Should Moderators Be Allowed to Fact-Check?

Last month Chris Wallace, a Fox News journalist and the host of Fox News Sunday, became the first reporter in the channel’s history to be selected as a moderator for a presidential debate. His achievement, however, was immediately shadowed by the firestorm and backlash he received from his comments regarding the debate, during an interview with Howard Kurtz. When asked about his  responsibility to challenge assertions made by the candidates he knows to be false, Chris Wallace contended “I do not believe that it’s my job to be a truth squad.” He reaffirmed his stance by claiming that when it comes to the candidates lying, “it’s up to the other person to catch them on that.”

These statements have been met with strong criticism and outrage from the journalistic community as well as TV news viewers as a whole.

This controversy comes after a campaign trail that has been riddled with lies, scandals, and fraud: issues that have driven the candidate’s trustworthiness to all time modern lows. I understand the desire to have a moderator dig out the truth from two candidates whose most factual interactions are when they talk about how much the other candidate lies. But, I believe the notion that we should have “moderator[s] essentially serving as the Encyclopedia Britannica” is not only misguided, it is irresponsible.

When we ask moderators of a presidential debate to actively call out and correct candidates on non-factual statements, we are presupposing that the moderators have all of the necessary knowledge to make these claims. Furthermore, we are trusting the moderators with the responsibility to be, to coin a phrase, Fair and Balanced. When we ask political correspondents, who are clearly sided one way to fact-check candidates, we must expect their own biases to creep in. Many of the facts and statements that are contented do not have clear-cut answers or data and this is where I believe the major disconnect is occurring. We are asking moderators to draw a line in the sand and pull the muck from the gray area to assess its validity for us, the viewers. The issue with this is the distinctive line they draw will be arbitrary and will reflect their own viewpoint closer than it will the ‘truth’.

We cannot reasonably believe that moderators will uphold the responsibility of being balanced when they are now in charge of drawing the line that defines right and wrong. Even if we could ensure that moderators could only correct very clear-cut right and wrong facts, it may not produce the results we hope that this practice would. Fact checking, in an ideal world, benefits the candidate who is in opposition to the moderator and in a non-ideal world creates an authority role with unlimited sway over the debate.  When we factor all of these issues together, I am forced to make the painful assertion that Chris Wallace is justified in his decision, and is in fact the one who is acting Fair and Balanced.

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