Unless the presidential debates are just another circus sideshow for TV networks.
It says a lot about the state of the U.S. election campaign that one of the most hotly debated topics is whether a debate moderator should call out obvious lies by either Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton when they face each other Monday night.
To someone who hasn’t been following the circus sideshow/train wreck that is the Election 2016 campaign, this might seem like a bizarre thing to get hung up on. After all, isn’t checking facts what journalists are supposed to do—even cable TV journalists? Isn’t that why we have journalists as debate moderators in the first place?
As with many things involving Trump, it isn’t quite that simple.
Lester Holt, the NBC news anchor who is moderating the first debate Monday night, hasn’t said whether he plans to call out any untruths. But according to Politico, none of the major networks have committed to doing real-time fact checking of the debates.
The only TV provider who has committed to doing so is Bloomberg TV—although the company said that fact checks will only appear on screen via the headline “crawl” on its HDTV feed and on its live blog, not on the feed it is providing to Twitter (which will also be embedded on Time and Fortune‘s websites).
Why wouldn’t news networks commit to doing this? Because many seem to believe, as bizarre as it may seem, that this isn’t what the presidential debates are intended to do.
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While Holt has been mum on the topic, Fox News host Chris Wallace, who will be moderating one of the upcoming debates, said recently that he didn’t believe it was his job to be a “truth squad.” Chris Matthews of MSNBC said that calling out Trump’s lies would be equivalent to expressing an opinion, which journalists aren’t supposed to do.
Those comments came in the wake of NBC anchor Matt Lauer’s performance during recent back-to-back interviews with Trump and Clinton, in which he was widely criticized for letting Trump get away with saying he opposed the Iraq War when there is ample evidence that he did not.
More recently, the head of the debate commission said that moderators shouldn’t get involved in checking the facts expressed by candidates. Trump himself said Thursday that Holt should stay out of the debate and allow him and Hillary Clinton to “take each other on” over the facts. Opponents of real-time fact-checking effectively agree with Trump, and believe that the candidates should be the ones to call each other out on their lies or misstatements of fact.
Long-time CBS News anchor and debate moderator Bob Schieffer told Politico the most important job of a moderator is to ensure that the debate stays on track and that each candidate gets the right amount of time. This vision of the purpose of the debates sees the moderator as serving essentially the same function as a referee during a boxing match.
While that approach might have worked in previous election campaigns, however, Election 2016 is no ordinary campaign. Objectively speaking, Donald Trump routinely lies or makes up statements that appear to be factual but aren’t—in some cases, dozens of them during the course of a single day. So how should the debate format handle that?
Former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan argued in a recent column in the Washington Post that moderators have a duty to call out lies and inaccuracies during a debate, and it’s likely that many voters and TV watchers would agree.
“If journalists aren’t interested in being part of the truth squad, they should find another sport,” Sullivan said.
A larger—and potentially unsolvable—problem, however, is that even if Donald Trump’s inaccuracies or outright falsehoods are called out by a debate moderator or any other journalist, it may not change anyone’s mind about whether to vote for him.
Donald Trump finally admits President Obama was born in the United States. Watch:
Media analyst and sociologist Clay Shirky said recently on Twitter that fact-checking Trump amounts to “bringing a fact-checker to a culture war,”—a paraphrase of the usual “bring a knife to a gun-fight” analogy. There is a certain amount of truth to that statement. It’s what people are getting at when they describe the Trump campaign as part of a “post-truth” landscape in politics.
Regardless of whether it is ultimately futile, however, checking the facts that a presidential candidate puts forward in a campaign debate watched by potentially hundreds of millions of people seems like a valuable effort for the media to make. Unless they see their primary job as being to sell popcorn while the circus is in town.