As a syndicated newspaper columnist, a Clinton supporter, and one who teaches journalism to high school students, I was taken aback by reaction to – and pigeonholing of – my criticism of moderator Lester Holt in the first presidential debate.
I concluded that Hillary Clinton bested Donald Trump but Holt stumbled as questioner. That these points were widely viewed in the days that followed as mutually exclusive elevates my concerns about polarization in politics and media.
My analysis showed that Holt asked a total of 14 questions (plus a few interjections and short follow-ups). Of those, seven were generic, policy-based inquiries, asked of both candidates. Six were specifically directed at Trump, regarding things he has said and done. Only one such personal question – and a gentle one at that – was asked of Clinton.
Evaluated strictly as journalism, that’s clearly unfair.
Yet, pundits favoring Clinton could not bring themselves to fault Holt, seeming to fear that any criticism of the moderator would disrupt the narrative that Clinton did a superior job. Those backing Trump, on the other hand, soon seized on Holt’s questions as the be all and end all for Trump’s lackluster performance.
By mid-week there were conspiracy theories about a “rigged” debate. Some at the fringe right suggested that Clinton was signaling Holt about when to challenge Trump. Newt Gingrich cited “rumors” that Clinton obtained the questions in advance. That’s utter nonsense – if for no other reason than she received only straightforward, generic questions that she’s been addressing for months.
As I noted, Holt had to make several key structural decisions. Would the questions be generic and policy based? (How to create jobs, how to combat cyber attacks, etc.) Or, would they follow more of an interview style? (Why won’t you release your tax returns?)
The challenge for Holt was that Donald Trump’s unprincipled and often distorted rhetoric over the course of the campaign practically screamed out for journalistic intervention. So Holt crafted his six personal shots – from Trump’s tax returns, to his “birther” claims, all the way to his bizarre assertion that Clinton lacks the presidential “look.”
Deftly, Holt slipped these questions into discussion of broader topics, making them seem more spontaneous. The generic tax question, for example, took Holt to Trump’s personal returns. The generic “racial healing” question led to the birther query.
Trump’s supporters have reason to ask why no such interview questions were put to Clinton – about Benghazi, about the Clinton Foundation, or about her “basket of deplorables” remark, to name but a few. The lone personal question asked of her by Holt was a softball, based on something she said recently: “Do you believe that police are implicitly biased against black people?”
How the respected anchorman managed to fumble as he did is not particularly mysterious. Following sharp criticism of his NBC colleague Matt Lauer in the so-called “Commander-in-Chief” one-on-one, where Lauer challenged Clinton repeatedly while allowing Trump to get away with distortions, Holt was determined to be different.
Following the debate, Margret Sullivan of The Washington Post, herself a journalism teacher and media critic, gave Holt a “B-minus.” But her primary criticism was that Holt should have been more “hands on,” which really doesn’t get to the nub of his journalistic failure.
Had Holt struck to generic policy questions – leaving the candidates to make personal attacks if they thought it wise – the result would have been a more informative debate. Holt still could have made appropriate interruptions when facts were in dispute.
This has been the most divisive and troubling presidential campaign in memory, so perhaps a split vote regarding the moderator should be no surprise.
I don’t think Lester Holt demonstrated bias, I believe he succumbed to pressure from his peers. I don’t think his performance significantly affected the outcome, but it was a distraction.
Is that so hard to see? Or is it just too inconvenient to accept?
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker. He can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com.