Monday night marked the first presidential debate in a very intense and controversial campaign. And while, for months, the candidates have gotten all of the attention, debate moderators have essentially received none.
That is, until Fox News anchor, Chris Wallace publicly stated that he would not serve as both moderator and fact-checker. Since Wallace made this statement almost two weeks ago, there has been a lot of debate about the debates. He claims it’s not his job to be the “truth squad.” This is very problematic.
Wallace, like the other three debate moderators, are journalists. Broadcast anchors on 24-hour national news networks, but yes, still journalists. The most important part of journalistic ethics is to “report the facts”.
Well, if Wallace, along with Lester Holt (NBC), Anderson Cooper (CNN), and Martha Raddatz (ABC), do not present the facts, who will? The candidates? That’s unlikely. No matter who you’re voting for in November, I think we can all agree that neither candidate has been forthcoming with the truth.
During MSNBC’s Commander-in-Chief forum, moderator Matt Lauer faced a lot of criticism for letting a major misrepresentation of the facts slide. To put this in context; Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump slammed his opponent, Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, for her support of the U.S. interference in Libya in 2011. Of course, Trump avoided mentioning that he, too, supported the issue at the time. This is where Lauer should have pushed back with the truth. But he failed to do so. MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews jumped to his colleague’s defense. Matthews claimed that if Lauer had called Trump out on this inconsistency, Lauer would have been presenting his opinion, which is something journalists are banned from doing.
Matthews had one thing right; journalists are expressly forbidden from incorporating their opinion into their work. But Lauer wouldn’t have been giving his opinion at all. Actually, Lauer would have been practicing the very basic definition of journalism, “report the facts.” And facts backed with solid evidence are not disputable, like an opinion.
Journalists at major nonpartisan news outlets obviously want to avoid the impression that they’re adding their own viewpoints in an arena where they’re supposed to remain unbiased. However, by not calling out candidates who are misleading voters or just being downright deceptive, they are sacrificing their journalistic responsibility.
That’s not to say that moderators should be the third wheel in a two-person debate. But without their interjections, these debates will just become a ‘he-said, she-said,’ mismatch of half lies and half truths. And quite frankly, voters deserve better than that.