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The real reason debate moderators don’t want to fact-check Donald Trump

Blame tradition — and Abraham Lincoln.

Trump looking smug during a primary debate.
The smile of a man who knows he won’t be fact-checked.
Justin Sullivan/Getty

If you don’t want Donald Trump to become president, you’ve probably fantasized about a debate moderator interrupting him and calling him out: "Here are the things you’ve said so far that aren’t true..."

But on the eve of the first debate, the head of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Janet Brown, crushed those daydreams into finely ground dust.

"I don't think it's a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopedia Britannica," she told CNN. In her view, it’s the candidates’ job to fact-check each other — not the moderator’s job to fact check them.

To Hillary Clinton and her supporters, this might seem like a betrayal. What it really is, though, is tradition.

The norm against fact-checking was famously broken in 2012, when Candy Crowley fact-checked a statement live during a Romney-Obama town hall debate. But as a general rule, presidential debate moderators don’t think fact-checking candidates is their job.

Just look to Fox News’s Chris Wallace, who’s moderating the third and last debate and has already said as much: "I do not believe it is my job to be a truth squad," he told Howard Kurtz in an interview earlier this month.

This isn’t a matter of a Fox News host giving favorable treatment to a Republican candidate; it’s a matter of a Commission-selected moderator giving the Commission’s line. Longtime debate moderators, including PBS’s Jim Lehrer (who’s moderated more debates than any other journalist), don’t feel moderator fact-checks are appropriate either.

At a glance, this probably seems naive at best and bonkers at worst. If the moderators aren’t supposed to call out candidates when they lie, what’s the point of having them there at all? The answer, though, is that the moderators really don’t think they ought to be there at all.

Since the very first televised presidential debate of 1960, moderators have been trying — and failing — to recreate the Lincoln/Douglas debates of 1858: two candidates on a stage, talking about their competing visions of America to the voters, may the best orator win.

It’s always been a romantic ideal. But it’s been a tradition for decades of debating. And when it comes to the hidebound world of presidential debates, the combination of "idealized discourse" and "revered tradition" is basically enough to guarantee that moderators will treat this election — and these candidates — just like any other.

A very brief history of debate moderators trying to make themselves disappear

If the media had had its way, the very first (and most famous) televised presidential debate wouldn’t have had moderators at all.

In 1960, the campaigns of Richard Nixon and John Kennedy came to an agreement with the major TV networks (at the time, CBS, NBC, and ABC) to debate each other on live TV. As Jill Lepore writes in a recent New Yorker feature, the biggest sticking point in negotiations wasn’t between Nixon and Kennedy but between the campaigns and the networks: "The networks wanted Nixon and Kennedy to question each other; both men insisted on taking questions from a panel of reporters."

As Lepore writes, CBS wasn’t even willing to call it a "debate," reserving the word for times when opponents actually directly debated each other. (Instead, they called it a "joint appearance.") But CBS lost both the battle and the war.

Televised presidential debates didn’t happen again until 1976. Every four years since then, what happens in fall is called a "debate." Every four years since then, it involves moderators. And every four years since then — or so it seems — the moderators try, and fail, to make themselves invisible and facilitate a conversation between the candidates.

Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy during the first televised presidential debate in 1960.
You can’t see the moderators. But they’re there.
Pictorial Parade/Getty

It’s important to remember, particularly if you’re a politics superfan, that what you’re going to see during the general elections is very different from what we’ve seen so far this year. During the primaries — in particular the Republican primary — moderators had to assert their presence, as often as not, as traffic cops. They often had to negotiate among seven or eight (or, in the first debate, 16) different candidates so that everyone could get a word in edgewise and respond to direct attacks.

General election presidential debates are a dramatically different scene. With only a couple of exceptions, over the 40-year history of annual televised debates they’ve been one-on-one affairs. The moderators don’t have to do anything to ensure that each candidate gets ample time. As a matter of fact, the more the moderator steps in, the less time the candidates get.

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.

In 2008, when Barack Obama made a reference to John McCain, Lehrer interrupted: "Say it directly to him." Both candidates balked: "Are you afraid I couldn’t hear him?" McCain joked, and Obama simply skipped to the next phrase of his answer to avoid the situation entirely.

"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.

Jim Lehrer before a 2012 presidential debate.
Jim Lehrer, having not yet failed to get candidates to talk to each other. (This was before a debate.)
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

The debates are supposed to be the discourse of a more genteel and rational America

According to the president of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which sets the rules for who qualifies for debates and how debates are formatted, often long before the candidates are even chosen, one of the criteria for selecting journalists to moderate the debates is this: "They need to understand for better or worse that their names are not on the ballot."

It’s a strong warning against moderators "intruding" (as experienced debate moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS put it at the Notre Dame event). But it’s also an illustration of how the commission sees itself and the debates: a unique opportunity to shut out the noise of the outside world and let the people whose names are on the ballot present their visions to America.

The ideal of debate that always gets brought up in these contexts is the Lincoln/Douglas debates, which weren’t presidential debates at all, since the candidates were running against each other for Senate at the time. (This meant they were campaigning on behalf of the state legislature candidates who’d elect a senator.)

Those debates were barely debates: One candidate would give a speech, then the other, then the first would give another speech. And they might have been forgotten to history entirely if Lincoln hadn’t then collected the texts into a book, bringing national attention to his oratory and helping him win the Republican nomination for president in 1860.

An illustration of Abraham Lincoln during one of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Donald Trump delivers his opening statement during a 2016 presidential debate. Oh, wait. That’s not Trump. That’s the point.
Kean Collection via Getty

But it’s an attractive ideal, isn’t it? Two candidates, arguing their visions for America before a crowd, with no need for an external authority to keep them on message and civil. It’s nice to believe that’s the way democracy works.

In fact, it might even be particularly appealing during this cycle. The public complains that they don’t hear enough about the candidates’ policy proposals; what better way to fix that than to have the candidates discuss those plans with America themselves, rather than forcing them to talk about stupid horse race controversies? Matt Lauer got attacked for asking Hillary Clinton tough questions and Donald Trump softballs. If Clinton herself were responsible for pressuring Trump, wouldn’t that problem solve itself?

To see the problem with this logic, you have to see the difference between Clinton and Trump not just as a difference of shared values but as an absence of shared facts.

If the point of a presidential debate is to move the discussion between candidates beyond "he said/she said," that’s kind of the opposite of forcing the candidates to be responsible for correcting each other’s falsehoods. But as long as the presidential debates are ruled by the traditionalists, candidates will be expected to do both.


Donald Trump hates lies, but can't tell the truth