Being a debate moderator means being a fact-checker

Moderator Chris Wallace of FOX News guides the discussion between Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. (Joe Raedle/AP)

Saying journalists, in the role of debate moderators, shouldn’t fact-check, is like saying comedians shouldn’t crack jokes.

I condescended someone the other day for agreeing with Donald Trump and saying it felt like he was fighting a three-on-one battle versus Hillary Clinton and the second presidential debate moderators, Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper. It went something like this:

“Maybe it felt that way since he was lying and not answering the questions posed to him repeatedly. It is the job of the journalist to inform the public – asking a banal question and then sitting back to let the candidate answer it is lazy and irresponsible. To inform the public well, you must make sure they know the truth.”

“Truth” is the operative word here. Yes, it is relative, and Clinton twists it and disregards it as well, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real, or one-sided. Estimates from all the three debates show that Trump lied 104 times to Clinton’s 13. One can argue that even the fact-checkers have an inherent bias, but those numbers are too staggering for this simple statement to be untrue: Trump does not care for truth.

Truth would not end with Trump being elected. This is why conservatives are in favor of a milder debate moderator, whose only job is to quietly nurture a policy dialogue, and not to ensure this conversation is elevated, of quality or based in fact. A legitimate journalist, sharp enough to do their job confidently in real time (telling the truth to as many people as possible), scares conservatives. Such a journalist would run the risk of challenging the alternate reality that Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the like have worked tirelessly to construct for decades.

Even the presidential debate commission chief, Janet Brown, said moderators shouldn’t act as fact-checkers

This supports a dangerous narrative endorsed by such sterling publications as The National Review, a paragon of fairness, arguing for moderator withdrawal, particularly in praise of Fox News reporter Chris Wallace, the moderator of the third debate: “Wallace pressed Clinton and Trump on their positions not by contradicting their facts, as previous moderators had, but by asking questions with policy specifics.” There is no such thing as “their” facts. There are only the facts.

Another train of thought threatening journalistic integrity and the first amendment in general comes from this article in Fortune: “If debate moderators succumb to the temptation to fact-check, their interventions in the debates automatically become part of the storyline. And when the media become part of the story, they cannot impartially tell the story.” This view succumbs to the idea of moderators as sports referees. The old adage is that if nothing is said about the referees after the game, they did well. Yet, what is it referees do, exactly? They blow the whistle when someone commits a foul. Calling out a presidential candidate on a lie, as CNN’s Candy Crowley famously did when Mitt Romney said Barack Obama did not refer to the Benghazi attacks as an act of terrorism, is part of the game. Blowing the whistle in this sense means holding politicians accountable.

Another bizarre assertion as to why moderators shouldn’t be fact-checkers is laying it at the candidates’ feet, as decorated debate moderator and CBS newsman Bob Schieffer said is the ideal strategy: “…The chief fact-checker should be the candidates themselves.” So now politicians must not only be able to adequately lay out their plans for the country, but they must also perform the function of the journalist? That doesn’t make sense, and even if it did, how can the average constituent trust the politician, vying for election, who says the other politician is lying. The contestants for higher office are the epitome of biased. It is the journalist’s place to impartially point out lies.

This is where the anti-fact-checking-faction has legs: what if the moderator is predisposed in favor of one candidate? What if they let Clinton’s claims slide and pick apart each of Trump’s? This is a valid concern because it operates under the correct assumption that being a journalist means being a fact-checker. To say fact-checking isn’t up to the moderator wrongly belittles journalism as a vital source of factual information in a democracy. To accuse the fact-checker of bias, though, is sincere, and worthy of further analysis.

Sam Stein of the Huffington Post put it best when he said that moderators “have an obligation [to fact-check]” even though “people think that there’s a risk of there being a bias…in the end, you do have to point out fact.” The contention that debate moderators shouldn’t keep politicians honest shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the responsibility of journalism in a country that purports to honor free speech.


Sten Spinella is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at sten.spinella@uconn.edu. He tweets @SSpinella927.