NBC Nightly News host Lester Holt is the man of the hour (well, 90 minutes) tonight, moderating the highly anticipated matchup between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the first presidential debate of the general election.
Holt will ask about the set list of themes — "America's Direction," "Achieving Prosperity," and "Securing America" — and while they vaguely hint at the economy and terrorism, the specific topics remain unknown.
But in the midst of one of the most unusual presidential elections in history, Holt faces a job that comes with a lot of scrutiny. Just remember the backlash from Matt Lauer’s unbalanced line of questioning for Clinton and Trump at the Commander-in-Chief Forum, in which Lauer failed to correct Trump’s lie that he was always against the Iraq War.
What can Holt’s background tell us about tonight’s debate? He is a career anchor and host who picked up Brian Williams's spot as the host of NBC’s Nightly News. The NBC team has been helping him prep for the debate, including NBC News and MSNBC chair Andy Lack, NBC News president Deborah Turness, and the news division's senior vice president of editorial, Janelle Rodriguez, CNN reported. Holt’s executive producer Sam Singal, Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd, senior political editor Mark Murray, and political editor Carrie Dann have also been helping with preparations.
But during the debate itself, the Commission on Presidential Debates’ executive producer Marty Slutsky will be Holt’s guide.
There has been a lot of chatter over Holt’s role as moderator from both sides of the aisle.
Trump preempted the debate with an attack over Holt’s own politics, telling Bill O'Reilly last week that "Lester is a Democrat. … It’s a phony system. They are all Democrats. It’s a very unfair system." But counter to Trump’s attack, Holt is a registered Republican.
He has spent many years reporting in poverty-stricken and war-torn regions abroad — notably covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, topics that will undoubtedly come up. Especially after Lauer failed to correct Trump on his assertion that he has never supported the war in Iraq last week, Holt’s personal experience covering the events could set him up for a more critical line of questioning.
While Holt has already had one go of moderating a presidential debate this year — a Democratic primary debate in January — whether or not he will correct the candidates’s misstatements Monday night has been at the center of debate over the past weeks.
Clinton’s campaign has been pushing for Holt to fact-check the debate live — an argument that fact-checking experts, like Lucas Graves, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison, have also made.
"If candidates know they are going to be challenged on the air, they are either not going to make a misleading claim or they are going to back it up," Graves told me earlier in the campaign season. "The middle of a debate or a live interview — those are the times a fact-check has an impact. No politician wants to be caught with millions of potential voters watching."
But as my colleague Dara Lind explains, live fact-checking hasn’t been the tradition of debate moderators in years past:
As far as the moderators are concerned, fact-checking should absolutely happen — but it should be the candidates’ job to fact-check each other. During a discussion at the University of Notre Dame in September, Lehrer of PBS explained that if Trump lied about his opposition to the Iraq War during a debate, "all any moderator would have done is said, 'Senator Clinton?' And then she would have called him a liar. The moderator would never have to intrude."
Lehrer has long been a proponent of these exchanges, which in the past (back when major party nominees were all one gender) he called "man to man." But usually the candidates just don’t bite...
"I'm just determined to get you all to talk to each other," Lehrer said, exasperated. It’s been the motto of campaign moderators for the past 40 years.
Whether Holt will forgo years of moderating precedence to usher in a new era of presidential debates remains to be seen. The only thing for certain is that everyone will be watching.