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Presidential Debates: 5 Moments That Will Make You Cringe

September 25, 2016, 11:00 PM UTC
Fox News Channel debate moderators Wallace, Kelly and Baier start the first official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign in Cleveland
Fox News Channel debate moderators (L-R), Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and Brett Baier, start the first official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign in Cleveland, Ohio, August 6, 2015. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk - RTX1NEKI
Photograph by Aaron Josefczyk — Reuters

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump obviously have a lot at stake in the first presidential debate on Monday night, but it’s clear so does Lester Holt. The veteran NBC newsman is moderating, and surely will be scrutinized for the questions he asks—and how well he keeps the candidates in line. Newton Minow, the former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair who is a board member of the Commission on Presidential Debates, recently said that presidential debate moderators today have been facing more criticism than they did in years past.

Here are some moderators from recent elections (including the current one) who have faced intense blowback from across the political spectrum, often managing to knock the candidates themselves out of the headlines in the process.

Matt Lauer

The fact that the spotlight on Holt is so bright before the debate has even begun is partly a result of the media’s intense criticism of his NBC colleague Matt Lauer’s performance hosting a forum with Trump and Clinton last month. Critics jumped on Lauer, who was seen as having been harder on Clinton than on Trump, while the Today Show host also failed to challenge the GOP nominee on various false statements he made during the interview. Trump, on the other hand, said Lauer “did a fantastic job.”

Megyn Kelly

The Fox News anchor became one of the biggest stories of the GOP primary after came out swinging in an early primary debate with a series of tough questions about Trump’s past treatment of women, including: “You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs’ and ‘disgusting animals.’ . . . Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?”

Trump responded by going into attack mode, including making a now-famous controversial remark about Kelly having “blood coming out of her wherever” during the debate. The two traded barbs for several months before finally reaching a convenient truce in time for Trump to sit down as the headlining guest of Kelly’s first broadcast primetime special.

Candy Crowley

The CNN anchor moderated a debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney during the 2012 election and took a lot of heat for doing exactly what Fox News’ Wallace has said a moderator should avoid. Republicans ripped into Crowley after she challenged an assertion from Romney about how long it took Obama to identify the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya as an act of terror. Crowley’s interjection—”He did call it an act of terror.”—drew intense criticism from conservatives who claimed that she was showing obvious bias in favor of the president. Crowley later claimed she was just “trying to move the conversation along” and, as for the outrage her interjection caused, she said of the Republicans: “I’m sorry they’re upset, but tomorrow they’ll be upset about something else, as will the Democrats.”

Jim Lehrer

A week earlier in 2012, former PBS NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer also received his share of criticism. While Crowley was criticized by the GOP, Lehrer drew the ire of Obama and the Democratic party, who claimed the newsman allowed Romney free reign of the debate while regularly cutting off Obama. At the time, analysts wondered if the Democrats weren’t complaining only to gloss over the fact that Obama simply performed poorly during the debate. Others suggested that Lehrer wasn’t assertive enough in general and that he gave both candidates too much freedom to speak at length without him moving the conversation along. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said Lehrer “got rolled over.”

George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson

Four years earlier, raised a few eyebrows after ABC moderators George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson seemed to hone in on Obama with a series of tough questions in a primary debate with Clinton. The two moderators focused on some of the future president’s campaign gaffes as well as his personal relationships with controversial figures such as Rev. Jeremiah Wright and activist William Ayers. “Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?” Stephanopoulos asked Obama, while also asking about the candidate’s decision not to wear an American flag pin.

The line of questioning came under fire, in part, due to the fact that Stephanopoulos is a former campaign advisor and White House Communications Director under Bill Clinton. Stephanopoulos defended the questions, noting that he and Gibson went after Obama because he was leading over Clinton at the time. Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales wrote that Gibson and Stephanopoulos turned in “shoddy, despicable performances.”