Debating the Debate Fact-Check

Or, what's the role of a moderator?

To fact-check or not to fact-check? This has been a major point of debate about the upcoming debate and Lester Holt‘s role as moderator.

In an interview on Reliable Sources Sunday, Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, came out decidedly against the moderator fact-checking a debate, telling Brian Stelter that while it is ultimately up to Holt to decide what he wants to do, “in our history, the moderators have found it appropriate to allow the candidates to be the ones that talk about the accuracy or the fairness of what the other candidate or candidates might have said.”

She continued, “I think, personally, if you start getting into the fact-check, I’m not sure what is the big fact, what’s a little fact? And if you and I have different sources of information, does your source about the unemployment rate agree with my source?”

But there’s a unique problem in the particular context of this debate.

As has been repeated ad nauseum during this cycle, this is not an ordinary election, and Donald Trump is not an ordinary candidate. Just this weekend, three different media outlets examined the extraordinary and unparalleled ways in which Donald Trump lies in non-ordinary candidate fashion.

The New York Times looked at a week’s worth of Trump-telling, listing 31 of his falsehoods—not the sum total for the week, as The Times left out “dozens more: untruths that appeared to be mere hyperbole or humor, or delivered purely for effect, or what could generously be called rounding errors.”

And if you’re into always looking at both sides, Politico did that, and discovered during five days of fact-checking both Clinton and Trump’s claims that “Trump’s mishandling of facts and propensity for exaggeration so greatly exceed Clinton’s as to make the comparison almost ludicrous.”

If you need that in numeric terms, it’s “one falsehood every three minutes and 15 seconds over nearly five hours of remarks. In raw numbers, that’s 87 erroneous statements in five days.” For Clinton it was “one falsehood every 12 minutes. In raw numbers, Clinton made eight erroneous statements in five days.”

But here’s the other problem with calling on the candidates to fact-check each other. Clinton coming back at Trump with a correction to something he says does not guarantee that she will be believed, even if correct. It creates a he said/she said, who can say who’s really correct type of construction.

But there is someone who can say: the moderator.

The debate moderate is often analogized to a referee. A ref is not a mere timekeeper, but an arbiter who can decide whether or not a play is fair. Fair is establishing what is true, unless you believe truth is beside the point in this debate.