Debate moderator Lester Holt came into Monday night as a news anchor with a sterling reputation for being a non-partisan newsman.
He enters Tuesday with at least 40 percent of the country questioning that distinction.
Holt was largely invisible in Monday’s presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and that was a good thing. He mostly allowed the exchanges between the two candidates to simply follow their own path. This led to some of the more heated back-and-forths you’ll ever witness in such a setting, with Trump and Clinton consistently interjecting during the other’s comments, particularly Trump.
But when Holt wasn’t being invisible, he was targeting Trump’s weaknesses while avoiding Clinton’s.
That’s not to say the Republican nominee shouldn’t have been challenged or fact-checked. But as we’ve seen throughout this general election campaign, only one candidate is getting fact-checked while the other largely gets a pass.
Opinions are pointless without facts and foundations, so here’s two easy examples to absorb as they pertain to Clinton:
Fact check No. 1:
TRUMP: You called it the gold standard of trade deals. You said it’s the finest deal you’ve ever seen.
TRUMP: And then you heard what I said about it, and all of a sudden you were against it.
CLINTON: Well, Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts. The facts are — I did say I hoped it would be a good deal, but when it was negotiated.
Clinton never used the word “hoped.” She said “gold standard” during her time as secretary of State. It had been broached multiple times by Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries and therefore was easy to see coming.
Does Holt correct or fact-check here? No. But he was decidedly aggressive when challenging Trump’s claim on always being against the Iraq War, and that’s fine. But if the decision was made by Holt beforehand to fact-check in real time, he needed to do so to both sides in obvious situations. This was one of them.
Fact check #2: Clinton says the murder rate is down in New York City under Bill DeBlasio without police using stop-and-frisk.
Stop-and-frisk’s last year of existence was 2014. In 2015, in the only full year of records without it in New York City, murders rose to 352, from 333 the year before. Trump kept insisting on this number, Clinton insisted he was wrong. Holt let it go.
But here’s where the moderator ultimately fell way short. First, a clear disclaimer:
Asking Trump about releasing his tax returns or about the “birther” issue are legitimate issues to ask, and Holt was right to do so.
However, for the moderator to ignore any questions about the Clinton Foundation — which has been very much in the news lately for all the wrong reasons — and any direct inquiries about destroying evidence and deleting tens of thousands of emails, calls into questions what his aim was here. And these aren’t periphery topics, the kind you can take-or-leave on such a stage. If they were ignored, it was done so purposely.
That’s not to say Trump had a good night. Given Holt’s propensity to sit back and let the conversation go where it flowed, Trump — in his first one-on-one debate — needed to bring those topics up himself, particularly when one broad subject was cyber security, which couldn’t have teed up Clinton’s extreme carelessness around handling classified information any better. He didn’t.
Two more thoughts:
1) How exactly immigration — a very hot topic over the past 18 months — was completely ignored is an utter mystery.
2) Clinton’s health — given her collapse into a van after leaving a 9/11 memorial early — had to be broached. Specific question to both candidates: Why won’t you release your full medical records, as John McCain did to the tune of 1,173 pages in 2008?
Overall grade for Lester: C-
The reasoning is simple: Fact-checking is not a one-way street.
And two of a candidate’s biggest weakness, in Trump’s case the “birther” comments and tax returns, and in Clinton’s, lying about her handling of sensitive emails and a myriad of questions around the Clinton Foundation and donor access, can’t be deeply explored for Trump while not even broached for Clinton.
Holt entered the evening largely respected as non-partisan.
He exists as the toast of left-leaning media, which makes up a solid majority of the landscape overall.
For the other 40 percent, he’ll simply now be seen as Candy Crowley 2.0.