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Debate moderators shouldn’t duck

NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt will moderate the first scheduled presidential debate on Sept. 26, 2016. (Jose Luis Villegas/ASSOCIATED PRESS) I dont envy Lester Holt. No matter what he does in the first presidential debate, hell be den



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, because any choice Holt 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, Calif., from the working class in Youngstown, Ohio, to the farm workers in Immokalee, Fla. — 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?

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