Politics & Policy

Chris Wallace Was Right about How to Moderate a Debate After All

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Pool/Reuters)
His outlook on how to question the candidates led to a more smooth and substantive debate.

In the run up to last night’s debate, moderator Chris Wallace was widely maligned for declaring that he would not fact-check the candidates during the event; in its aftermath, he’s been widely praised for a performance that easily made him the best moderator of the 2016 cycle. He must feel vindicated.

Despite the long history of moderators favorable to Democrats, in the lead up to the debates the Left continually peddled the narrative that Hillary Clinton — and the American people watching — were in danger of being snookered by corrupt debate moderators who refused to fact-check Donald Trump. Wallace, however, said from the very beginning that he would let the candidates speak for themselves, and he turned out to be right: Last night, he was at once the fairest moderator of the cycle and the one who drew the most substance out of the candidates.

Wallace pressed Clinton and Trump on their positions not by contradicting their facts, as previous moderators had, but by asking questions with policy specifics. He posed questions that were narrow rather than loaded. Asked about constitutional interpretation, Clinton was forced to discuss the Heller case and declare her opposition to its outcome, which buttressed Second Amendment rights. In the previous debate, she offered similarly faulty principles without the hassle of referencing specific cases, since she was only asked what she would “prioritize” in selecting a justice.

Wallace could have called out the deficiencies in her answer, but true to his word, he allowed her to speak, letting other journalists do the fact-checking. This led to a pacier debate that covered more ground, as did his smooth, authoritative quashing of crosstalk and audience noise.

RELATED: In Las Vegas, a Tale of Two Debates

Candidates like to talk about their plans, and debate moderators often ask about a plan and allow them to ramble. In the first debate, Lester Holt asked directly for specifics from Trump:

How are you going to bring back the industries that have left this country for cheaper labor overseas? How, specifically, are you going to tell American manufacturers that you have to come back?

While intended to draw out specifics, the breadth of Holt’s question allowed Trump to go through his favorite economic platitudes — renegotiating trade deals, bringing manufacturing jobs back from Mexico, and making America great again — without acknowledging their shortcomings. On the same question, Clinton waxed on unchallenged about “failed policies of the past” and solar panels. Viewers didn’t learn much.

When Wallace asked the candidates about the economy, he did a better job hemming them in, because he framed the questions around specific aspects of their plans. He followed up when they did not address the question posed, and he even had the gall to ask how they would manage entitlements. On that topic, the candidates again failed to articulate a satisfactory plan, but at least their weaknesses were put on display for the world to see. Exposing politicians equitably is one way to describe the job of a political journalist.

#related#At a time when trust in the news media has slipped down to 32 percent, Wallace demonstrated how the industry can regain some lost respect. Some may find it ironic that a Fox News anchor would ultimately point the way back for the much-maligned business of journalism. Working for the network that is positioned on the right while living in Washington, D.C., Wallace has certainly experienced more ideological friction than the average reporter in his career. As a result, he was better equipped than Holt (NBC), Martha Raddatz (ABC), or Anderson Cooper (CNN) to understand the way both sides think.

It’s no accident that the third debate was the best moderated and most substantive. Wallace had the right idea from the day he was named as a moderator, and he was impervious to Democrats’ attempts to work the refs, most notably in their crucifixion of Matt Lauer for not fact-checking Trump about Iraq in September. The media’s selective use of “fact-checking” will continue, but Wallace did viewers a service last night by leaving that endeavor to others.

— Paul Crookston is a Collegiate Network Fellow at National Review.

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