Should the Moderator Fact-check the Political Debate Candidates?

The Illustrated Panel Discussion Format
September 7, 2016
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September 27, 2016

I took last week off for a little overdue R&R – only to come back to the most influential and controversial Presidential debate in modern history!  I’ll be watching tonight…as will hundreds of thousands of people.

In the meantime, I thought I would weigh in on the moderator controversy:

Should the moderator fact-check the candidates?

I say no.  It’s not the moderator’s role during a panel discussion or debate to inject an opinion and question the panelist on the veracity of an assertion.  This can go horribly wrong.

For example, during the Obama/Romney debate, moderator Candy Crowley not only challenged an assertion made by Romney, agreeing with Obama, but got her facts wrong in the meantime!

Mediaite reported, “Following the debate, Crowley appeared on her network where she shrugged and half-heartedly admitted that Romney was correct.”  Yet the damage is done.  Her comment skewed the conversation, created misleading perceptions and made the moderator (and the media) look rather dubious.

Let’s look at how this debacle happened:

“Obama said he had called the [Benghazi] attack an “act of terror” during remarks the next day in the Rose Garden, and Crowley agreed with him. Suddenly, Romney found himself debating two people, Obama and Crowley, who had no business correcting either candidate.

Romney looked surprised and asked Obama:

‘You said in the Rose Garden, the day after the attack it was an act of terror? It was not a spontaneous demonstration? Is that what you’re saying? I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.’

Obama replied, ‘Get the transcript.’

Crowley then interrupted, telling Romney: ‘He did in fact, sir. So let me — let me call it an act of terror …’

Obama immediately recognized that he had an ally and spoke up loudly: ‘Can you say that a little louder, Candy?'”

While I strongly believe the moderator is to be the champion for the audience, if there is a suspicious assertion made, let the panelists duke it out.  If that doesn’t seem to work, the moderator should probe deeper.  In this case, Crowley should not have “agreed with him” in the first place.  That, in and of itself, shows bias.

But let’s assume she didn’t say anything.  In this case, we have two different ideas of what happened.  Crowley could have intervened and said, “Obviously, we have a disagreement here. Was it in the Rose Garden the day after the attack or 14 days later?”  And then ask each candidate to elaborate on their position – and then let the public decide which is actually “the truth.”

Bob Schieffer, the former CBS News anchor who has moderated three presidential debates, weighed in by saying: “I’ve thought about this over the years, after doing these things — the first fact-checkers have to be the candidates themselves. If one candidate makes a mistake, you want to give the other person a chance to call him out on that. If he or she doesn’t, then the moderator steps in and sets the record straight. But if you don’t give the candidates themselves that opportunity, you’re being unfair to both of them.”

It’s up to the debate moderator, Lester Holt to do the right thing.  Good news is that according to NPR, the co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Republican Frank Fahrenkopf says “if ‘Candidate A’ says something that is wrong or inconsistent with what they’ve done or said in the past, ‘it’s not the moderators job to say, ‘hey, Candidate A, that’s not what you said last week.’ That’s for Candidate B to do.'”

Schieffer summed it up nicely at a panel discussion at the University of Notre Dame by saying, “The role of the moderator is to be the referee, it’s not to be a judge…[giving] a fuller understanding of what these people think on various subjects.”

Amen to that.  Stay tuned.  I’ll have more to say about tonight’s debate!

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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