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."
Robert Schmuhl, the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Chair in American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame, suggests that fact checking is not a moderator's role. It is fair ground for the moderator to push candidate to "repeat or clarify" facts. "Preparation of the questions is crucial," he added.
NBC has suffered short-term damage to its brand, but University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller suggested the network does not face a political blacklist because of the recent gaffes. "No one is going to shut them out," Miller said. "Maybe a network like CNBC that has not been in the moderating game as much may face a risk that they could be excluded."
Do the Debates Matter?
The debates are "entirely too staged and inconsequential anyway," Miller said. Even in the case of the famed Nixon-Kennedy debate and Al Gore's eye rolls and audible sighs, Miller suggested, "decades of people in my field polling" show little proven impact from the televised sparring matches.
Voter turnout is more important than the debates and their alternating rounds of self promotion in terms of the swing votes, he said.
While the debates may or may not drive voters to the ballot box, they will provide fodder for social media, which does not share Holt's concerns for judicious propriety.
On the 56th anniversary of the Kennedy-Nixon debate televised from CBS's Chicago studios, Facebook (FB) is the official social media sponsor. Snapchat will track the debates with its "live story" features and Twitter (TWTR) will livestream the event in partnership with Bloomberg.The MIT Media Lab is sifting through a database of tweets, digital media and other sources to map the burning issues in a deeply polarized electorate.
"There is no doubt that given the role of technology in atomizing audiences, it is time for a significant review of the debates and a consideration about alternative ways of going about the work," Harvard's Mele wrote. The question is whether Clinton versus Trump is really the best time to rewire the debates. "With the two most unpopular candidates in history, it is clear we need to evaluate the entire political process -- from voting on Tuesday to voter registration to the primary [and] caucus system," Mele added.
Tonight's debate will do little to shift the balance of power between the broadcasters and social media. The party with the most directly at stake could be Lester Holt, who is still building his personal brand after taking over for NBC anchor Brian Williams after yet another scandal. Fixing the debates is one thing. Holt can burnish his image by avoiding the mistakes of his predecessors.