Yesterday, amidst Donald Trump’s latest flurry of lies — and we’ll get to them shortly — he discussed the upcoming debates with Hillary Clinton and made some revealing remarks: “I think, maybe, we should have no moderator …. I think the system is being rigged, so it’s going to be a very unfair debate. And I can seen it happening right now. Everyone’s saying that [Matt Lauer] was soft on Trump. Well, now the new person’s going to try and be really hard on Trump …. So, I think it’s very unfair what they’re doing.”
See these two fingers I’m rubbing together? That’s the world’s smallest violin, playing a pity ditty just for him.
As we saw during last week’s pathetic foreign policy forum, Lauer allowed Trump to stomp unchecked through his thicket of lies — so naturally Trump thinks it would be “unfair” for the debate moderators to fact-check him in real time. Clearly he fears being held accountable, but our most shameless serial fabricator deserves nothing less.
I bring this up because there’s been a dustup in recent days about how the debate moderators should comport themselves. Even before Lauer made himself Trump’s doormat, Fox News host Chris Wallace, who’s slated to host the third debate, said publicly that if Trump or Clinton slings the bull, he won’t try to correct them: “I do not believe it’s my job to be a truth squad.” Indeed, that has been the traditional approach; with one glaring exception in 2012, moderators have limited themselves to guiding the discourse and watching the time clock. More traffic cop than fact cop.
But Lauer’s performance was a reminder (as if another was necessary) that Trump is a wholly new species of political beast, a veritable disinformation machine, and it would be journalistic malpractice if the moderators behave like potted plants while he spews. Trump has profoundly changed the game, and the debate moderators have no choice but to play by new, improved rules.
The job of a journalist is to help viewers delienate the difference between fact and fiction; if Trump (or, to a markedly lesser extent, Clinton) insists on lying, he should not be allowed to skate. If he says, yet again, that he was totally opposed to the Iraq war before it was launched, he should be corrected. If he says — as he did yesterday on CNBC — that he doesn’t invest in the stock market, he should be corrected.
Yeah, that was a beaut yesterday. During a free-form ramble about the economy, he resurrected his racist smear of Elizabeth Warren (“Pocahontas”), he suggested that “the new guy” who takes over as president will make the decision to raise interest rates (um, that’s the job of the independent Federal Reserve, not the president), and he disparaged the stock market as “a false market” — so false, he said, that “I don’t even invest in the stock market.”
Naturally, his CNBC host didn’t fact-check that latter statement, which was yet another lie. Truth is, he has roughly $10 million invested in the stock market. These are the routine cons that the debate moderators should be vigilant about. (Few people even noticed the stuff Trump uttered yesterday, because apparently the 24/7 cycle only has room for pneumonia.)
The Trumpkins and their friends in Trollville undoubtedly believe that fact-checking would be “biased” and “unfair” (because how dare anyone question their alternative reality). And if Lester Holt, the first debate moderator on Sept. 26, tries to act like a responsible journalist, there will indeed be repercussions. That’s what happened in 2012, when debate moderator Candy Crowley, the veteran CNN newswoman, decided on the spot that she couldn’t let Mitt Romney repeat a favorite Republican lie.
Romney stated during the debate that it took President Obama 14 days to call Benghazi “an act of terror” — whereas, in reality, Obama said one day after Benghazi that “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation …. Today we mourn four more Americans …” So when Romney made his remark, Crowley jumped in: “He did in fact, sir. He did call it an act of terror.”
You may recall what happened after that. Crowley was roasted in the conservative media, and former GOP chairman Frank Fahrenkopf — who at the time co-chaired the Commission on Presidential Debates — said that choosing Crowley to host a debate had been a “mistake.” But Crowley’s punishment was mild compared to the hellfire that would greet any ’16 moderator who tries to tether Trump to factual reality.
But, at risk of stating the obvious, this is no ordinary election. This is a civic emergency. Trump and his post-fact fantasies are threatening this democracy in ways we’ve never witnessed, and one of the prime responsibilities of contemporary journalism — to call out BS — is being tested as never before. The only viable option is to pass the test. And it has to happen at the debates, when the whole world is watching.
Not that you were wondering: The violin metaphor in the second paragraph was a shout-out to Steve Buscemi in “Reservoir Dogs.”