The Commission on Presidential Debates gets just about everything regarding presidential debates wrong—letting the major parties define the process. excluding credible third-party candidates, opting for too few debates and too many gimmicks—so it should come as no surprise that the CPD is now sending exactly the wrong signal regarding the role of the moderator of Monday night’s first debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopedia Britannica,” Janet Brown, the executive director of the CPD, griped in an interview with CNN’s Reliable Sources Sunday. “I think it’s better for that person to facilitate and to depend on the candidates to basically correct each other as they see fit.”
No, that’s not better.
That’s making the moderator a spectator rather than a useful participant in the process.
Brown says that “the commission asks independent, smart journalists to be the moderators, and we let them decide how they’re going to do this.” But if moderators are discouraged from pointing out glaring inaccuracies, or from clarifying disputes over facts, then it doesn’t matter if they are “smart” or “independent.” They’re still letting the candidates spout falsehoods with abandon and setting up a partisan circus in which liars can “win” by outshouting truth tellers—and viewers are left to their own devices.
Demanding that the candidates fact-check each other encourages a derailment of the debate, forcing the contenders to bicker over who is telling the truth and who is not. That’s not necessary. If the moderator knows what is true, and what is false, the moderator should say so—not to embarrass the candidate who is wrong, nor to help the candidate who is right, but to lead a debate that is grounded in reality rather than an exercise in confusion. If Donald Trump claims he always opposed the war in Iraq, it should be pointed out that the record does not support his claim. If Hillary Clinton tries to spin her vote to authorize the Bush-Cheney administration to attack Iraq, it is fair to point out that almost two dozen of her fellow senators (most of them Democrats) made the right call.
There’s a general sense that fact-checking will favor Clinton. But that’s not an excuse for failing to hold both candidates to account. If Trump’s statements require that he be held to account more frequently, so be it.