The Biggest Question About Tomorrow's Debate Has Nothing to Do with the Candidates

September 25th 2016

Aron Macarow

We are approaching the first presidential debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, but the biggest question has little to do with the candidates — and a lot to do with the debate moderator, "NBC Nightly News" anchor Lester Holt.

Will Holt fact-check the candidates?

That was the question posed by CNN host Brian Stelter to Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the bipartisan nonprofit organization that organizes the debates for the general election.

"We let [the moderators] decide how to do this," Brown responded. "But I have to say in our history that the moderators have found it appropriate to let the candidates be the ones that talk about the accuracy or the fairness of what the other candidates might have said."

"I think, personally, that when you start getting into fact-checking, ... it's better for [the moderator] to facilitate and to depend on the candidates to basically correct each other as they see fit," she added.

To review: The sponsor of the debate prefers that Holt NOT fact-check Clinton or Trump.

This raised questions among observers, who wondered what the role of the debate moderate should be.

Others took the opportunity to poke fun at Trump, who has often been accused of playing it fast-and-loose with the facts.

The two campaigns have very different views on the issue.

Not surprisingly, Trump and Clinton's campaigns don't agree on the issue, either.

Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook took to ABC's "This Week" on Sunday to express the hope that Holt would engage in some fact-checking, calling it "unfair" to ask the Democratic presidential candidate to express her own views while "play[ing] traffic cop" on the veracity of her opponent's statements.

Meanwhile, Trump campaign head Kellyanne Conway suggested that the job responsibilities proposed by the commission for the debate moderator were entirely reasonable.

"I really don’t appreciate campaigns thinking it is the job of the media to go and be these virtual fact-checkers and that these debate moderators should somehow do their bidding," said Conway in her own appearance on ABC's "This Week."

"They picked on Matt Lauer after the commander-in-chief debate forum," Conway added. "We thought he did a great job, but they didn’t like the fact that Hillary Clinton was asked about her email server and her route in Iraq. That’s not Matt Lauer’s fault."

This puts Holt in the hot seat.

Twitter predictably picked up on the controversy with the meme #TrumpSoftballs.

The viral joke raised a serious issue: What should the proper role of the debate moderator be, and what should Holt do during Monday night's debate?

The responsibility to fact-check falls on both the candidates and the person moderating the debate, retired CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer — who has moderated presidential debates — said in The Washington Post:

"I believe the chief fact-checkers are the candidates. If one of them says something that is dead wrong or inconsistent with what he or she has said previously, the other candidate should have the first opportunity to call his or her opponent on it. [...] If neither candidate catches the inaccuracy, then the moderator must step in, set the record straight and, if necessary, ask a question about it."

Jim Lehrer, retired PBS "News Hour" anchor who also moderated debates, echoed Schieffer's statement. "Usually, the way you do that with simply the candidate there, you say, 'Would you agree with that, is that how you see it?'" he told Politico.

Holt's job on Monday will certainly not be easy. Just take it from Schieffer, who told "Face the Nation" on Sunday: "If I was moderating the first debate, I think I’d be under the bed hoping they couldn’t find me."

RELATED: 5 Tricks to Watch for in Tomorrow Night's Debate