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What should viewers expect from Clinton-Trump debate moderator Lester Holt?

Does the first presidential debate require a different kind of moderator? 

Debate moderator Lester Holt
REUTERS/Randall Hill

The best guess of TV executives, insiders and marketing gurus is that tonight’s first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will draw an audience of between 85 to 105 million in the United States alone. The latter number would put it in a Super Bowl-like stratosphere, far exceeding the 1980 Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan face­off of 81 million viewers. 

Everyone will, of course, be watching to see who gets the better of whom between the two candidates. But — reasonable assumption here — an unusually large portion of the viewing audience will be watching to see how the event’s moderator, NBC’s Lester Holt, handles his job. For a host of reasons regularly explained with phrases like, “our hyper-partisan times,” the presence of someone who “is not a traditional candidate” and “the public’s distrust of the media,” Holt is in a particularly tricky situation.

It isn’t just because Holt is a colleague of Matt Lauer, who was loudly pilloried for his performance at the recent “Commander in Chief Forum,” (where many of his critics saw more “performance” than actual journalism). But as uncomfortable as it must have been for Lauer and others inside NBC, Holt has to also calculate the effect that a more aggressive line of questioning may have on the debate schedule to follow.

As the first network face of the “rigged media” to interact with both candidates since the Lauer episode, Holt has to calculate not just his choice of topics but he also has to consider how Trump will react to more vigorous questioning than he received from Lauer and during the numerous Republican primary debates. (Trump has already warned Holt against playing “fact-checker.”)

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If he feels Holt has treated him “very unfairly” tonight will he walk away from the next two scheduled debates? It’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Moreover, based on the experience of the past 15 months, there’s no reason to believe there’s any great political risk with his ardent base if he does. And if that happens, and the media becomes the story, what purpose has Holt served?

Conversely, if Holt pursues a Lauer-­like line of questioning with Hillary Clinton, focusing at length on her e­mails, he can expect a bombardment of hostility from both Clinton supporters and his peers in the national media. There’s no science here, but another question Holt has to consider is how many of his peers, the people whose opinions matter to him both professionally and socially, have come around to The Washington Post’s view, that: “The [e­mail] story has vastly exceeded the boundaries of the facts. Imagine how history would judge today’s Americans if, looking back at this election, the record showed that voters empowered a dangerous man because of  … a minor email scandal. There is no equivalence between Ms. Clinton’s wrongs and Mr. Trump’s manifest unfitness for office.”

Put another way, the grand old (men) of presidential debate moderation, your Howard K. Smiths, Frank Reynolds and Sander Vanocurs, never had to contend with so volatile a candidate as Trump or an audience with the ability — via social media — to render instantaneous, withering judgment against them.

The question, then, for media watchers and critics (they’re synonymous, really) is whether the presence of so unorthodox a candidate as Trump requires a substantively different approach to the task of debate moderation. Does Holt, for example, cut off mini-­speeches that fail to address the question at hand? Does he play fact checker, a la Candy Crowley in 2012? (If I were either candidate, the moderator I’d be most fearful of would be ABC’s Martha Raddatz, who with Anderson Cooper will co-anchor the second debate, on Oct. 9. Raddatz has much less tolerance for B.S. than any of the others.)

Casting about for views on journalism’s predicament in this season’s debates, I surveyed a few reliable observer-­practitioner­-instructors of modern journalism: the University of Minnesota’s Jane Kirtley; former Strib investigative reporter Chris Ison, who also teaches at the U; and Mark Neuzil, who’s on the University of St. Thomas’ journalism faculty.

Speaking from a conference of 500 environmental reporters at UC Davis in California, Neuzil said:

[A] story line among the journalists [here] is how Lauer was a disaster. He failed in some very basic journalism ways, not the least of which was that he did not seem prepared, or the producer talking in his ear was not prepared. You wonder, how could this be at a major network? And yet the evidence is there.

Holt, from my friends in the business, seems to be pretty well-respected, although I don’t know him. What I am watching for is his nimbleness in the follow-up questions. Can he depart from the prepared script? Facts, claims, propositions and assertions will be flying around like Minnesota mosquitos, and Holt needs to know which ones to swat. This is more true during this election than any other I’ve seen. And more important. 

Unless he is as skilled as Solomon, he won’t be able to cut off all speeches. I’ve never known a moderator to do that every time — some of the time, yes — and I would not expect him to, either.

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Says Ison:

The goal should be to help the public understand each candidate’s position on key issues. I’d try to avoid asking candidates to “respond” to something the other candidate has done or said, because that often leads to bombast and silly insults, not substance. I’d avoid any kind of soft, open-ended question that helps the candidate stay on his or her own message, because their messages likely have little to do with substance. We know that the most important issues are complex, and voters too often are drawn to candidates based on superficiality or conflict. It’s their policy positions that matter, and the debate should help voters understand those positions.

Honesty matters, so of course it’s a moderator’s job to call them out if they are inaccurate or inconsistent. Suggesting otherwise makes journalists irrelevant. Anybody can just ask the scripted questions. It’s the critical follow-up that requires good journalism. This is the biggest stage, and the moderator’s job is to prepare well and hold the candidates accountable. It shouldn’t be that hard. By now, we know the areas where each candidate tends to be misinformed, or prone to exaggeration or outright dishonesty. A few might slip by, but the moderator absolutely must call them on as many as possible.

If one candidate needs correcting more than the other, or contradicts earlier statements more than the other, it’s not the moderator’s job to try to suggest that both candidates are equally dishonest. That’s phony balance and unethical journalism. That’s the kind of journalism designed to make the moderator look “fair,” and journalism shouldn’t be about the moderator’s reputation. Voters deserve to know if one candidate is less truthful than the other. We do already know that one is less honest – and that’s based on fact. Just look at the statistics on PolitiFact. Frankly, that’s been some of the best coverage of the campaign. In fact, that would be a good question for Trump: “Should voters be concerned that you get the lowest ratings for honesty in history on PolitiFact?” I know that’s not about policy directly, but Trump has made honesty and accuracy one of the biggest issues in the election – and that does indirectly make it hard to know what his policies really would be. And no, Clinton hasn’t been “just as bad.”

Some say that treating Trump differently from Clinton on the issue of honesty suggests bias or unfairness, or is changing the norms of objective journalism. That’s not true. Objective journalism is about reacting to how each candidate deals with issues and accuracy and honesty. Suggesting they do it similarly when they don’t isn’t being objective, it’s being dishonest. 

Of course, it’s really hard to get candidates to give specific answers on policy in a debate. They usually say whatever they want, no matter the question. So to me, the most important journalism will happen after the debate. If one candidate is less accurate or honest than the other, will some stories suggest both were equally bad? That’s bad journalism. Will stories focus on “who won?” That’s bad journalism. Will they spend more than a sentence on which candidate seemed most poised? Looked more tired, etc.? That’s bad journalism. The stories that help explain what the candidates say they will do on substantive issues, and compare that to what they have said or done about those issues previously, those will be the stories worth reading.

For her part, Kirtley, whose professional focus is more on media ethics (she is the director of the U’s Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law), says:

I think … Monday’s debate will be very tricky to moderate. I’ve been monitoring reader comments on a variety of websites, and note that many on both sides are relishing the prospect of being entertained. They think it will amusing to watch whichever candidate they support demolish the opponent. They are entrenched in their support or disdain, respectively, for each candidate. Any factual challenges made by the moderator will be interpreted as bias. 

I would like to think people who are on the fence will watch for enlightenment, for insight. But I fear a polarized electorate will simply see what they want to see, regardless of what the moderator does. I don’t think we’ll hear anything new from either candidate, regardless of what the moderator asks. And Lester Holt could have the most sophisticated fact-checking apparatus at his disposal to try to determine whether the candidates are making accurate statements, and it wouldn’t matter, because significant portions of the voting public have already decided that either or both candidates are (in the immortal words of Agatha Christie and Billy Wilder, in “Witness for the Prosecution”) “chronic and habitual liars.” And Holt won’t be able to compete with the Twitterverse and other social media pundits who will be providing their own instantaneous play-by-play commentary.

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Probably the best thing for Holt to do is to get out of the way and let Clinton and Trump have at each other.

I would be more disturbed by all this if I thought the debates would have a significant outcome on this election. But barring some extraordinary circumstance, I don’t think they will.