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When moderator Lester Holt steps onto the Hofstra University debate stage on Monday night, he’ll find himself between two campaigns with opposing visions of his role — and at the center of a months-long media debate about fairness and truth in the 2016 election.
The 57-year-old anchor of NBC’s Nightly News has the honor (and the burden) of moderating the first 2016 presidential debate — an unprecedented television event in modern American political history between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton that is expected to draw tens of millions of viewers.
In the days and weeks leading up to Monday’s presidential debate, the campaigns and journalists have engaged in a debate of their own: Should Holt fact-check the candidates in real time?
The fact-checking debate has been a persistent one throughout an election cycle in which Trump, in the span of a single interview or speech, will lie about his past positions, make unfounded accusations against his opponents, and give credence to crazy conspiracy theories.
Fox News’s Chris Wallace, who will moderate the last presidential debate, has already said he doesn’t see his role to be the “truth squad” for the two candidates. Holt hasn’t done any press in the lead up to the first debate — NBC News declined BuzzFeed News’s request to interview Holt.
In a presidential forum earlier this month, Holt’s colleague, Matt Lauer, failed to challenge Trump on his false assertion he oppossed the Iraq War from the start. The result? He was pummeled by critics for his performance as a moderator.
On Sunday, both the Trump campaign and the Clinton campaign made their positions on the moderator’s role clear. Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, said Holt should point out Trump’s falsehoods.
“All that we’re asking is that, if Donald Trump lies, that it’s pointed out,” Mook said on ABC’s This Week. “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.”
Trump’s manager, Kellyanne Conway shot back on the same broadcast, saying, “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.”
The executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Janet Brown, also came down against moderators fact-checking during the debate, telling CNN’s Brian Stelter on Sunday, “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?”
Retired PBS Newshour anchor Jim Lehrer, who has moderated several presidential debates, told Politico that the best method to fact-check is to give the opportunity to the opposing candidate.
“Usually the way you do that with simply the candidate there, you say ‘Would you agree with that, is that how you see it?'” Lehrer said.
And retired CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer, also a previous presidential debate moderator, wrote in the Washington Post, “I believe the chief fact-checkers are the candidates. If one of them says something that is dead wrong or inconsistent with what he or she has said previously, the other candidate should have the first opportunity to call his or her opponent on it.”
But, he added, “If neither candidate catches the inaccuracy, then the moderator must step in, set the record straight and, if necessary, ask a question about it.”
On Face the Nation Sunday, Schieffer said, “If I was moderating the first debate, I think I’d be under the bed hoping they couldn’t find me.”