National Press Club

Kalb Report: What to do about the whoppers?

December 6, 2016 | By Gil Klein | gilbert.klein@me.com

Marvin Kalb (center) hosts (left to right) Mike McCurry, Frank Fahrenkopf, Martha Raddatz and Chris Wallace for a discussion about moderating the presidential debates at a Dec. 5 taping of The Kalb Report at the National Press Club.

Marvin Kalb (center) hosts (left to right) Mike McCurry, Frank Fahrenkopf, Martha Raddatz and Chris Wallace for a discussion about moderating the presidential debates at a Dec. 5 taping of The Kalb Report at the National Press Club.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

In a presidential debate, what is the moderator’s responsibility to point out obvious lies spoken by the candidates?

That was the central question in Monday night’s The Kalb Report as moderators and organizers of the 2016 debates autopsied the last effort.

Joining host Marvin Kalb were two debate moderators – ABC’s Martha Raddatz and Fox News’ Chris Wallace – as well as Republican Frank Fahrenkopf and Democrat Mike McCurry, the co-chairmen of the U.S. Presidential Debate Commission.

“If you know that the candidate is saying something that is inaccurate, it is a lie, it is wrong,” Kalb asked, “is it your responsibility as a moderator to tell the American people what you just heard is wrong?”

Even though blatant lies gained currency in this election, both Raddatz and Wallace shied away from shouldering responsibility for pointing out falsehoods during a debate.

Asked Wallace, who moderated the third and final debate, once a moderator starts calling out lies, where does he stop?

“You have what you consider an outrageous whopper,” he said, “But how about that kind of medium whopper? I don’t want to sound like Burger King here, but at what level do I intervene and at what level do I not intervene? At a certain point, it stops being a debate between the two presidential candidates.”

Raddatz agreed.

“I don't think that's my responsibility to say what you just heard is wrong,” she said. “It’s not me debating Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. It is me trying to get answers from the candidates and let the other debate.”

A moderator can come back with follow up questions to probe more deeply into the candidate’s answer, she said, but the moderator can’t say, “You’re wrong about that.”

In preparing for the 2016 debates, Fahrenkopf said the Presidential Debate Commission explored the idea of fact checking in real time – even to the point of having a trailer at the bottom of the television screen saying, “Well, what they said was wrong or right.”

“Our view was that's not the job of the moderator,” he said. “The moderator’s job is to facilitate the discussion and get out of the way. If one of the candidates says something that's wrong, it’s a debate. The other candidate is supposed to be the one who corrects them.”

McCurry said his main problem with the debates was not what was asked, but what was not asked. The moderators have complete discretion over what questions they will pose in the time limit they have.

Global climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing the world, he said, but it never came in in this year’s debates or in the 2012 debates.

Wallace said there were several substantive topics he would have liked to raise, but many of them are hard to tackle in the short amount of time he has in a debate.

“I’m not sure climate change is the best 15-minute debate topic,” he said. “I think it either gets technical fast or it gets general fast. Talking about climate change is a little bit like grasping at clouds.”

Now in its 23rd season, The Kalb Report is a joint project of National Press Club’s Journalism Institute, the University of Maryland University College, the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. It is underwritten by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.