With the first presidential debate right around the corner CNN’s Brian Stelter amped up his call for debate moderators to be fact-checkers, during Sunday’s Reliable Sources. Of course, most of his concern is focused on Donald Trump with Hillary Clinton being an afterthought, seeing as he lambasted NBC’s Matt Lauer for not doing it. “Does a unique candidate like Donald Trump require a different kind of moderating,” Stelter inquired to veteran debate moderator Jim Lehrer.
“No, no absolutely not,” Lehrer declared definitively, “Remember, the debate for 90 minutes, people are going to be seeing the candidates, they’re going to see Donald Trump.” Lehrer shot Stelter down arguing that nearly every person who is intending to vote will be watching, and that there will be “thousands” of journalists waiting in the wings to pounce on Trump if and when he lies. “And Donald Trump is not going to be able to quote, “get away” with anything,” he continued, “It’s all going to be there for everybody to see.”
And that was after Stelter narrowed his fact-checking concern to Trump specifically. Earlier in the segment Stelter wondered if it was “appropriate for Holt” to fact check the candidates. Lehrer wasn’t a fan, noting:
I think, if a moderator sits at the table and starts moderating with the idea, “Oh, I’ve got to make sure that all of the facts are checked.” Somebody says something, or whatever, that’s a different role. The moderator should be out of the picture as much as possible, and whether he is a potted plant or not, it is irrelevancy, because when it is all over, it is about the two candidates.
Stelter did find a former debate moderator to agree with him. Former ABC White House Correspondent Ann Compton, who stated, “Well you know, there is a reason why broadcast journalists are very often the moderators for this. We hate to leave absolute errors of fact on the table.”
Later on in the show he questioned Janet Brown, the Executive Director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, if she thought Holt should be a fact-checker. “I think that personally, if you start get into the fact-checking, I am not sure what is a big fact, and what is a little fact,” she explained, “And if you and I have different sources of information, does your source about the unemployment rate agree with my source?”
Brown’s response seemed to shred Stelter’s long time push to have moderators fact-check Trump over Clinton. And the fact that he tried to justify it by labeling Trump “unique” and insinuating he required a “different kind of moderating” shows that. Stelter has a history of attacking his fellow journalists for exposing negative facts about Clinton, notably the Associated Press report that showed connections between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department. He also sprinted to call Clinton’s 9/11 health episode a conspiracy, while letting Trump’s detractors call him “rancid meat.”
September 25, 2016
11:03:10 AM Eastern
BRIAN STELTER: He [Lester Holt] has the best and the worst job in TV right now. Ann, what are you believing about Holt's position as a fact-checker on stage? There is a lot that has been made about whether the moderator should step in if Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton clearly lies. What is your position on that?
ANN COMPTON: Well you know, there is a reason why broadcast journalists are very often the moderators for this. We hate to leave absolute errors of fact on the table. And while it is true that the moderator ought to give the other candidate the opportunity to check a fact, these are adversaries that are trying to tear each other down, and just because the Democrat says X and the Republican says Y, does not mean that you have the truth in there somewhere. But there has to be some kind of check.
It also means— remember, that the moderator is not just the umpire. The moderator is the pitcher in the game, and it matters whether he throws a fastball or a curve, and it matters how much time those candidates have to really explore the answer.
STELTER: Jim, NBC sources say to me that Lester is not a “potted plant.” That was the quote from two NBC sources, that he will step in when necessary to fact check the candidates. Do you believe that’s appropriate for Holt?
JIM LEHRER: Well, the key question and the key phrase is when necessary. I happy to disagree slightly with Ann's approach. I think, if a moderator sits at the table and starts moderating with the idea, “Oh, I’ve got to make sure that all of the facts are checked.” Somebody says something, or whatever, that’s a different role.
STELTER [Under his breath]: Eh, that’s tough.
LEHER: I see the number one function of the moderator is to make sure that the flow is among the candidates. The moderator should be out of the picture as much as possible, and whether he is a potted plant or not, it is irrelevancy, because when it is all over, it is about the two candidates. They are the player, and the moderator is the facilitator and not one of the players.
STELTER: Jim, does a unique candidate like Donald Trump require a different kind of moderating?
LEHRER: No, no absolutely not. Remember, the debate for 90 minutes, people are going to be seeing the candidates, they’re going to see Donald Trump. Whatever he does and says, everybody is going to see it. And there is going to be hundreds, thousands of people ready to jump on what he says, to fact-check what he says, and that fact checking is going to go on and on and on, right up to Election Day.
And Donald Trump is not going to be able to quote, “get away” with anything. It’s all going to be there for everybody to see. More people are going to watch this debate— most probably everybody who’s going to vote in this election will see some part of this debate. And a huge portion are going to be seeing the entire debate, and it is all going to be there and the moderator's job, Lester's job, and he knows that is to facilitate the revelation of this man and Hillary Clinton as well. Who are these people? Who are they? And you will see them side by side for the first time during a campaign and the only time during a campaign is during the debates. You want to take the measure of the person, and you can do it.
11:17:35 AM Eastern
STELTER: What about the issue of fact checking that has been talked about so much the last few weeks, does the commission want Lester Holt to fact-check?
JANET BROWN: The commission asks independent smart journalists to be the moderators and we let them decide how they’re going to do it. But I have to say, in our history, the moderators have found it appropriate to allow the candidates to be the ones that talk about the accuracy or the fairness of what the other candidate or candidates might have said.
I think that personally, if you start get into the fact-checking, I am not sure what is a big fact, and what is a little fact…
STELTER [seemingly to himself]: Wow.
BROWN: …And if you and I have different sources of information, does your source about the unemployment rate agree with my source? I don't think it is a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopedia Britannica. And 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.