With just hours left until the first debate, representatives of Donald Trump have, predictably, continued to push back against requests from some journalists and the Clinton camp for live fact-checking during tonight’s presidential debate. Less predictable has been the resistance from the networks airing the debates and former debate moderators, both of whom echo Trump’s line that the responsibility of ensuring the accuracy of each candidate’s claims should primarily fall to their opponent.
The Trump camp and their supporters argue, generally, that any sort of correction by moderator Lester Holt would serve as a boost for Clinton. “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,” Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, said Sunday on ABC’s This Week. This morning, Conway repeated herself on The Today Show, saying the push for fact-checking was an attempt by Clinton to “game the refs.” Last week, Trump himself said that the candidates should “argue it out” instead of Holt interfering.
Newt Gingrich, who serves as an adviser to Trump, said Clinton’s insistence on moderators working to deliver a factual debate makes her look “weak” and “afraid of Trump.” Another Trump spokesperson took it even farther Sunday night on MSNBC, saying Holt shouldn’t refute even the most outrageous of lies from Trump.
MSNBC rn on moderators factchecking: "What if Trump says Hillary was president during 9/11?"
Trump spox: "That's for Hillary to refute."
— Ashley Feinberg (@ashleyfeinberg) September 25, 2016
And conservative journalists seem to believe the act of journalists checking facts is in some way innately political or biased.
"Fact checking" is opinion journalism pretending to some sort of heightened objectivity. Very bad for journalism. https://t.co/LqojbRrN8Z
— James Taranto (@jamestaranto) September 25, 2016
I agree with this entirely, and disagree with most of James' Trump related tweets. https://t.co/Lc65jSZQeT
— Jonah Goldberg (@JonahDispatch) September 25, 2016
Why would Trump’s team want to avoid strenuous fact-checking? Well, because he lies constantly. A recent Politico investigation found he made 87 “erroneous statements” over just five days last week. By comparison, Hillary Clinton made eight “erroneous statements” over the same time period. A similar examination of Trump from The Washington Post found that he has “revealed himself to be a candidate who at times seems uniquely undeterred by facts” and who relies “heavily on thinly sourced or entirely unsubstantiated claims”; another study by The New York Times over the same time period focused on 31 of his “biggest whoppers,” while excluding dozens of other falsehoods.
Less obvious are the reasons moderators and network execs have for avoiding live, on-air fact-checking. Janet Brown, the head of the Commission on Presidential Debates, told CNN’s Brian Stelter that she basically agrees with Trump’s people. “What is a big fact, what is a little fact?” she said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopedia Britannica.”
Jim Lehrer, who has moderated 12 presidential debates, told CNN he believes it’s the moderators job to “keep the flow going.”
He elaborated in an interview with Politico. “Usually the way you do that with simply the candidate there, you say ‘would you agree with that, is that how you see it?’” he said. “In debates I tried to not do that [fact check] because I didn’t want to get in the way.”
Ultimately, the decision to challenge the candidate’s claims will be Holt’s, but it might not matter. Even with the heightened attention to his”erroneous statements” over the past week, Trump’s strategy of–or compulsion for–misleading voters with absurd claims is working out just fine for him.