The job of a debate moderator is tough — partly because not everyone agrees on what that job entails. When a candidate says something that is misleading, or flat-out wrong, should the moderator jump in with context and a correction? Or is the role of a moderator simply to ask questions, break up squabbles and keep the time?
These questions are hardly new, but they are perhaps more pressing than ever in the 2016 presidential election. Journalists fumed two weeks ago when NBC anchor Matt Lauer declined to challenge Donald Trump's false assertion, during a candidates forum, that he publicly opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Yet many in the media — especially conservatives — also criticized Candy Crowley, then at CNN, for attempting to fact-check Mitt Romney when she moderated a debate in the last election.
Add to that recent history Trump's irrepressible habit of ignoring the truth, and it seems all but certain that this year's moderators will be forced to decide, at some point, whether to interject or step aside, invariably opening themselves up to second guessing.
One of the moderators, Chris Wallace, did some memorable fact-checking during a Republican primary debate, using pre-made, full-screen graphics to smack down Trump on points where Wallace anticipated distortions. But he has said voters should not expect a repeat performance in the general election.
"I do not believe that it's my job to be a truth squad," Wallace said on Fox News earlier this month. "It's up to the other person to catch them."
Previous general election moderators have echoed the sentiment. Jim Lehrer told Politico that he "usually left [fact-checking] for the candidate." Bob Schieffer wrote in The Washington Post that "the chief fact-checkers are the candidates." But he added that "if neither candidate catches the inaccuracy, then the moderator must step in, set the record straight and, if necessary, ask a question about it."
For more on the fact-checking roles of moderators, I spoke to Alan Schroeder, author of "Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail." Schroeder has studied decades of debates and has a pretty clear idea of what we should expect from the moderators when Trump and Hillary Clinton face off Monday and then on Oct. 9 and Oct. 19. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
THE FIX: What's the history of moderator fact-checking in presidential debates?
SCHROEDER: It has not traditionally been the role of the moderator to engage in a lot of fact-checking. Other than the Candy Crowley incident, it really doesn't tend to happen. I'll give you an example: In 1976, Gerald Ford very famously said that Europe was not under Soviet domination, and that was in response to a question that a journalist on the panel had asked. And the journalist goes back to him, doesn't fact-check him but says, "I just want to clarify. Is that what you really mean?" And then Ford went back and more or less reiterated it. So there have been moments where questioners have asked for clarifications of remarks by the candidates, but not so much "you're right, and he's wrong."
THE FIX: Why do you think that is? Because many of the moderators are journalists who, when they're conducting one-on-one interviews, are accustomed to doing some on-the-spot fact-checking.
SCHROEDER: Well, because it isn't a one-on-one interview. It's something very different. I think it is entirely appropriate to do fact-checking in a one-on-one interview, and Matt Lauer ought to have challenged Donald Trump's assertion about the Iraq war in that interview. But debates are a different animal. First of all, the focus has got to be on the candidates. The journalists are there to facilitate the conversation but not to become protagonists. When a journalist gets involved in that way, all of a sudden it's a back and forth between a particular candidate and the journalist, and you've lost the point of the exercise, which is that the candidates are supposed to be engaging.
You also, unlike in an interview, have the other candidate up on the stage. This is the point Schieffer and Lehrer were making. ... And then there's an additional layer that I think gets kind of forgotten, which is that you have all kinds of real-time fact-checks taking place online. So that information is being put out there. Now, I'll admit, it's ancillary, but it does exist.
THE FIX: What about the argument we've heard from some journalists throughout coverage of this campaign that the old rules don't apply because Donald Trump is such a different candidate? I just wrote about [New York Times executive editor] Dean Baquet explaining on NPR why the Times recently decided it is okay to call Donald Trump a liar, instead of just saying, "that was a false statement." They decided he has crossed a line. That's a difference from previous elections. So what about that notion in debates, if it's not a matter of interpretation?
SCHROEDER: If it's that cut and dried — if Donald Trump is standing there, wearing a blue tie, and he says something about "my red tie," yes, absolutely. If it can be contradicted in a sentence and asserted with authority in a sentence, there is no problem with that kind of fact-checking. But even something like the Iraq war example, to do that fact-check properly, you have to go back, and it's a sprawling calendar with lots of little episodes along the way. To do a prosecutorial fact-check on live TV in a debate just doesn't work.
THE FIX: The counter to that is you're counting on voters to do extra work. You're counting on them to read follow-up articles or perhaps monitor live fact-checkers online during the debate. Is that a reasonable expectation?
SCHROEDER: Look, it's a democracy, and citizens have responsibilities beyond just watching TV. If the only source of information you're getting is what the candidates tell you on TV, then that's your choice. But I think we'd be crazy to take anything any politician said to us at face value and just assume it's objective truth. The debate is a really important part of the education process during a campaign, but it is not a standalone thing.
THE FIX: How important is trust in the media — or lack thereof — to this fact-checking question? We know, based on polling, that voters don't find either candidate to be particularly honest and trustworthy. But Gallup puts out its trust in media survey every year, and it's only 40 percent lately. So even if a moderator were to be the referee and say "this is the truth," would people buy it?
SCHROEDER: No, I don't think they would. And that's another reason why it's a lose-lose for the moderators. They could only get away with it if it was something that was easily documented — an easy-to-disprove lie.