Less than a month ago, the media bashed Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway for complaining that the presidential debate moderators should not act as “virtual fact-checkers.” At first glance Conway’s stance against the use of facts seems both suspicious and ridiculous; however, upon inspection I have come to agree with her. While I do not back Conway’s candidate, I do agree with her position on this issue due to three truths that have manifested themselves throughout America’s seventy-six years of general presidential debates.
“I’m sorry, what?…did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence?” Max Frankel, the moderator of a 1976 presidential debate, asked Ford after the then-president falsely claimed, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Frankel has since admitted that his question was a biased attempt to throw Ford a “lifeline” and give him a chance to correct his devastating blunder. Although Ford refused to recant, this brings us to our first truth: people, including moderators, have biases. Often these biases manifest themselves in action. In this instance and others, presidential debate moderators have targeted a chosen candidate for help or harm.
Thirty-six years later, in a 2012 presidential debate, moderator Candy Crowley interrupted Mitt Romney and stated, “He did in fact, sir, call it an act of terror.” Crowley’s comments ignited laughter and cheers from an audience who just heard Romney insinuate that Barack Obama failed for two weeks to call the 2012 Benghazi attack “an act of terror.” However, a careful reading of Obama’s speech to which Crowley referred reveals that Obama may have been speaking of 9/11 when he used the term “acts of terror.” People have debated the intention of Obama’s ambiguous words ever since, and it remains a hazy issue. So our second truth becomes clear: the truthfulness of some claims cannot be resolved in a simple and timely fact-check.
During the first 2016 presidential debate, Donald Trump claimed his animosity toward the 2003 invasion of Iraq but moderator Lester Holt insisted, “The record shows otherwise.” Contrary to Holt’s statement, the record does not show otherwise. In fact, the record shows no clear or convincing evidence putting Trump for or against the Iraq War prior to invasion. This brings us to our third and final truth: people lie. Yes, even moderators. So unless the solution is to have a second table of moderators who fact-check the first, and possibly a third fact-checking the second and so on, then we must search for a better process.
Some say we should rely on the candidates to fact-check each other; however, I believe it is safe to presume that each candidate is biased toward one particular party and one particular candidate. If so, then they are susceptible to the same pitfalls of Frankel and Holt. I present a different solution. That is: just do it yourself. Due to the real possibility of skewed, indefinite, and untrue fact-checks, our trust in the infallibility of presidential debate moderators should dwindle, and our reliance on our own investigation should increase. Indeed, if we truly wish to know the validity of each candidate’s claims, then it is time to start reading up on the issues ourselves.
This article was written by Drew Sneed. Click here to see more of Drew’s work.