Will Presidential Debate Moderators Really Not Challenge Lies?

Chris Wallace says it isn't his job to "truth squad," though some journalists strongly disagree.

06/09/2016 5:29 AM AEST | Updated 06/09/2016 2:30 PM AEST
Fox News anchor Chris Wallace says he won't "truth squad" during the third presidential debate.

NEW YORK ― When Donald Trump hits the debate stage in a few weeks with Hillary Clinton, it’s not hard to imagine the Republican nominee challenging his Democratic rival’s foreign policy judgment by falsely claiming ― as he’s done dozens of times ― to have been a staunch critic of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. 

He’s made the Iraq boast during Republican primary debates as a way to separate himself from his competitors ― despite being on the record as tepidly supporting the U.S. invasion ― and more recently wielded it while targeting Clinton, who voted for the disastrous war as a New York senator. If Trump were to do so again at the upcoming presidential debates, he just might get away with it. 

“Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace, the moderator for the third presidential debate, said in a Sunday interview that it isn’t his role to call out the candidates’ false claims.

“That’s not my job,” Wallace told his Fox News colleague Howard Kurtz. “I do not believe that it’s my job to be a truth squad.”

“No actually that is your job,” Peter Hamby, Snapchat’s head of news and a former CNN political correspondent, responded on Twitter.

Several other journalists and media commentators similarly took issue with Wallace’s view that the candidates themselves ― and not the moderator ― should challenge one another’s claims on factual grounds.

Presidential debates should be about the candidates rhetorically duking it out onstage, with minimal interference from the television news anchor steering the proceedings. Moderators would be wise to pause before disrupting a spirited back-and-forth to make an insignificant point or weigh in decisively on an issue that isn’t black and white. 

But moderators, like Wallace, play a critical vetting role each election cycle by formulating questions in order to challenge the candidates in front of tens of millions of people. They should also feel empowered to say if a candidate is repeating a claim that’s been widely debunked by credible journalists and fact-checking operations. By not adjudicating, the moderator leaves the viewing public with a “he said, she said” situation when the journalist picked to be onstage could say, decisively, who is right. 

It’s understandable why moderators would hesitate to throw themselves in the mix. The five moderators selected Friday by the Commission on Presidential Debates surely don’t want their performances to become highly partisan post-debate controversies ― as was the case last election cycle.

Former CNN anchor Candy Crowley came under fire for interjecting during a 2012 debate between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney over whether the president had called the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attack an “act of terror” the day after in the Rose Garden. Obama called for checking the transcript during the debate and Crowley said that the president had indeed used the words “act of terror” in his Sept. 12 address.

Obama’s “act of terror” line could understandably be interpreted as a reference to Benghazi, though critics argued that the president wasn’t clear in his Rose Garden remarks. They also suggested Romney was correct on his broader point that the White House was slow to strongly condemn the events in Libya as a terrorist attack, an argument that got lost amid the much-discussed three-person debate exchange. 

Wallace’s fellow moderators haven’t yet weighed in on the issue of real-time fact-checking. 

“NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt, who will moderate the first debate on Sept. 26 at Hofstra University, was unavailable Monday for comment, according to a network spokeswoman.

ABC News’ chief global affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz, who moderated a 2012 vice presidential debate and will co-moderate the Oct. 9 presidential town hall debate with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, declined to comment through a spokeswoman. A CNN spokeswoman did not immediately respond for comment regarding Cooper’s view.  

Elaine Quijano, the CBS News correspondent and digital anchor who will moderate the Oct. 4 vice presidential debate, also declined to comment through a spokeswoman. 

Glenn Kessler, who writes the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” column and has tracked candidate statements (and misstatements) closer than most journalists this election cycle, seems to side more with Wallace’s view of the job. He prefers the candidates fact-checking each other, with the moderator playing a limited role. 

“I think that voters are more interested in hearing what the candidates have to say, and not in real time fact checking of those comments,” Kessler said in an email. “The moderator should simply get out of the way, except for follow ups that pin down or clarify what a candidate is saying. That could include a fact check, but it’s a delicate balance.”

Kessler said that “the moderator has to be absolutely sure they are correct” when fact-checking, and that he didn’t think Crowley was right to do so during the second 2012 presidential debate. He suggested moderators could incorporate fact-checks in how they frame questions, as Wallace did during a Republican primary debate with information from one of his columns

“Moderators could use fact checks as a way to get into questions of substance,” he wrote. “[For example]: ‘Mr. Trump, you have criticized Clinton for voting to authorize the war in Iraq. While you claim you opposed it, fact checkers have found no evidence of any public statements against it ―and in fact they have found evidence you also supported it. Clinton has apologized for her vote, saying it was a mistake. Will you apologize for trying to mislead the American public about your stance on the war?’”

Politicians, of all parties, have been known to exaggerate, misstate and even lie. But fact-checking has felt more vital during the 2016 election cycle given the frequency and volume of Trump’s false claims and how quickly they spread online and on social media. Fact-checkers have dinged Clinton, too, but have catalogued significantly fewer major offenses

Trump has gone as far as lying about having witnessed events that never happened. In addition, the former ― and current? ― birther has amplified crackpot conspiracy theories and promoted bogus, race-baiting statistics to his millions of social media followers.

News organizations have tried keeping up with Trump’s persistent untruths. In March, Politico found Trump having made “more than five dozen statements deemed mischaracterizations, exaggerations, or simply false” over the course of a week. Later that month, The Huffington Post caught Trump making 71 separate claims that were “inaccurate, misleading or deeply questionable” during a single CNN town hall.

And when the New Yorker launched a new fact-checking feature last week, editor David Remnick wrote that “in the scale and in the depth of his lying, Donald Trump is in another category.”

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