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How to Fact-check a Presidential Debate

Jake Tapper explains how Lester Holt should prepare for Monday’s debate

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When Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton participated in a commander-in-chief forum two weeks ago, Matt Lauer, the moderator of the event, let some statements from the candidates, particularly Donald Trump, go unchallenged. His moderation attracted criticism from all sides. To get an idea of what a debate moderator’s role should be, the Keepin’ It 1600 crew brought on Jake Tapper, who moderated two GOP primary debates, for his perspective. With next Monday’s first presidential debate looming, Tapper offered his advice for moderator Lester Holt.

Check out the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Have the Information in Front of You

Jake Tapper: Well, my rule of thumb is, if you’re going to fact-check, then you better be right. And if you’re going to fact-check, you better have the information in front of you to back it up. So the truth in the matter is I did a little bit of fact-checking during the first Republican debate, and the last Republican debate, but people didn’t make a thing out of it because I had the information in front of me and I just read it back to them. So my first recommendation is: Be prepared. And it’s almost always facts that [the candidates] have messed up before. It’s seldom new facts, or new lies. If you’re not prepared, then it’s going to be tough. So I mean, I assume that Lester Holt and the others are boning up on reading and Politifact and the others. And [they’re also probably] becoming aware of disputes about fact-checks so they can be aware of all the nuances, because that’s important.

Know What the Empirical Facts Are

J.T.: First of all, whatever the moderators do, people are going to criticize them for not doing it enough or for doing it too much, or whatever. And yes, the moderators are not supposed to be the stars of the debate, the candidates are, 100 percent. But that said, there is such a thing as empirical fact and we know some of the things — and I’m not doing a false equivalence here — but some of the things that Hillary Clinton has said are not true. Some of the things that Donald Trump has said are not true. We know what some of them are, so have that information there and you can go to it if you need to. By the same token, it’s tough, and [the moderators are] going to be criticized no matter what.

Don’t Only Rely on the Candidates

J.T.: It’s not the primary job of the moderator to fact-check; it’s the primary job of the moderator to moderate. But that said, there are things that are true and there are things that are false. To say that Donald Trump did not engage in “birtherism” any time after 2011, or [that] President Obama [wasn’t] pressured to reveal his long-form birth certificate — to say that is not true. … So when somebody comes on a debate stage or on a talk show and says such a thing, to say, “Well, that’s not true,” is perfectly reasonable.

But Don’t Pick on Just One Candidate

J.T.: I will say, however, that there is something to those who say that it appears as though the moderator is picking on one candidate. The media is so distrusted and so maligned that that might be counterproductive, if it is. And I’m not talking about fact-checking, but I’m talking about if it feels like a debate is being unfairly moderated.