Tonight’s Presidential Debate Will Exonerate or Condemn the Media

Tonight, several million sets of eyes will be focused on the former “Dateline” host, Lester Holt, for the second time in two years. First, he had to step in for and eventually replace Brian Williams after Williams was caught “self-promoting” instead of just telling the story on which he was reporting. Tonight, Holt, as moderator of the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, has a bit more formidable task: Return television coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign to something resembling rationality.trump-clinton-debate

Even before Trump pulled some of his customary tantrums — when long-time rival Mark Cuban announced he’d gotten choice seats for Monday night’s debate, then Trump tweeted Saturday that he “might” invite Gennifer Flowers — Holt was stepping into a pile of poo made by another network colleague.

For reasons known only to NBC–but widely speculated as being a deliberate action by NBC to put a lightweight personality and Trump supporter into the role as a favor to one of NBC’s properties owners–Trump’s The Apprentice has made big money for them—“Today” host Matt Lauer was asked to moderate the first (and hopefully last) “Commander in Chief Forum” earlier this month.  As anyone not living in a cave knows, he was an utter disaster. In separate 30-minute interviews, Lauer’s repeated interruptions of Hillary Clinton and quantifiably less intense questioning of Donald Trump, didn’t just damage his own reputation, it once again moved the spotlight away from voter issues and onto the favoritism being shown to Trump by the media.

Naturally, Clinton and Trump immediately tried to leverage his performance to their benefit. Clinton made Lauer the center of next-day fundraising. Trump, who said Lauer did a great job, (surprised?) announced that if Holt or any other moderators were tougher on him, it would prove that the fix was in.

Once again the moderator, rather than the candidates, was the main topic of conversation.

In this presidential race, the media has become the message, and at a time when it can least afford to be.

Accusations of political bias, some accurate some not, have been made against the media since its inception. (Full disclosure: I too have leveled the charge throughout this campaign).

Televised political coverage, unfortunately the way the majority of Americans get to know the candidates, is always accused of this during a campaign — for being too liberal, too conservative, too gullible, too cynical, and too worried about ratings.

But this campaign is a whole new ballgame. Everything’s different, it’s been much more pronounced, and especially on television.

While commentators and critics fussed about Trump’s willingness to blur politics and entertainment in the Republican presidential debates, the news networks leveraged a ratings boom and then gave in to candidate boycott threats over ridiculous demands from Trump, just to benefit from the spectacle.

Some of us have watched as Trump coordinated a campaign of abuse against Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly after the first Republican debate, after she asked him about his attitude toward women. He later demanded that Fox News cut her from its second debate, and when the network refused, he took his ball and arranged a so-called fundraiser for American veterans, but had to be shamed into actually remitting the money to the veterans, like every other entity he’s ever owed.

We also watched as Kelly retorted by asking Trump to join her on a highly touted Fox News special (during which their “showdown” turned out to be, essentially, a plug for her new book). And we watched as CNN hired Trump’s first of three campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as a commentator, even though he’d signed a nondisclosure agreement with — and is still receiving severance pay from — the Trump campaign.(His other two have been a verified Vladimir Putin crony and an Executive Director of an online home of white supremacists and tabloid BS as much or more outrageous as Rush Limbaugh).

And during Monday’s debate, it will be with the knowledge that Trump’s debate prep was, in part, provided by Roger Ailes, the former Fox News chairman who was just ousted over charges of sexual harassment.

But mostly, some of us will be watching to just see if it is fair.

As the spectacle has gotten harsher, the critical echo chamber over the “fairness” of “the media” (read: cable and free over-the-air television) has become such an emotional, divisive and central part of the campaign, that what’s left of actual television journalists seem uncertain as to how to handle coverage.

As in, they no longer know what their jobs actually necessitate….and that’s being kind.

After Lauer was disparaged for letting Trump claim, once again and untruthfully, that he had always opposed the invasion of Iraq, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews defended his peer (big surprise, Matthews has been one of the most duplicitous “pundits” I’ve ever seen). If Lauer had pointed out the discrepancy between what Trump was saying now and what he had said then, Matthews said, Lauer would be calling Trump a liar, which would have sounded like an opinion, and moderators are not allowed to have opinions.

That’s how bad it’s gotten.

Someone with Matthews’ experience in the world of political journalism now apparently believes that questioning a statement known to be false is the same as offering an opinion. I wasn’t aware that Putin had already taken over our political process, but apparently he’s not waiting for his stooge and debtor, Trump, to get into the White House.

From the beginning, the nature of this campaign has defied all traditional rules and regulations, including how it plays on television. It’s been disgraceful.

On one side we had an odds-on-favorite and potential history maker blindsided by, of all things, a sudden burst of latent socialism with rabid, albeit it mostly white followers; some left overs of the Ron Paul “revolution”, some left overs of the failed Occupy Wall St. “revolution”, others who can’t tell the difference between voting their conscience and committing democracy’s genocide, and others who will join anything called a “revolution”.

On the other was a Republican race so crowded and personally hostile it often seemed like a bad joke.

The news media merely saw ratings gold, and the broadcast news parent corporations (ABC-Disney, CBS-CBS Worlwide, NBC-ComCast, CNN-Time-Warner, and Rupert Murdoch) apparently said screw journalism, bring me ratings..

When Clinton and Trump became the nominees, TV journalists found themselves caught between a rock (a candidate with a long habit of PTSD-infused evasion) and a hard place (one having sworn to defend the 2nd Amendment does so at the expense of the 1st Amendment and openly courts white supremacists and neo-Nazis). Clinton may limit her interviews, but Trump has stripped major news organizations of their press credentials, called on supporters to throw reporters out of events and cried “rigged” like his buddy, another thin-skinned bully-Bobby Knight, working the refs.

Clinton supporters, meanwhile, became vocal over perceived sexism, while Trump supporters rebelled against what they consider the media “elite.” Between the two, spot-the-bias replays have become the new national pastime, with charges of “false equivalency” and arguments over the need for real-time fact-checking during televised events, which with Trump would take a lightning fast computer server farm to keep up.

But the presidential debates are far too important to get wigged out about the mean things some people are saying about you on Twitter. It’s time the television news media to get its shit together.

Circus-like or not, this is a presidential campaign, and a debate moderator’s job may be tough, but it is not complicated. He or she is there to help provide the voters with actual information about the candidates by asking tough questions and demanding actual answers from each nominee in a way that is neither deferential nor acrimonious. Of course you see where that got the marvelous Candy Crowley. She dared do her job and got fired for it.

Childish squabbling is a distraction, but If a candidate is standing there lying his or her ass off, there are a million ways a skilled moderator can make that clear without offering an “opinion.”

This time, it falls on Lester Holt.

After surviving even the goriest segments of “Dateline’s” true-crime bent with his low-key persona and integrity intact, he surprised everyone when he was brought on as the “NBC Nightly News” BriWi substitute by getting even better numbers than the popular Williams. Holt proved that “trustworthy anchor” is brand enough, without getting all self-aggrandizing and cute about it on late-night television.

This is exactly what Holt needs to do Monday. We don’t need any drama. We have had enough drama. Now, we just need some answers. I guess we’ll see if Holt is up to it and if ComCast has throttled him in order to appease the owner of NBC’s The Apprentice over serving the American public’s right to a fair and impartial moderator for a Presidential debate.

Harvey Gold