September 19, 2016

Truth and the Presidential Debates

Participants on The Diane Rehm Show discussed the upcoming presidential debate today. Longtime journalist Frank Sesno was asked  if it is the job of the moderator to challenge a candidate who has made a statement that is undeniably false. Sesno was emphatic in saying that it is not. Instead, that job should fall to the other candidate, though the moderator may make time available for a rebuttal by that other candidate.

The question was especially relevant after Matt Lauer failed to challenge Donald Trump when he asserted on NBC/MSNBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum that he had always opposed the second Iraq War. It had widely been reported that Trump was for the war before he was against it.

If American presidential debates were real debates, of course, the moderator(s) would primarily be a timekeeper, and the candidates would be responsible for answering one another. Our debates are not real debates, though, and the moderator plays a more active role.

That said, if moderators challenged every falsehood put forward by candidates, they would probably consume more air time than the candidates themselves. Frank Sensno’s position is probably a good rule-of-thumb for normal presidential debates.

Alas, the 2016 debates are not going to be normal, To begin with, very little of what Donal Trump says is true. (See PoliticusUSA story here.) If the moderator were to try to keep the Republican candidate honest, the debate would become a dialogue between Trump and the moderator. Perhaps egregious lies—those undeniably identified as such beforehand—should be pointed out by the moderator. Let me suggest why.

A major feature that makes this presidential campaign abnormal is the fact that both major candidates are widely disliked and distrusted. It doesn’t matter if this state of affairs is justified; it is the way it is. If Trump tells an outright lie—odds are that this will happen one or more times in next week’s debate—having Hillary Clinton point out the untruthfulness is unlikely to be helpful because she herself is seen as untrustworthy. Trump can simply say something like “there you go again being negative” and largely get away with his mendacity.

If, on the other hand, the moderator, who is largely seen as neutral—this is perhaps not the case for regular Fox News viewers, but what are you going to do?—challenges a falsehood, doing so will have more credibility than if the task were left to the other candidate. Moderator intervention is likely to be particularly cogent for undecided voters who view both candidates negatively. I think such intervention is indicated in extreme cases.

Finally, it is important to point out that the Commander-in-Chief Forum was not a debate, even as they have developed in American presidential races. Hillary Clinton was not available to challenge Trump on his oft-repeated lie about his opposition to the Iraq War. Matt Lauer indeed failed to do his job, at least as I see it.

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