Lester Holt and the Problem of Refereeing Donald Trump

The moderator of the first presidential debate will have to choose his strategy for how to handle demonstrably false statements by the candidates.

Can Trump Stay on Offense Without Being Offensive?

On the most recent episode of the Keepin’ It 1600 podcast, a twice-a-week show hosted by former Obama staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, CNN’s Jake Tapper came on to preview Monday’s first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Tapper, who has hosted several debates himself, initially lamented how difficult it was to moderate 11 different people on stage and looked forward to seeing just these two candidates against each other.

But then the topic drifted, as it inevitably does in this campaign, to matters of truth: How to elicit it, what steps a moderator could take to ensure it, how to make sure it is not violently molested in front of what is expected to be the largest debate audience in television history. And Tapper, a smart man and as good a moderator as there is, didn’t have any answers.

QuickTake Q&A: The First Debate

Tapper said he’d just had Chris Christie on his show, and that the topic of Trump’s supposed refutation of birtherism came up. Christie said Trump had stopped claiming President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. once his birth certificate was released. Tapper said this wasn’t true. Christie said it again. Tapper reiterated that it was still not true. “In the back of my mind,” Tapper said, “I’m thinking, ‘Is this going to be the rest of the interview? Him saying black and me saying white?’”

The exchange left Tapper befuddled in a way that suddenly feels like the central question of not just Monday’s debate, but the campaign in general: Does the truth matter? Is there a way to make it matter?

“When somebody starts saying things that are not true in an interview, obviously the responsibility is on you to call it out. But then the question becomes, how far do you take that?” Tapper said. “It’s an empirical fact that Donald Trump pushed the birther thing up to and including 2016. Until Friday, he was pushing it. But once I say that, and he says, ‘No, that’s not true,’ it become a dilemma. You don’t want to turn into Joseph Welch at the Army McCarthy hearings. You want to put a flag in it and say, ‘this is not true.’ But there are also other things you want to discuss.”

Since Trump’s pseudo-press conference/hotel tour last Friday, there has been a decided shift in the media’s attitude toward his relationship with the truth. The Clinton campaign has often complained that she is painted as being deceptive because of issues of forthrightness with her e-mail server and that Trump gets a pass because there are simply so many falsehoods that one can’t keep track of them all; it’s the old analogy that if you step on one nail you scream in pain, but if you step on 100, bunched together, you won’t have a problem. But his grudging birther walkback and subsequent false claim that Clinton started birtherism and he “finished it” sent the media collective from a state of bemusement with Trump’s deception to one of outright warfare. (It’s worth noting that of all the Trump deceptions, the one that finally broke the media’s back was the one that involved wasting 20 minutes of live cable television time as Trump sold his hotel.) Most notably, the New York Times, which just two weeks ago trotted out its public editor to extol the virtues of false equivalence, has at last thrown its arms in the air and just flat-out called Trump a liar on the front page of its newspaper. The author of that story, Michael Barbaro, devoted a whole podcast to the simple question: “Is Trump’s Lying a Strategy?” The gloves are off. They really mean it this time.

The question, of course, is whether a moderator can fact-check and truth-squad Trump in real time in a debate setting. Clinton presents a somewhat different challenge, in her occasional evasiveness and legalisms when pressed. She plays by well-established rules, while Trump rides roughshod over them.

Ari Fleischer argued in an op-ed, in the wake of Matt Lauer’s disastrous town hall two weeks ago, that moderators should stay out of it all together and require the candidates themselves to call out their opponents’ misstatements. But even if that were true—and it’s difficult to see how any sort of higher truth is met by having the moderator mostly impersonate a lamppost—NBC’s Lester Holt, host of the first debate, wouldn’t sit idly by anyway, particularly not after the backlash to his network mates Lauer and Jimmy Fallon, who was derided last week for using his time with Trump to take the opportunity to muss up his hair. Holt will have his own self-interest in mind, and that self-interest is to be tough, with both candidates…but especially Trump.

Being tough about the truth is surprisingly complicated. It’s highly unlikely Trump will make a major issue of birtherism and its alleged Clintonian provenance at the debate—one of the main objectives for his odd statement last Friday might have been to avoid having to say, “Obama was born in America” for the first time at the debate—but for the sake of discussion, let’s use it as an example. If Trump claims that he renounced birtherism after Obama produced his birth certificate, Holt has three options.

  1. Call him out immediately. This was Tapper’s instinct, and it worked, but only for a few seconds, until Christie doubled down. A back-and-forth exchange of any length will begin to seem like badgering. The problem, as Tapper noted, is that when you move on without absolute clarification of the precise truth, it remains muddled in the eyes of the audience. 
  2. Turn to Clinton and say, “What are your thoughts on that claim, Senator?” This is the Fleischer lamppost strategy: Stay out of the way. This has a sort of Darwinian logic: Put two people on opposite sides, let them duke it out, whoever wins is telling the truth. The problem with this is obvious: It turns the truth into a he-said, she-said competition, rather than an actual empirical truth. Clinton can say that Trump’s birther revisionism is a lie, but forcing her to be the only person to say it turns “truth” into “a claim that Hillary Clinton made.” Holt doesn’t want to team up with Clinton to take down Trump’s lies. But making her the only one to combat them turns truth into something that’s in beholden to however a particular audience member perceives the optics of the debate, rather than, you know, the truth.
  3. Keep questioning aggressively to elicit the truth. Another key point Tapper made is that it’s rare that a candidate brings a new untruth to a debate. Almost anything that comes up will have been told beforehand on the trail: When it appears again in the debate, it’s the job of the moderator to be ready for it, and have a questioning strategy. In a perfect world, this would be the ideal, but not only does it require a ton of preparation—this is one area where Lauer fell short—it has the potential of turning the debate into an interview, and a contentious one. It also ignores the other person on stage who, by the way, would like this opportunity to show why they should be the next leader of the free world. Even if one does not subscribe to Fleischer’s lamppost theory, the debate is not, in fact, about Holt. Any umpire at a baseball game knows that a well-umpired game is one where you notice the umpires as little as possible.

Holt has to know he is in a trap, since he can’t possibly meet all of these expectations. An umpire can't be an adversary. As Tapper put it, asking tough, hectoring questions “is not an easy thing to do. It’s much easier to let people say something not true and just say, ‘OK, next question.’ I have not seen much blowback for colleagues of mine who have not pushed. … It’s much tougher to do it than to not do it. I’m sure there are people that all of us respect who we have seen interviews they have done with political figures where we say, ‘I can’t believe they let them get away with it.’ But there’s no price to pay. There’s more of a price in actually asking a follow up question 20 times. There’s more of a risk that the audience will think you’re rude, and you’re doing something that most people don’t do, and in a cost-benefit analysis, there’s little benefit to it. Other than being able to sleep at night.”

Holt has to be the umpire in a baseball game in which fans on both sides think the umpire is trying to cheat them out of a win, and a game in which one player wants to use a chainsaw instead of a bat. Good luck. One hopes he can get to sleep afterward.

—Will Leitch reports for Bloomberg Politics on the intersection of politics and media.

(Corrects Tapper’s employer in first paragraph.)
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