Lester Holt walks a fine line at debate, and wins praise

Breaking down Lester Holt's debate performance
Breaking down Lester Holt's debate performance

In this fractured, partisan era, no presidential moderator can please everyone. Some people want the moderator to play fact-checker, some people want the candidates to be left to their own devices. Only so many questions can be asked, and different statements warrant different kinds of follow-ups.

Lester Holt, the moderator of Monday night's debate, walked a fine line, fact-checking on occasion but often letting the candidates debate. And while he may not have set a new gold standard, he did the job he was asked to, and he did it well.

Even Donald Trump was for Holt -- "I thought Lester did a great job... I thought it was very fair," he told CNNMoney -- before he was against him, complaining of "very unfair" questions during a Tuesday morning appearance on "Fox & Friends."

Holt's primary obligation, at least in the eyes of the Commission on Presidential Debates, was to step back and let the candidates debate. For the first 30 minutes, he did just that -- almost to a fault. When the debate devolved into the candidates shouting over one another, journalists and observers began to wonder about Holt's absence.

"Where is the moderation?" Emily Nussbaum, the television critic for The New Yorker, asked on Twitter. "Apparently Lester Holt went to the bathroom, way down the hall, and only one urinal is available and there is a line," National Review columnist Jim Geraghty tweeted.

Others celebrated his reserve: "Points to Lester Holt for standing aside and letting Trump and Clinton go at it," wrote Adam Nagourney, the New York Times' Los Angeles bureau chief.

As the debate wore on, however, Holt took a more active role in fact-checking false statements made by Trump -- a decision that was especially notable given his colleague Matt Lauer's infamous failure to fact-check Trump during a recent presidential forum.

After Trump's poor showing at the debate -- by general consensus, Hillary Clinton won the night -- his supporters used Holt's fact-checking of Trump as an opportunity to work the refs. Critics on Fox News and right-wing online media said Holt had been tougher on Trump than Clinton. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump's top supporters, said Holt had behaved like "an incorrect, ignorant fact checker," while media watchdog Brent Bozell said Holt "failed in his role as a moderator" by going tough on Trump and easy on Clinton.

Related: Donald Trump's reality TV background doesn't help him in debate

There was certainly a disparity in the amount of follow-up questions Holt asked the two candidates: Trump got six, Clinton got none. But as CNN's fact-check of the candidate's statements shows, Trump made at least 10 false statements, whereas Clinton made none.

The Trump campaign, and many of his supporters, also complained that Holt did not ask any questions about Hillary Clinton's emails, the Clinton Foundation and the Benghazi attacks. That is true, but Trump did bring up the emails and he could have brought up the Clinton Foundation and Benghazi as well. Many of the subjects discussed in presidential debates are the result of what the candidates choose to address, not the moderator.

Whatever the case, the Trump supporters' post-game efforts to work the refs were undercut by the immediate assessments offered by Trump and by his campaign manager.

"I thought Lester Holt did a great job as a moderator under tough circumstances," campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told CNN's Jim Acosta. "Lester Holt did a great job."


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