#MFDebates: The First Debate Breakdown

MediaFile staff and readers will be tweeting with #MFDebates for each of the four major debates.

Monday night, 9:00 PM Eastern: All eyes will be watching the first presidential debate of the 2016 cycle, and it has widely been considered a make-or-break moment for the Trump and Clinton camps.

Lester Holt, who anchors NBC Nightly News, will be moderating one of the most highly anticipated television events of year. According to CNN, “Television executives and campaign aides privately think that the total viewer number released by Nielsen will land somewhere between 80 and 100 million viewers.” If estimates are correct, tonight’s debate may become the most watched presidential debate in US history, surpassing the 81 million viewers that tuned into the Ronald Reagan-Jimmy Carter debate in 1980.

The 90-minute debate has yet to start, but it’s already been the catalyst for many headlines. Last Monday, Trump appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor” and claimed that Holt was a Democrat, adding, “I mean, they are all Democrats. Okay? It’s a very unfair system.” Turns out, Holt is a registered Republican in New York, and has been since 2003.

Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post, said that Trump’s comments about Holt were “pure ma­nipu­la­tion, a form of either lowering expectations so that a loss might look like a win, or a way to try to influence how tough the moderators will be.”

Preceding these comments, Trump said that he has “respect” for Holt and called him “a professional” in the same interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. Chris Cillizza of the Post annotated the interview transcript and highlighted Trump’s words of praise:

“Put a pin here,” Cillizza wrote. “If Trump is judged to have not done all that [w]ell in the first debate, you can be certain he will savage Holt as having given in to liberal intimidation or some such.”

Since Matt Lauer’s widely-criticized moderation performance at NBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum earlier this month, the “role of the moderator” has always been a hot topic of debate about the debates themselves. Should the moderators fact-check on-the-spot, or should they simply let the discourse happen for the American public to see?

The Commission on Presidential Debates has taken a “noninterventionist” approach to this issue. In an interview with the New York Times, co-chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. said a moderator’s duty was “to be a facilitator — to raise the issues and draw out the candidates and hopefully get them to interact themselves.”

In response, Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg said that the debates are simply “going to require the debate moderators to interject with the truth when either candidate makes an obviously false statement.” Without it, the Commission would be “failing its own mission.”

Former “Face the Nation” host and three-time presidential debate moderator Bob Schieffer weighed in on the moderator’s role, saying that the first line of fact-checking should be those on the stage:

“If one candidate makes a mistake, you want to give the other person a chance to call him out on that,” Schieffer said. “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.”

Chris Wallace, anchor of “Fox News Sunday” and the host of the final presidential debate, has differed from Scheiffer, saying that it’s not his job to be “a truth squad” in an interview with Howard Kurtz:

“I view it as kind of being a referee in a heavyweight championship fight. If it succeeds, when it’s over people will say ‘you did a great job I don’t even remember you on the stage,’” he told Kurtz. “I suspect I’m not going to have any problem getting them to engage each other.”

This view prompted even more media debate: Snapchat’s Head of News Peter Hamby tweeted, “No actually that is your job,” and Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post wrote that while it’s understandable that moderators don’t want to be too involved in the debate itself, “By not adjudicating, the moderator leaves the viewing public with a ‘he said, she said’ situation when the journalist picked to be onstage could say, decisively, who is right.”

Despite all the discourse, debate night is almost here! Twitter will be prompting the conversation through its official hashtags, #Debates and #Debates2016, while MediaFile staff and readers will be tweeting along with #MFDebates – during tonight’s debate and throughout the debate season. Join us then!

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