Holting the conversation

Should debate moderators fact-check candidates?

Illustrator: Taylor Daniels

Illustrator: Taylor Daniels

We knew the question would come up, and when it did, Moderator Lester Holt knew he wouldn’t make the same mistake his colleague Matt Lauer made during the Commander-in-Chief Forum in September.

The question, of course, was about Donald Trump’s claim that he opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Lauer did not question him on at all. Holt pointed out that the Republican nominee had openly supported the war in 2002, which has been proven multiple times. Trump was not a fan of Holt fact-checking him.

Prior to the debate, many pundits wondered whether Holt would fact-check the candidates and what the role of a moderator should be. If you have been following the election, this may seem like an odd thing to debate about. Journalists are the ones that moderate these debates, and isn’t fact-checking part of being a journalist?

Yet traditionally, moderators don’t tend to engage in a lot of fact-checking. The only other notable moments of candidates being fact-checked by a moderator were Candy Crowley fact-checking Mitt Romney in 2012, and the time Gerald Ford said there was no “Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” in 1976. This is odd considering that when these same journalists are conducting one-on-one interviews, they do some on-the-spot fact-checking.

Journalists are the ones who moderate these debates, and isn’t fact-checking part of being a journalist?

Well, debates are different from interviews; the focus is centered on the candidates. When the moderator gets involved it becomes a back-and-forth between the moderator and the candidate. The point of the debate is lost—it’s the candidates who are supposed to be engaging. Essentially, the role of the moderator is like being a referee during a boxing match. While this approach may have worked in previous election cycles, 2016 has been much different.

Moderating a debate has always been a high-stakes, high-pressure task, and this election cycle is no different. But just because it’s primarily up to the candidates to call each other out on their claims does not mean that moderators have a license to ignore the facts. Moderators are journalists; it’s their responsibility to make sure the truth gets out.