How Did Debate Moderator Lester Holt Do During the First 2016 Presidential Debate?

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September 26, 2016
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October 5, 2016

I had to giggle.  The first 2016 Presidential debate format was going to include six 15-minute segments with the debate moderator, NBC’s Lester Holt to ask the lead-off question.  Each candidate having two minutes alternatively to state their case (with Hillary Clinton starting since she won the coin toss).  Then, (and this is what made me giggle…), they would have 11-12 minutes to debate each other.

Really?  That’s the format for two contentious candidates who are primed to rip into each other?  Good luck with that, Lester.  You just set yourself up for a free-for-all.

The format really went like this:

  • Moderator asked the question
  • Candidate A answered the question for two minutes (or so)
  • Candidate B answered the question for two minutes (or so)
  • Candidate A rebutted the question for an undetermined time (I’m thinking there was some clock running….but I wasn’t able to see it) with candidates interrupting each other
  • Moderator might cut off Candidate A off to redirect to Candidate B or ask a follow-up question.
  • And the cycle continued….with each candidate emphasizing that they needed to follow up
  • Every once in a while, the moderator might get in a follow-up question
  • When the time allotted for each segment went over time, the moderator had to move it along

TVLine Poll

So how did Lester do?

According to most news reports, Lester Holt did a “fine job” and even a “great job”.  But I just took a rather random poll on TVLine, where the results were not great at all!

In my opinion as a professional moderator, I think he did a decent job playing the cool substitute teacher with such a loose format.  But what was desperately needed was a strong, firm referee.  Specifically, I think he fell down on the job in a few areas:

  1. TimeKeeper.  I am sure there was some method to the madness, but I didn’t know what it was, nor how the candidates would know when they were going over time.  But here is what I DO know: Both candidates went over time consistently and did not immediately wrap up their comments. KNOWING that this was going to be an issue, I would have had an escalation strategy that both candidates would know about even before the debate started.  For example, after the first couple of times this happened, I would have reminded the candidates of the ground rule and the consequences of them going over.  For example, the moderator will forcefully remind them of the time.  (Poor Lester was way too considerate and nice – you gotta be strong and firm).  And then if that doesn’t work, we will turn your microphone off if you go over 5 seconds.  And then stick to it. As far as I can tell, there weren’t any consequences to blowing off the moderator and as a result, the debate ran ten minutes over.  Not cool.
  2. Order.  The moderator sets the format and then holds the candidates accountable to follow the process as outlined.  It is inconceivable to me that he allowed both candidates to interrupt his lead-off question, the follow-up questions AND each other!  It’s rude behavior and the moderator should have called them on it.  There should have been a more structured (and typical) debate format where the rules are known by all and strongly enforced.
  3. Answer the Question.  This one bugs me to no end.  When a candidate doesn’t directly answer the question, the moderator should intervene and reiterate the question. This was punctuated toward the end when he gave the candidates two minutes each for answers on international affairs, both went rogue.
  4. Applause.  At the beginning of the debate, the moderator appealed to the audience to save the applause for the end of the debate.  All was going well until the last 15 minutes….and once the audience audibly chuckled, the shackles were off.  He should have immediately appealed to the audience by complimenting them on their restraint so far and directing them to hold it all together until the end of the debate.
  5. Fact-Checker.  I don’t think it’s the moderator’s job to pass judgment on the candidates (see yesterday’s blog).  For the most part, he stayed out of the fray, letting the candidates challenge the assertions and relying on the media to do the fact-checking post mortem.  Yet he just couldn’t help himself when the discussion moseyed over to whether the “stop and frisk” policy was constitutional and whether or not he supported the Iraqi War. Aargh….that’s NOT your job!
  6. Question Bias.  This is the one I feel least qualified to comment on as I have my own personal biases and frame of reference.  Yet I wonder about the questions.  Why some and not others?  For example, why bother with the birther question?  Aren’t there are much more important questions to ask in the big scheme of things?

In summary, the moderator should have created a more structured format and stood firmly in following the process.  Then he might have been able to corral the conversation into a more constructive coverage of the issues…and I wouldn’t be compelled to giggle.  After all, it IS a Presidential debate!  We’ll see how the next debate shapes up.  Stay tuned!

For quick tips and techniques from industry professionals to help you moderate a lively and informative panel discussion at your next meeting, conference or convention, visit the Powerful Panels YouTube playlist, “Powerful Panel Discussion Tips.”

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Kristin Arnold, professional panel moderator, and high stakes meeting facilitator shares her best practices for interactive, interesting, and engaging panel presentations. For more resources like this, or to have Kristin moderate your next panel visit the Powerful Panels official website.


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Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.
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