The debate about the debate: Should moderators be fact-checkers?

Who wants to be a debate moderator?


No doubt fewer people would volunteer for that role this week after witnessing the avalanche of criticism and unsolicited advice following the acknowledged poor performance by moderator Matt Lauer at a Clinton-Trump matchup.

And it’s all about the fact-checking (aka “truth-squadding“) or lack thereof. The anti-faxxers vs. the fact-checking fans. To be fair, media and political experts have offered advice and made some excellent points — or at least interesting/comical/outrageous points — about fact-checking in the upcoming U.S. presidential debates.

We’ve collected some of the best for you here so you can (a) intellectually prepare yourself for the Sept. 26 debate (b) finish that paper for your journalism class or (c) write even more commentary for the beleaguered moderators.

Moderator fact-checking: Great idea

“That’s bullshit. Fact-checking is job one for any reporter,” journalist Glenn Thrush tells Poynter’s James Warren in response to the anti-faxxers.

“If journalists aren’t interested in being part of the truth squad, they should find another sport,” says Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan.

“Don’t go parading around as a newsman, as someone who likes to spread truth, when you have, like, this weird-like sick reaction to…explaining what the truth is or demanding the truth during these debates. This is not a joke, right?” Ana Kasparian of the Young Turks

“Without more fact-checking, this may be the only national election where we elect someone merely on persuasive ambiguity, not facts,” Lowell Briggs, York College of Pennsylvania instructor, told Husna Haq of the Christian Science Monitor.

Moderators need to fact-check “because we the people suck at it,” said Samantha Bee of “Full Frontal.”

Moderator fact-checking: No. Really, no.

“The moderator can make a mistake by being the voice of God, saying, ‘Here’s the way it is,’” the Rev. John I. Jenkins, a debate commission board member, told Michael M. Grynbaum of the New York Times.

“I don’t think fact-checking is the function of the moderator. It is the moderator’s job to make sure the candidate has the opportunity to do the fact-checking. It’s a subtle difference.” Former debate moderator Jim Lehrer, in an Associated Press story.

“I do not believe it’s my job to be a truth squad,” future moderator Chris Wallace told Howard Kurtz on Fox News.

“The job of the moderator is not to be a fact-checker,” says debate commission co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf  in the Huffington Post.


“When you correct a fact, what you do is you further lodge that fact into people’s minds, and they remember the error,” New York Times columnist David Brooks said on PBS NewsHour.

Got any (not necessarily better) ideas?

“Candidates should fact-check other candidates,” Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s former campaign manager, tells David Uberti in CJR.

Headline: “The Presidential Debates Should Model Themselves after ‘PTI’ — For Democracy: The perfect format is sitting right in front of us on ESPN.” Maxwell Strachan in the Huffington Post.

Give the candidate some rope and see what happens. “[Lauer] pressed Trump to expand on and double down on being Trump. And that did not go well for Trump. Not at all,” says Josh Marshall in Talking Points Memo.

“Bring on instant replay!” says Salon’s Jordan Hoffner.

“Say something false, you lose time,” is Newsday’s Michael Dobie’s big idea.

Former moderator Jim Lehrer’s tactic for dealing with a statement that needs to be fact-checked:  Ask the other candidate, “Would you agree with that, is that how you see it?” Read Hadas Gold’s story in Politico.

“The first fact-checker has to be the other candidate. If there’s a fact that is egregiously wrong, then it is the moderator’s place to correct that,” former moderator Bob Schieffer tells Niall Stanage of The Hill.

“I wouldn’t blame it on the moderator here. I would actually ask the viewers to really look at what Donald Trump is saying.” Mika Brzezinski, Morning Joe co-host. Video clip here.

At least be even-handed in un-fact-checking both sides, suggests Peter Feaver in Foreign Policy magazine.

Two words: Bill O’Reilly. (From Washington Post reporter Callum Borchers.)

Just to be clear

No one’s asking that the debates turn into “Dancing with the Fact-Checkers.” But fact-checking can justifiably take center stage on the rare occasion that three conditions are met, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who helped create, told Rem Rieder in USA Today:

  • The statement is clearly and demonstrably false.
  • The moderator is able to concisely explain the evidence used in the fact check.
  • The “public would be seriously misled were it to believe the false claim.”

What’s your view?

Cast your unscientific vote in this unscientific poll.


Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute, contributed to this blog post.