Moderate Debates

On Monday, Donald Trump claimed that presidential debate moderator, NBC News anchor Lester Holt, is a “Democrat.” Trump went on, claiming that the entire system is rigged: “It’s a phony system. They are all Democrats. It’s a very unfair system.” Since Holt is a Democrat, Trump argued, Holt is unable to be an objective and fair debate moderator.

He’s not. Holt is a registered Republican.

Earlier this month, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, the moderator for the third presidential debate, explained that he does not believe it is his role as the moderator to fact-check the candidates. Mr. Trump apparently appreciated this stance and immediately lauded Wallace, saying “Chris Wallace is a professional. He’s very, very good at what he does.”

But Chris Wallace is a registered Democrat.

A reporter’s ability to be objective isn’t based on their registered political party, just as the average citizen’s ability to understand the facts isn’t predicated on what party they belong to. A Republican can see nonsense for what it is, just as a Democrat has a fully-functioning B.S. detector.

Some have said that alleging moderator bias isn’t new — it’s a “time-honored tradition,” and “part of the game,” a technique for moving the goalposts for a debate and setting expectations right where a candidate wants them. I disagree. Mr. Trump’s attacks on the moderators represent an attempt to undermine one of the key pillars of the nation’s political process: the debate. For our modern system to work, all Americans must have the opportunity to watch major party candidates on the stage at the same time, listen to their policy perspectives, and decide for themselves for whom they will vote.

Debates are not hockey fights.

That’s why my organization, the National Institute for Civil Discourse released a set of Debate Standards that, if adopted, will ensure that the debates are fair, informative, and civil. We, and more than 100 supporting organizations, including the AARP, believe that the presidential debate is a sacrosanct tradition that plays an important role in ensuring America has a functioning democracy. The Debate Standards preserve and protect this tradition. We’ve urged the moderators, candidates and public to adopt the debate standards in advance of next week’s first debate, and hope citizens across the country will join us.

We expect audience members to be civil and respect the others in the audience. Interrupting the candidates is disrespectful, and attacking someone for their views on social media is unacceptable. This debate isn’t held for an audience of one — it is, in fact, the only opportunity most voters will have to see the two candidates together.

Debates are not boxing matches.

We expect the candidates to maintain decorum and debate the issues with civility. The debate cannot devolve into a shouting match, where one side seeks to browbeat the other. America has a long history of civil presidential debates, and it would be a shame for 2016 to be the year where incivility won the day.

Finally, we expect the moderators, including Lester Holt and Chris Wallace, to enforce the debate rules equally and hold candidates accountable by challenging each candidate to speak the truth and act with integrity.

Because if the facts don’t matter, then neither do the debates.