Roles of a Debate Moderator
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“#LaueringTheBar” was trending on Twitter after the disastrous forum held by Debate Moderator Matt Lauer during the live prime time forum involving Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on Sept 7, 2016. Lauer received numerous criticisms for not taking the chance to correct Trump’s lies, while challenging Clinton with tougher questions about her leaked emails. The role of a debate moderator is not limited to keeping participants from going off topic and reminding them of the time limit. Asking candidates questions with similar difficulty as well as challenging their statements to make sure they don’t benefit from presenting false facts to the voters is also important for a fair debate, especially now when the debates matter the most for deciding America’s next president.
During the interview, Lauer failed to point out Trump’s numerous false claims during the forum. Trump said he was against the war in Iraq from the beginning, but according to Politifact, Trump actually told Howard Stern in a phone call he supported the war in 2002. Lauer did not point the lie out even when Hillary mentioned about Trump’s phone call with Howard Stern in the previous interview and allowed Trump to lie to the American voters on television. He was unsuccessful in running a fair forum and condoned Trump’s behavior. According to PEW Research Centre, live cable news is seen as the most helpful source for American voters, with 24 percent of American voters seeing live debates and forums as the most reliable information source. Therefore, making sure the candidates are honest with their facts is crucial for providing accurate information to help voters make the correct choice and vote for the candidate truly demonstrating the attributes the voters value.
Furthermore, Lauer used a third of the time to question Clinton about her email scandal, but asked Trump open-ended questions he was usually able to evade. Lauer repeatedly pressed Clinton about her leaked confidential emails, leaving little time for other major topics, such as domestic terror attacks, veteran treatment and ISIS. However, he gave Trump a “free pass” and did not press on him the same way he did to Clinton. He started with asking Trump why he was qualified for commander in chief, and other relatively open-ended questions. In addition, when Trump said he was going to form a court system in the military, Lauer did not grab the chance to point out that there already was a court system in the military. When a candidate gets to answer easier questions while another candidate gets challenged and interrupted constantly over the debate, the candidate without the challenging queries gets an unfair advantage. Since voters may view the candidate answering the softball questions as the participant with a better performance, an unfair forum may impact their final decision. Lauer did not challenge the two candidates the same way and therefore fails to carry out his job professionally.
The role of a debate moderator is to fact check their candidates to prevent false information from being perceived as truth. Lauer is an example of debate moderator condoning blatant lies told in debates. Journalists are chosen to be debate moderators because they are most aware of what is true and what is not. They should be well-prepared and quick to point out their false claims. Chris Wallace, a presidential debate moderator for the upcoming third debate in October, said that he will not be in the “truth squad” because he believes that it is not his job to fact check candidates during a debate. But without debate moderators fact checking on the validity of their statements, the audience may be deceived into believing in their false claims when they rely heavily on live debates and forums for information. What is journalism, if not a “truth squad”? Debate moderators should also ask candidates equally challenging questions to further help present the truth to the audience. They should not ask one candidate hard, grilling questions while asking another candidate questions that could be easily evaded. This may mislead the public voters into thinking one candidate performed better, just because the candidate was able to give vague, evading answers to an open-ended question while the other was pressed to explain about his or her wrongful mistakes or controversial policies.