How Will Voters Separate Fact From Fiction at the Debates?

Who can help you trust? Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released on Sunday found that some 34 percent of registered voters say the presidential debates will be quite or extremely important to their decision on Election Day. While that percentage is consistent with previous election-year polls, this year’s group includes 49 percent of Hispanics, 42 percent of African Americans, 39 percent of self-described moderates, and 39 percent of voters under the age of 35. In addition, the poll found that “11% of voters are the most persuadable,” adding that “these voters say the debates will be important and that they are undecided in their choice, are currently backing a third-party candidate or only leaning toward Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton.”

Thus, in what has become a suddenly tight race between Trump and Clinton, there’s no denying that the debates may make a significant difference, but what remains unclear is exactly how the debate moderators will deal with false statements made by either candidate, particularly when one of those candidates, Trump, has developed a well-earned reputation for repeatedly saying things that aren’t true. On Sunday, Janet Brown, the executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates — the bipartisan organization which produces the presidential debates — said on CNN’s Reliable Sources that, in her opinion, the debate moderators should let the candidates fact-check each other:

The commission asks independent, smart journalists to be the moderators and we let them decide how they’re going to do this. But I have to say, in our history, the moderators have found it appropriate to allow the candidates to be the ones that talk about the accuracy or the fairness of what the other candidate or candidates might have said. I think, personally, if you are starting to get into the fact-check, I’m not sure what is the big fact, and what is a little fact? And if you and I [have] information, does your source about the unemployment rate agree with my source? I don’t think it’s a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopedia Britannica. And I think it’s better for that person to facilitate and to depend on the candidates to basically correct each other as they see fit.

Putting aside for a moment that the Bureau of Labor Statistics is arguably the sole reliable source for unemployment-rate information, Brown’s comment echoes what the moderator of the third debate, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, recently said about his own role as moderator with regards to the facts. Speaking with Fox News’ Howard Kurtz, Wallace said of in-debate fact-checking, “I do not believe that it’s my job to be a truth squad. It’s up to the other [candidate] to catch them on that.” And Wallace is hardly alone in this traditionalist view, which also happens to map onto the position of the Trump campaign. Last week, Trump opined during an interview on Fox and Friends that a moderator should not insert themselves into the debate as a fact-checker, citing the infamous moment during the second presidential debate in 2012 when moderator Candy Crowley controversially corrected Mitt Romney over a claim about Barack Obama’s remarks following the Benghazi consulate attack. Said Trump on Thursday:

I think [the moderator] has to be a moderator. You’re debating somebody, and if she makes a mistake, or if I make a mistake, we’ll take each other on. But I certainly don’t think you want Candy Crowley again … I really don’t think you want that. That was a very pivotal moment in that debate. And it really threw the debate off. And it was unfair. So I don’t think you want that. No, I think you have to have somebody that just lets ’em argue it out

Trump went on to say that he hopes that Lester Holt, the moderator of the first debate on Monday, will not succumb to outside pressure to fact-check what the candidates say.

The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, has been letting it be known that it absolutely expects moderators to intervene if and when Trump starts lying. The campaign has released a debate prebuttal, which lists false statements that Trump has made over the course of the campaign, and Clinton campaign spokesperson Jennifer Palmieri told reporters during a conference call on Friday that it was the job of moderators “to call out those lies, and do it in real time,” adding that, “to not do that is to give Donald Trump a very unfair advantage” in the debates. On ABC’s This Week on Sunday, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook went on to insist that “it’s unfair to ask for Hillary both to play traffic cop while with Trump, make sure that his lies are corrected, and also to present her vision for what she wants to do for the American people.”

Also on This Week, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway responded that, “I really don’t appreciate campaigns thinking it is the job of the media to go and be these virtual fact-checkers and that these debate moderators should somehow do their bidding.” Furthermore, the Trump campaign is already preparing an offensive against the fact-checks:

The Commission on Presidential Debates’ Janet Brown is correct, however, that presidential debate moderators have historically abstained from live fact-checking. As Vox’s Dara Lind pointed out last week, that’s because the trick that debate moderators have traditionally tried to perform is to make themselves disappear:

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.

But this campaign is not like any other, of course, and that’s because one of this year’s candidates, Trump, traffics in demonstrable lies more than any other presidential candidate in living memory. No one understands that better than the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale, who has made compiling them his daily beat on Twitter, and as you can see in the representative example below, he doesn’t just collect the big lies, but the smallest ones as well:

And over the past week, national news organizations have finally started collecting Trump’s lies as well. Politico analyzed all of Trump’s and Clinton’s statements over the course of a workweek and concluded that “Trump’s mishandling of facts and propensity for exaggeration so greatly exceed Clinton’s as to make the comparison almost ludicrous.” They ultimately found that Trump made 87 erroneous statements in five days, which averaged out to one falsehood every 3.25 minutes over nearly five hours of remarks. Alternatively, the publication found that over a five-day analysis of Hillary Clinton’s statements, her “relationship to the truth is solid — but her most brazen misrepresentations come when she’s talking about herself.” By their tally, she made eight erroneous statements in all, which averaged out to one falsehood every 12 minutes over 1.5 hours of remarks.

Here’s how the New York Times introduced their own analysis of a full week of Trump’s statements:

All politicians bend the truth to fit their purposes, including Hillary Clinton. But Donald J. Trump has unleashed a blizzard of falsehoods, exaggerations and outright lies in the general election, peppering his speeches, interviews and Twitter posts with untruths so frequent that they can seem flighty or random — even compulsive.

However, a closer examination, over the course of a week, revealed an unmistakable pattern: Virtually all of Mr. Trump’s falsehoods directly bolstered a powerful and self-aggrandizing narrative depicting him as a heroic savior for a nation menaced from every direction. Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist, described the practice as creating “an unreality bubble that he surrounds himself with.”

The Washington Post surveyed seven days of Trump’s remarks as well, finding that the candidate revealed himself to be someone “who at times seems uniquely undeterred by facts”:

An examination by The Washington Post of one week of Trump’s speeches, tweets and interviews show a candidate who not only continues to rely heavily on thinly sourced or entirely unsubstantiated claims but also uses them to paint a strikingly bleak portrait of an impoverished America, overrun by illegal immigrants, criminals and terrorists — all designed to set up his theme that he is specially suited to “make America great again.”

The Post added that, in the aftermath of Trump being widely rebuked for lying about his role in perpetuating the Birther conspiracy theory, he “doubled down during the past week on some of his most controversial and debunked statements and made surprising new ones”:

It is a strategy Trump has long employed. In his 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal,” he wrote that “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.” When the media questioned his claims, the former reality TV star called them “dishonest” and “disgraceful,” and said the reporters were “wacky” or “crazy” or “neurotic.”

Now Team Trump won’t agree with any of these conclusions of course, but while it may be possible to quibble with an individual fact-check here or there, it’s not like these news organizations aren’t backing up their conclusions, and the overwhelming evidence they’ve compiled proves Trump’s lack of veracity poses an unprecedented problem. Peter Beinart, writing in The Atlantic, hopes this year’s moderators will rise to that challenge:

Since Trump has largely stopped giving interviews to anyone except campaign sycophants and celebrity lightweights, the debates may serve as his last encounter with actual journalists. Those journalists — Lester Holt, Martha Raddatz, Anderson Cooper and Chris Wallace — must be prepared to confront Trump in ways they’ve never confronted a candidate before. The more audaciously he lies, the more audaciously they must tell the truth. The risks of doing so are tremendous. The rewards are being able to say that when Donald Trump threatened American liberal democracy like no candidate in modern history, you met his challenge square on.

And while the New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg understands that debate organizers want to avoid giving moderators a platform or turning the debate into one big fact-check zone that elbows out substantive policy discussion, he also argues that moderators should weigh in, because “what this political season really needs is a confident and credible referee,” and that’s needed during the match, not after, since news and fact-check organizations can’t possibly hope for their post-debate fact-checks to reach the as many as 100 million people that might watch Monday’s debate.

But to Alan Schroeder, the author of the book Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail, moderator fact-checking is a lose-lose proposition, since he doesn’t believe the public really trusts the moderators in the first place. Indeed, he thinks viewers should be doing their own homework instead:

Look, it’s a democracy, and citizens have responsibilities beyond just watching TV. If the only source of information you’re getting is what the candidates tell you on TV, then that’s your choice. But I think we’d be crazy to take anything any politician said to us at face value and just assume it’s objective truth. The debate is a really important part of the education process during a campaign, but it is not a standalone thing.

Reality is an objective truth as well, of course, and the Washington Monthly’s David Atkins worries that just-leave-it-there debating won’t help people realize that:

When the candidates are presenting not just different perspectives but different versions of easily verifiable reality, it’s up to the press to ground the debate in fact. Otherwise it’s just a spectacle, and one that damages the fabric of the country further as our country’s ideological tribes inhabit not just different cultures and geographies, but different understandings of reality entirely. That serves no one, and it’s the opposite of objective.

NBC’s Holt, who himself was the subject of a false Trump statement when the candidate called the registered Republican a Democrat last week, will be the first moderator to tackle 2016’s new reality on Monday. He has sole editorial responsibility for what questions get asked and how he will moderate the debate, though as CNN’s Brian Stelter reports, there has been next to no indication how he will respond to false statements from candidates. NBC sources only told CNN that “Lester is not going to be a potted plant,” when it comes to fact-checking, and that he will work to avoid what happened to NBC’s Matt Lauer at the Commander-in-Chief Forum in early September, when Lauer was widely criticized for letting Trump make false statements without pushback, despite the interview format.

Appearing on the Keepin’ It 1600 podcast last week, fact-check proponent Jake Tapper offered some advice to Holt and others from his personal experience moderating the primary debates:

[I]f you’re going to fact-check, you better have the information in front of you to back it up. So the truth in the matter is I did a little bit of fact-checking during the first Republican debate, and the last Republican debate, but people didn’t make a thing out of it because I had the information in front of me and I just read it back to them. So my first recommendation is: Be prepared. And it’s almost always facts that [the candidates] have messed up before. It’s seldom new facts, or new lies. If you’re not prepared, then it’s going to be tough.

PolitiFact’s Angie Drobnic Holan agrees, and in her own list of tips for moderators, suggests embedding fact-checks inside tough follow-up questions. Speaking with USA Today, the esteemed media scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson adds that three basic criteria should be met for any intervention, “Because doing so interrupts the flow of the debate, requires fact-checking all comparable claims, and being wrong is highly problematic on many counts, fact-checking by moderator should occur very very rarely, if at all, and then only if the statement is clearly and demonstrably false, the moderator is able to concisely recap or quote the evidence used to justify the conclusion, and the public would be seriously misled were it to believe the false claim.”

Either way, if Holt does do any live fact-checking, he’ll be taking a decidedly modern path for presidential-debate moderators. For all the criticism that Candy Crowley received for fact-checking Mitt Romney in 2012, she only did it once, and bucked precedent to do so. Revisiting Dara Lind’s Vox piece, after surveying how moderators have handled debates throughout American history, she concluded that the notion of candidates debating each other via “idealized discourse” doesn’t suit present-day political times, but it’s what we’re probably stuck with for now:

[I]t’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. 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.
How Will Voters Separate Fact From Fiction at the Debates?