing who has won and who has lost among people with affiliated interests. Who cares!'
Since the Presidential Debate Commission is unlikely to change things significantly in this regard, Kiely suggests that the reporting, not the format of the debate, be checked for fact.
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That would be a starting point; But it would force a lot more people to act than just the moderator.
And who doesn't like to blame the referee for their own mistakes?
Alexios Mantzarlis is the former director of the International Fact-Checking Network.
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