Cowan: Recent debate is full of controversy and fact checking

Republican nominee Donald Trump stared glumly into the camera and flatly dropped the word like he had so many times before.

“Wrong,” he said in a monotone Queens accent.

His opponent, Hillary Clinton, pressed onward, smiling slightly at the interjection but appearing unscathed. At times both candidates took moments to defend themselves against accusations from both their opponent and moderator Lester Holt, all the while adding more claims to be challenged.

Fact-checking was one of the larger topics surrounding Monday’s debate after Matt Lauer’s floundering as moderator in the Commander-in-chief forum earlier this month. Should moderators attack false claims from candidates and seek an admittance of falsehood, or should fact-checking be left to the candidates?

Moving the debate to foreign policy and the anticipated discussion of the Iraq war, Lester Holt attempted to correct Trump on his previously stated support for the Iraq war, but the Republican nominee would not admit to it.

“Mr. Trump a lot of these are judgment questions. You had supported the war in Iraq before the invasion,” Holt stated.

“I did not support the war in Iraq,” Trump responded. What ensued was an exchange between the two in which Holt continued to state Trump’s support for the war while Trump vehemently denied the accusation, even retracing his statements back to his 2002 interview with Sean Hannity. “That is mainstream media nonsense put out by [Hillary Clinton],” Trump accused.

This awkward exchange is certainly entertaining but not in the least educational for those viewing the debate, as the original question on judgement was drowned out by a sea of irrelevant justifications.

This distracting discourse is why many moderators feel that it is not their job to challenge the validity of statements made by debaters. Chris Wallace, the moderator for the third debate this season, shares this sentiment.

“I do not believe that it’s my job to be a truth squad. It’s up to the other person to catch them on that.” Wallace said to his network, Fox News, earlier this month.

There are certainly hundreds of voices at any one moment in a debate who are fact-checking the candidates. Major publications like the New York Times and NPR provided almost instantaneous fact-checks live during the debate. Since the debate finished, entire lists have been compiled of false statements told by either candidate. Fact-checking is certainly thriving online and voters are desperate to educate others on the truths of statements, taking the burden of moderators to halt a debate for validity’s sake. The executive director of the commission on presidential debates, Janet Brown, tackles the argument logistically:

“I think, personally, if you start to get into the fact-check, I am not sure — what is a big fact, and what is a little fact?” she said on CNN this past Sunday. “And if you and I have different sources of information, does your source about the unemployment rate agree with my source?”

What really resulted from this debate between moderator and candidate was a fact left in doldrums. While Trump attempted to explain his past rhetoric the true question of adequate military judgement was lost, which Holt attempted to regain but was finally left buried in the lively defense of Trump to his own words.

Lucas Graves, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison, understands that it’s dangerous to allow false statements to be made, however, “The danger of leaving it up to the candidates to fact-check each other is that it doesn’t necessarily bring us any closer to the truth.”

What voters can affirm for themselves is that this past debate provided an often improvised, arduous debate that had an abyss of incorrect assertions with little progress made when those assertions were challenged. The exploration for truth did nothing to realistically present a victory, and only proved to distract candidates from matters pertaining to their own opinions of their character and their ability to provide leadership.

The debate, which offered a record audience the opportunity to understand both candidates in real time, does not need a machismo inflected by one candidate presenting more right answers than the other—it does not need to devolve to a standardized test in which candidates grab for the exact words they once spoke.

Future debates need a fluid transparency of who they are and who they hope to be, both criticizing their opponent while providing their alternative, and trust that the truth will be provided for the thousands seeking it.


Listen to Alec Cowan and Zach Moss discuss the debate further in the most recent episode of the Emerald’s Political Podcast:

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Alec Cowan

Alec Cowan

Alec Cowan is the Podcast Editor for the Emerald. He spends most of his time purchasing books he doesn't read and listening to podcasts to sound more smarter.