Dear Mr. Holt:
Belated congrats on getting the gig! In less than a week you’re headed on location to Hofstra University on New York’s Long Island to moderate the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
First, don’t worry about low viewership. Roughly 8 million people still plugged in to television sets tune in weeknights to watch you host NBC Nightly News. It’s predicted that on Monday, Sept. 26, more than the 67.2 million people who viewed the first 2012 Obama/Romney debate will watch as you—and you alone—referee the 90-minute crossfire between candidates to be the next leader of the free world.
So don’t let the fear of low ratings get your tummy in a jumble. Instead, you can focus on what kind of a moderator you’ll be—quick-with-the-yellow-flag versus let-’em-play—and what questions you’ll ask.
Just a reminder: The 90-minute debate—with no potty breaks—will be divided into six 15-minute segments. Two of each of those segments will focus on topics you chose: America’s Direction, Achieving Prosperity and Securing America. (Vague? Read those all together and it sounds like a Trump campaign speech.)
Each candidate gets two minutes to respond to each question. Then, Trump and Clinton can engage each other. For the remainder of the time in a segment, the two can: see who can talk over the other the loudest; threaten each other; make faces; make out; have a slap battle; do muscle-builder poses; or have a meaningful discussion—moderated by you—on a matter of international or domestic importance.
The Commission on Presidential Debates Co-Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf does not want this year’s crop of moderators—also including ABC’s Martha Raddatz and CNN’s Anderson Cooper in the Oct. 9 town-hall-style debate, and Fox’s Chris Wallace in the Oct. 19 debate—to be fact checkers.
“It is our view that if ‘Candidate A’ says something that is totally wrong, it is for ‘Candidate B’ to point that out,” Fahrenkopf told CNBC. “We want the moderator to be the facilitator.”
When did fact checking become taboo in the media? (Oh, right, when Fox & Friends began airing.) Lester, your nickname “Iron Pants” comes from your the ability to sit in the anchor’s seat for long durations of time during breaking news. Don’t let your post-debate moniker change to Wet Pants because you’re afraid to follow-up when Trump claims it was Clinton who started the Obama birther rumor. No, a moderator shouldn’t yell “Wrong!” like the late John McLaughlin on The McLaughlin Group. But a good facilitator should be authoritarian while separating fact from fiction, however loudly it is presented. If Candidate A asserts that the Pope has blessed his long-standing policy on immigration, and therefore God wants Mexicans and Muslims kept out of America, it’s not off base to call for a check on that fact.
Equally important: Keep in mind throughout the proceeding that this is a debate and not a reality show. Like you, Trump has been on-air talent for NBC. But a national presidential debate is not a spinoff of The Apprentice featuring politicians. Trump cannot point his finger and fire anybody.
That may have been part of your colleague Matt Lauer’s problem earlier this month when he hosted NBC’s Commander-In-Chief Forum. The focus was national security, but the widely criticized Lauer treated Trump with kid gloves and overgrilled Clinton on emails sent to her private server.
Lester, Lester, Lester: You need to remember that a presidential debate shouldn’t delve into superficial Today fodder. Lauer and other morning show blatherers may have devolved into talking over each other about the Branjelina divorce and other details from their Facebook feeds. For your job on Sept. 26 ignore Candidate B’s case of pneumonia that was Twitter fodder. We want meaningful discussions on racism, sexism, healthcare or equal rights. That won’t happen using 140 characters. However, you can try to prove it’s possible to incubate six 15-minute TV discussions between two United States presidential candidates that dissect integral issues that face Americans.
Iron Pants, make sure you wear your Big Boy Pants and keep the candidates on topic. Two polarizing personalities are set to take the same yuge stage. You needn’t formulate killer gotcha question—just ask questions that let the candidates show us what they got. Be equally objective. Be fair, but point them both in the direction of substantive discourse and see who is willing and able to walk that path.
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