A fact-checker’s advice for debate moderators

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump answered questions about national security at the Commander-in-Chief forum. (New York Times)
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump answered questions about national security at the Commander-in-Chief forum. (New York Times)

Editor's note: PolitiFact has been fact-checking presidential debates since 2008. Editor Angie Drobnic Holan wrote this column reflecting on that experience.

Do you yell at the TV when you see an interviewer letting a politician get away with spinning the truth? I know I do. But let’s admit the reality: Questioning candidates on live TV is harder than it looks. And moderating a presidential debate is probably the hardest.

Just look at the typical criticism of debate moderators. They ask dumb questions. They ask inside-baseball questions. The questions are too tough. The questions are too soft. They don’t follow up. They flog a pointless line of questioning.

This will be my third time fact-checking presidential debates, and while criticizing the moderators is common, I’ve seen a few things that make a difference between good moderating and lousy moderating.

Do the homework. A prepared moderator should know as much -- or even more -- about the topics raised as the candidates themselves. If a moderator doesn’t have thorough background knowledge, then it’s easy for candidates to do an end-run around the moderator's questions, by either talking around the topic or simply not addressing it. Only moderators who know all the details of what Donald Trump has said about the Iraq War can properly challenge him on his past positions. Only moderators fully versed in the nitty gritty of Hillary Clinton’s email practices can thoroughly question her about carelessness.

Martha Raddatz of ABC News, for example, won accolades for her deep foreign policy knowledge earlier this year when she moderated a Democratic primary debate, holding her own with Clinton and Bernie Sanders and pressing them for details on no-fly zones and foreign troops.

During other primary debates, some moderators gave me the impression that they either didn’t know the factual background of the questions they were asking, or were simply too overloaded with nerves to speak up with the relevant fact. Which leads us to ...

Don’t rely on your bad memory! One of the illusions of television is that experts and journalists have all facts and figures at their fingertips for every circumstance. This is simply at odds with reality. We all have bad memories, we forget the details, and we need to refresh ourselves about dates and places. That means moderators need to keep their notes at their fingertips, on paper or a tablet. CNN’s Jake Tapper appears to lay out all of his research on a desk in front of him while he’s asking questions.

Moderators who don’t keep research at hand are leaving themselves open to dodged questions and outright bluffing. Check out this exchange between Trump and moderator Becky Quick of CNBC from an October primary debate.

Quick: "You have talked a little bit about Marco Rubio. I think you called him (Facebook founder) Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator, because he was in favor of the H-1B visa."

Trump: "I never said that. I never said that."

Quick: "So this is an erroneous article the whole way around? … My apologies, I'm sorry."

Trump: "Somebody's really doing some bad fact-checking."

Actually, there was no need for Quick to apologize. She was right; Trump was wrong. Trump’s website has a line about Rubio being Zuckerberg’s personal senator. It’s still there.

Fact-check the candidates by asking the tough follow-up. One of the major debates of this cycle has been whether moderators should fact-check the candidates. I think fact-checkers do the best job of fact-checking debates, because we specialize in fact-checking and we’re most familiar with the evidence that backs up the claims politicians typically make. At PolitiFact, we’re constantly looking for ways to get our fact-checks of debates to the public faster.

Having said that, I think moderators should fact-check the candidates, and they can fact-check them most effectively by asking tough follow-up questions.

The best moderators listen intently to the candidates’ answers to see if they’re answering the actual question. Moderators should listen for vagueness or cliches or falsehoods, and then ask sharp follow-up questions. If the candidates don’t answer the question, moderators can point that out and pose the question again in a tough way. Candidates who give non-answers should be pressed for details.

Too often, moderators look like they’re already thinking about the next question when the candidates are speaking. They need to concentrate instead on the substance of the answers.

Clinton, an experienced debater, is adept at pivoting away from a  question to a general statement of principles. It can sound like she’s answered the question when she hasn’t. A prepared moderator follows up and steers her back to the actual question.

Allow enough time for follow-ups. My biggest complaint with live TV interviews and debates is that journalists try to cover too many topics. To get substantive answers, it’s far better to drill down on a smaller number of topics rather than trying to tackle everything at once. I suspect the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates -- the body that oversees and coordinates the three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate -- agrees, because the formats of the fall debates encourage depth.

The first debate, for example, is 90 minutes separated into six 15-minute segments, with no commercials. "The moderator will open each segment with a question, after which each candidate will have two minutes to respond," the commission says. "Candidates will then have an opportunity to respond to each other. The moderator will use the balance of the time in the segment for a deeper discussion of the topic." (The third debate has the same format.) I hope the moderators select more specific topics that allow them to really drill down into details, so we can get a sense of each candidate’s plans and what they might do if things don’t work out the way they would like.

Announced topics for the first debate are "America's Direction," "Achieving Prosperity" and "Securing America." Those strike me as overly broad, but perhaps the questions asked will be more pointed.

Get ideas for questions from people outside the media, Washington or politics. At the beginning of the presidential debates, the moderators make a point of saying they came up with their own questions and only they know what they are. For the benefit of all of us, I hope they look for ideas and get help from their moms and dads, Aunt Mabel, an old college friend, their hair stylist or the office janitor. People who aren’t steeped in politics have a way of posing questions that cut through the jargon and assumptions that Beltway journalists use. Regular people ask about everyday issues.

The second presidential debate will be a town hall format, with uncommitted voters selected by the Gallup Organization. Sure, sometimes the questions from the general public are poorly phrased or too open-ended, but they address actual voter concerns. They’re usually not posed in the aggressive manner most journalists use, but the voter stands up and asks candidates the question directly and personally.  Real voters can disarm politicians and nudge them toward candor.

Let the politicians actually debate. Finally, having talked so much about the moderators, it’s also true that the candidates themselves are the most vigorous fact-checkers of each other. Good moderators go quiet when the candidates are mixing it up over issues of substance. In 2004, for example, John Kerry forcefully challenged then-President George W. Bush to account for the invasion of Iraq when there had been no weapons of mass destruction. In the first debate of 2012, Mitt Romney ably highlighted President Barack Obama’s aloofness and arrogance. Both Kerry and Romney went on to lose the elections, but the debates revealed to the public important aspects about the incumbents.

The debates between Clinton and Trump will be between the most different set of candidates in modern American history. Clinton is lawyerly, precise and steeped in public policy. Trump places more importance on his personal style than policy knowledge. I can’t remember a debate that promised more of a contrast between the candidates in both tone and substance.

When these candidates come together, who in America won’t be watching?