When Lester Holt steps to the moderator's table tonight, the NBC Nightly News anchor will try to save Comcast's (CMCSA) Peacock Network from an embarrassing 0-for-3 this campaign cycle.
Last October, a CNBC panel of Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick and John Harwood took criticism for how it presided over a free-for-all Republican primary debate. Critics have also blasted Matt Lauer's candidates forum in September, in which he seized on questions about Hillary Clinton's email scandals but gave Donald Trump a pass on his incorrect claims to have initially opposed the war in Iraq.
While Holt tries to burnish NBC's reputation, Nicco Mele, Director of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government's Shorentsein Center on Media and a former deputy publisher of the Los Angeles Times, suggests larger issues are at stake for NBC and for future moderators from Disney's (DIS) ABC, Time Warner's (TWX) CNN and Fox's (FOXA) Fox News .
Gallup found that just 32% of Americans trust the media to "report the news fully, accurately and fairly" in mid-September, Mele notes, the lowest mark since the group started the poll in 1972. A mere 14% of Republicans expressed faith in the media, a nearly 20% decline from a year ago.
"[Over] the last eight years trust in the media had maintained a relatively steady level, around 40%-to-45% -- so a drop to 32% this year is significant," Mele wrote in an email. "I think not just NBC but the media as a whole needs to consider their role in this election cycle with the cold, clear eye normally reserved for outsiders."
Lester Holt, Fact-Checking and NBC
As Holt readies for tonight, the candidates are already providing him with stage direction.
Campaign Clinton is pushing Holt to fact check Trump's assertions. Meanwhile, Trump urged the moderator to pull a "Candy Crowley," referring to the CNN moderator who sided with President Obama in a debate dispute with Mitt Romney; Crowley later revised her position that Obama quickly called attacks in Benghazi, Lybia, to be acts of terrorism.
Of course, Clinton and Trump will call each other out on alleged falsehoods. Holt will have to mind the gap between checking facts and overstepping the bound of even-handedness, if he wants to hold the candidates accountable.
"If either of the campaigns think they might come out of the debate as being the loser, they are going to want to point fingers," said Mark Johnson of the University of Kansas School of Law. Both of them "have pretty tough questions to answer," Johnson added, and "they should be made to answer the same question 2, 3, 4 times until you get the answer."
Trump's failure to disclose tax returns is an obvious place to start. A tougher call for Holt is whether to touch on Clinton's use of private email servers, given Lauer's repeated questioning.
"My guess is he may not want to ask that question because Lauer was so criticized for asking that question as many times as he did," Johnson said. "My guess is Holt may just let that one go."