How to keep the debates (more) honest

Even without the happenings of the last few days — Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment and her compulsion to keep her health issues (and other things) secret — the presidential debates were set up to be a major moment in this campaign. Possibly the decisive moment.

The poor performance of Matt Lauer in the near-debate program he hosted puts more pressure on the moderators and panel to ask smart and pertinent questions and try to keep the candidates honest in their claims. Each has had an aversion to the truth-and-nothing-but in this campaign.

The issue has been — how do you do that without the moderators making themselves referees rather than moderators and making themselves the issue instead of the candidates?

I’m not sure there is a good way for them to moderate AND to keep the candidates honest and still look fair. But, here’s a thought:

Hold the debates as normal, with the candidates, we assume, trying to keep each other honest and then, toward the end of the program, have a segment including at least two of the nation’s most credible fact checkers? Then, to add more “entertainment-value” to it, and to be fair, come back to the candidates to respond to the fact-checkers.

A complicated format, maybe, but one that allows the moderator to keep the show on time and moving, but also a show that has truth at its core? Plus, in true TV ratings fashion (as if these debates need more than these candidates to get ratings) it adds two bits of drama: what the fact-checkers will say and what the candidates will respond when they get their chance.

There are credible and objective fact checkers these days. A sampling:

  • FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which calls itself a “nonpartisan, nonprofit, consumer advocate, for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.”
  • Politifact.com, a fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others who speak up in American politics. PolitiFact is run by editors and reporters from the Tampa Bay Times, an independent newspaper in Florida, as is PunditFact, a site devoted to fact-checking pundits. And which has won a Pulitzer Prize
  • Fact Checker of the Washington Post, written by Glenn Kessler, an award-winning journalist for three decades who has earned a respected reputation for checking facts uttered by politicians and elected officials.

Many of these checkers already have checked many of the “facts” these two candidates have put forward in this campaign, from Mrs. Clinton’s email saga to Donald Trump’s “opposition” to the Iraq war. The candidates will certainly introduce new “facts” to check in the debate but are sure to repeat ones they repeat all the time.

There may be, of course, those “facts” that can’t be checked quickly enough to report in real time but the checkers can say that they have other facts that need more time to be investigated and those will be checked and reported broadly.

Mostly, it would keep the candidates more honest on the statements they have been making, which was the major issue Lauer did not address while questioning Trump on national security. And, by having the candidates come back after The Check to respond, or not, the candidates get the last say. Lastly, then it won’t be the moderator or panel that, among its other jobs, has to keep all things honest and puts them in a position of appearing prejudiced, taking attention away from the “debate” itself.

I realize this is a bit complicated but it is a way to take some pressure off the moderators who will be trying to fact-check (or not, as one of them, Chris Wallace, has said is not his job) but still give the public a chance at getting at the truth.

Former deputy White House press secretary (Reagan and Bush 41) and former head of communications at Republican Natl Committee. My blog: bjaycooper.com.

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