How Did Lester Holt Do?

Assessing Lester Holt's turn as debate moderator.

As presidential debate moderator Lester Holt spoke last night to the live audience ahead of the network broadcasts, he warned about the “awkward moments of silence that are going to happen as the networks begin their coverage.”

And in those moments of silence, in the debate hall and the press file rooms, it was at first, as promised, awkward, but as the initial minute or so of it passed, the quality of the silence changed, morphing into anticipation, but without specific expectation. How would Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump perform? How would Lester Holt? For those brief moments, regardless of earlier speculation, it was unknown. And then the debate began.

Most critics observed that Holt’s performance as moderator came in two parts–a part one where Holt quietly melted into his surroundings, and a part two in which he began to challenge some of the candidates’ assertions.

The New York Times’ Michael M. Grynbaum dubbed him the “minimalist moderator,” writing:

He was silent for minutes at a time, allowing Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump to joust and bicker between themselves — and sometimes talk right over him — prompting some viewers to wonder if Mr. Holt had left the building.

Grynbaum also noted Holt was more actively present as the debate continued:

Later, Mr. Holt became more assertive. He asked Mrs. Clinton about her use of a private email server. He pressed Mr. Trump about why the candidate had not released his tax returns, and later questioned his embrace of the so-called birther movement, which claimed that President Obama had been born outside the United States. “For five years, you perpetuated a false claim,” Mr. Holt told Mr. Trump bluntly.

At Politico, Hadas Gold noted the drawbacks to Holt’s “understated approach” which “sometimes led to the candidates, especially Trump, rolling over his questions, with Holt at one point admitting that they were far behind schedule.”

At the Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan decided to go with a letter grade, a B-, albeit “on a tough assignment.” In the beginning, she writes, “Holt seemed to almost disappear from view as the debate devolved briefly into a yelling match. He was so unobtrusive early on that observers joked on social media that they needed to put out an all-points bulletin for the NBC anchorman.”

Acknowledging that her view on a moderator’s role is to “make sure that the truth gets out — if not from the other candidate’s rebuttal, then by taking the reins himself,” Sullivan had this to say about Holt’s fact-checks:

Holt seemed to want to take a moderate stand on this, to assert the big truths while not calling undue attention to himself. He did that reasonably well.

He certainly passed the test of not making the debate about himself. Far from it, in fact. He was too weak, at times, to keep the debate under control.

And although his truth-squad efforts fell short, he didn’t have to do too much because Clinton was able to do it herself, quite effectively in most cases.

Over at CJR, David Uberti acknowledges up front:

Nothing Lester Holt did Monday night could have made every viewer happy; the role of debate moderator is a thankless one. But with a steady, if at times quiet, performance in front of tens of millions, the NBC anchor did a solid for a press chagrined again and again throughout this campaign.

But Uberti also noted that the major divide on Holt’s performance came not from “mainstream analysts,” but along mainstream vs. conservative media lines:

Media fragmentation has been among the primary storylines of 2016, and it was on full display during and immediately after the widely watched contest. Conservative criticisms of Holt might as well have been pre-written based on ideological priors, focusing mostly on what he didn’t ask about, including the attack on an American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.

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