The first presidential debate of this election garnered a record 84 million viewers. News organizations across the globe have analyzed every word the candidates said. But another important aspect to consider is not what the candidates said but how the debate was moderated.
Lester Holt, a veteran newscaster for NBC News, had the mammoth task of moderating the debate. The job required a delicate touch, as the primary debates, particularly the Republican debates, frequently devolved into personal attacks among the other candidates and on the moderators. In fact, in the very first Republican debate Trump clashed with moderator Megyn Kelly over what he perceived as an unfair question about his statements about women and later boycotted a Republican debate because Kelly was moderating it.
John Dickerson, the host of Face the Nation, describes the moderator’s role as one of a windowpane, where viewers are able to see the candidates through the moderator, without the moderator obscuring the view. Moderators shouldn’t pick a fight with a candidate and derail the debate, but a moderator should also push back against untrue statements and responses that don’t address the question at hand.
Using the windowpane criteria, Holt was too tentative as a moderator. He often didn’t add context that could have cleared up confusion, such as when the candidates were disputing the facts. Although a moderator should by no means try to give context to every single issue raised in a debate, there were some moments, such as when Clinton was disputing Trump’s assertion that murder rates were up in America, where the audience was left not knowing what the truth was.
To give Holt credit, he did interject occasionally, such as when he asserted that Trump was on the record supporting the Iraq war, and confirming that stop and frisk tactics had been found unconstitutional. We understand that interjecting too much could have led to conflict with a candidate that would distract from the issues at hand. Even though Holt’s approach seemed relatively subdued, Trump said on Fox and Friends the day after the debate that he felt some of Holt’s questions were “hostile.” It’s possible that if Holt had pressed further, the debate focus could have shifted onto an argument between the two.
But, the role of the moderator is also to push the candidates away from their talking points with follow up questions or opening questions. Holt had some well crafted opening questions, such as when he asked the candidates how they would bridge the racial divide in America, but he didn’t bring up some pertinent topics such as controversy over who donated to the Clinton Foundation. He also seemed unable to control the pace or content of the debate and while he did tell the candidates a couple times that they weren’t addressing the question at hand, he did not ask many follow-up questions, and didn’t have much success in getting the candidates to describe specific policy changes, such as their plans to prevent homegrown acts of terror in the US.
The first debate was an important one, and given the circumstances Lester Holt did an admirable job.We don’t think that debates should be overly controlled, as voters can learn valuable information when a candidate gets off track. In this instance, we would have preferred more intensive moderation, but the important outcome was that voters got to see the candidates interact, and hopefully came away from the debate more informed.
As journalists however, we hope that the next debate’s moderator will push the candidates for more for specific policies, and try to draw the candidates away from their prepared talking points, and clear up confusion regarding facts in order to ensure that Americans are as informed as possible when they go to the polls in November.