Yet Fox News host Chris Wallace attempted to moderate the debate as if Trump were like any other candidate. Both candidates had agreed to a format in which each would respond to a question from Wallace, uninterrupted, for two minutes, before responding. Instead, Trump repeatedly interrupted, badgered and heckled former vice president Joe Biden, making a mockery of these rules.
With no ability to cut Trump’s microphone, Wallace was left to ineffectually plead for silence, saying at one point: “I think that the country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions. I’m appealing to you, sir, to do that.” When Trump protested that Biden had also interrupted at times, Wallace replied, “Well, frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting than he has.”
It was a microcosm of the media's struggles with asymmetry between parties and candidates: Both parties agreed to a format, Trump sabotaged it and the media’s representative onstage could only muster a mild reprimand.
Wallace was not just ineffective, however. The moderator’s effort to treat Trump like any other candidate took an even darker turn in the final segment. For months, the president has engaged in a systematic effort to delegitimize the results of the coming election, making numerous unsupported claims about fraud — including falsely suggesting voting by mail is rife with misconduct — and refusing to commit to the peaceful transfer of power. Experts, including me, view such actions by an incumbent as a democratic emergency.
Instead, Wallace treated the integrity of the U.S. electoral system as a matter of partisan dispute between two candidates with competing views. His question to the candidates on this subject was: “How confident should we be that this will be a fair election?” With that frame, he gave the president a platform to continue his ongoing attack on our democratic system. It was a shameful moment — and not just for Trump.
Wallace’s flattening of distinctions between Trump and his opponent was reinforced by the initial media coverage of the debate, which featured strangely passive headlines like “Sharp Personal Attacks and Name Calling in Chaotic First Debate” and “Personal attacks, sharp exchanges mark turbulent first presidential debate” that failed to identify who, exactly, had caused the chaos. (In fairness, these headlines sharpened the next day: “Trump’s heckles send first debate into utter chaos,” for instance.) But the early impulse toward evenhandedness in the face of Trump’s one-sided onslaught was telling.
Wallace’s strongest moment came when he pressed the president on whether he would disavow white supremacists and Trump failed to do so. In a reprise of his comments about “very fine people on both sides” after a racist rally in Charlottesville, Trump was only willing to tell the violent extremist “Proud Boys” to “stand back and stand by,” generating critical coverage of how he refused to fully repudiate the group.
The question now is whether the media will learn anything from the debate experience. Will they accurately describe Trump’s attacks on the election as dangerous and anti-democratic? Or will they run faux-neutral headlines like “Pure chaos on election night” if he says the vote is being stolen and tries to declare victory before all the votes are counted? The stakes could not be higher.