I don’t envy Lester Holt. No matter what he does in the first presidential debate, he’ll be denounced. But this certainty should be liberating. If you know the brickbats will come one way or the other, you might as well do the right thing.
But is there a “right thing” that doesn’t coincide with someone’s political agenda? That is precisely the wrong question, since any choice he makes will be interpreted as favoring one candidate over the other. What should matter are the obligations of journalists in a democratic society.
For debate moderators, both on Monday and in future encounters, three duties stand out. The first is to do all they can so viewers come away with an accurate sense of the facts. The second is to promote a real exchange of perspectives between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, not only on issues journalists deem to matter but also on what a president can realistically do to leave the country better off four years from now.
The third is the trickiest: Holt and his colleagues Martha Raddatz, Anderson Cooper and Chris Wallace need to keep in mind that they are far more affluent than most of the people watching the debates. They should think hard about what life is like for those – from Appalachia to Compton, from the working-class in Youngstown, Ohio to the farm workers in Immokalee, Florida – who find themselves in less comfortable circumstances than those at the media’s commanding heights.
It tells us a great deal that the Clinton camp wants the moderators to call out the candidates when they lie, while Trump wants to leave this task to his opponent. Never has a candidate signaled as clearly as Trump that he is terrified of fact-checking.
But let’s remove this argument from a partisan frame. The notion that moderators can take themselves out of the debate is absurd. I wish we had Lincoln-Douglas style debates in which a moderator was simply a timekeeper, but we don’t. As they are currently organized, debates already give moderators enormous influence over their outcomes by virtue of the questions they ask or don’t ask, by how and when they enforce the rules, and by which questions they choose to follow up on.
And if one candidate actually does lie more than the other, moderators who are passive in the face of whoppers place the more honest candidate at a profound disadvantage. She or he has to use precious time to highlight the lie. Moreover, since everything candidates say in a debate is presumed to be about getting themselves elected, they can hardly be expected to serve as (or to be seen as) independent verifiers of fact. And if journalism isn’t about getting the facts right, what’s the point?
Debates also need to catch up with social media. Tens of thousands of journalists and citizens will be checking the accuracy of what the candidates are saying. Debates should not be hermetically sealed from the truth-gathering going on around them. If those busy information-mongers find that a candidate has said something utterly untrue, a moderator should use the information to challenge the candidate and invite a response.
We all have concerns we want addressed. Personally, I want Trump pressed about whether foreign interests have helped prop up his business empire, and then asked how voters can possibly judge the truthfulness of his answer if he refuses to release any tax returns. I am sure Trump supporters want Clinton queried about servers and emails.
But this campaign has been billed as the one in which Americans who have not fully shared in our prosperity would finally have their say. Please, moderators, don’t let candidates get away with vague promises – or pledges they can never keep. And insist that they lay out the steps they can plausibly take to make the lives of struggling individuals and families better. The same goes for national security. You know a lot about the world. Don’t fear bringing that knowledge to bear when candidates try to slip through nebulous or scary talk.
And, to go back to the beginning, forget about the critics and think instead of how you will feel years from now about how you discharged your responsibilities as journalists. Your job is not to bend over backward so you offend no one. It’s to help your fellow citizens learn as much as they can in preparing to make one of the most consequential decisions they will ever render in a voting booth.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.