News & Politics

'Fact Checking' the Candidates at the Debate: Whose Job is It?

'Fact Checking' the Candidates at the Debate: Whose Job is It?
Technicians set up the stage for the presidential debate between Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

With a little more than 24 hours before Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump square off in the first presidential debate, liberals and the Clinton campaign have been calling on moderator Lester Holt to “fact check” Donald Trump.

But the Commission on Presidential Debates doesn’t think that’s a good idea.

CNN Money:

The Commission on Presidential Debates has some advice for debate moderators this fall: leave the fact-checking to the candidates.

The Trump campaign is taking the same position. So are some former moderators, like Jim Lehrer, who has facilitated twelve presidential debates

But many others — including a wide array of journalists — want the man moderating Monday night’s debate, Lester Holt, to intervene if egregious lies are said on stage.

As a result, fact-checking, normally a pretty staid subject, is now the focus of a roiling debate in political and journalistic circles.

Hillary Clinton campaign aides are being outspoken about it: If moderators “close their ears to Donald Trump’s lies, it will extend an unfair bias to Donald Trump. It will be the equivalent of giving him more time to speak,” Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon said Sunday.

But Janet Brown, executive director of the commission, which organizes the debates every four years, said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” that “I don’t think it’s a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopedia Britannica.”

Once the fact-checking door is open, “I’m not sure, what is the big fact, and what is a little fact?” She added, “Does your source about the unemployment rate agree with my source?”

Trump campaign aides have staked out a similar position. Some of them say a pro-fact-checking stance is really an anti-Trump stance.

Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway responded to the Clinton camp’s call for aggressive moderating by saying on ABC, “I really don’t appreciate the campaigns thinking it is the job of the media to go and be these virtual fact-checkers.”

This point of view stipulates that the candidates will challenge each other without the moderator stepping in. As Lehrer put it on CNN: “The moderator’s job is to keep the flow going.”

The counterargument goes like this: An actor or a robot could keep track of time. A journalist needs to represent the viewers and help make the truth known.

“We hate to leave absolute errors of fact on the table,” former debate panelist Ann Compton said.

“Absolute errors of fact…”? Beg your pardon, Annie, but unless the candidate says something like the sun rises in the west or CNN is a real news network, there is no such thing.

Both Clinton and Trump lie a lot, and both believe some things that simply aren’t so. But most facts can be subjectively interpreted — twisted, if you will — so that just about anything can be implied.

Should Holt “fact check” Hillary if she calls Trump a racist? There is no proof Trump is a racist so why shouldn’t Holt call her out for it? Isn’t that one of those “absolute errors of fact”?

The commission is right. Let the candidates correct each other during the debate. The journalists are not part of the story — even though they would dearly like to make it so.