Debate moderator Holt's performance seen through partisan prism

Moderator Lester Holt, anchor of NBC Nightly News, talks with audience before the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Depending on the news site you visit Tuesday, you may hear that presidential debate moderator Lester Holt was tough on both candidates on Monday night, completely invisible on stage, or practically an unofficial Clinton campaign surrogate.

After weeks of Hillary Clinton’s campaign publicly pressuring Holt to serve as a fact-checker and Donald Trump’s campaign warning that he may be biased against the Republican nominee, the NBC News anchor took the stage at Hofstra University under atypically intense scrutiny.

By the following morning, attitudes toward Holt were shaking out largely along party lines, much like opinions of the candidates’ performances. Democrats saw a fair arbiter of facts. Republicans saw a Hillary shill.

“The ref not only made himself part of the game on Monday night, he ran up to the scrimmage line, then sacked the quarterback three times,” wrote Kyle Smith in the New York Post.

“Presidential debate moderator Lester Holt hoisted Hillary Clinton’s campaign high in the air like Atlas,” said Dan Gainor of the Media Research Center in a op-ed.

Although conservatives found him to be too aggressive, others felt Holt let opportunities to challenge the candidates fly by.

“There were moments, especially early on, that Holt could have been more forceful in maintaining order,” wrote Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post. “But he also wisely used his discretion to keep the debate going at times instead of sticking to the somewhat arbitrary 15 minutes allotted for each segment.”

“NBC News anchor Lester Holt took a largely passive role Monday as the moderator of the first presidential debate of 2016, staying in the background as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump traded verbal blows,” said Paul Farhi in the Washington Post.

Holt entered the debate in the shadow of “Today Show” host Matt Lauer, who interviewed Trump and Clinton at a “Commander in Chief Forum” event earlier this month. Clinton supporters accused Lauer of going too easy on Trump and allowing lies to go uncorrected.

According to Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan and editor of “Debating the Donald,” Holt was more engaged and active than some past moderators.

“Clearly, the commander in chief Matt Lauer performance had a big impact on him,” he said.

While Holt occasionally prodded both candidates to elaborate on vague answers or get back to the topic at hand, he had at least two significant confrontations with Trump over facts.

One dispute was over the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy, which Holt said was deemed unconstitutional in court. Trump denied that.

A judge did find it unconstitutional, but the case was sent back to the lower court on appeal and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration dropped the policy before the matter was settled.

“Stop and frisk had a tremendous impact on the safety of New York City,” Trump said, insisting that the program would have been upheld on appeal if the case had proceeded. “Tremendous beyond belief.”

A frequent criticism of Lauer’s handling of Trump in the forum was that he did not challenge Trump’s oft-repeated claim that he opposed the Iraq war from the start.

No evidence has been found that Trump publicly opposed the war until a quote appeared in an Esquire article more than a year after the war began. Prior to the war, Trump voiced general support but never actively advocated for it.

Trump persisted on the claim during the debate, ultimately claiming that he argued with Fox host Sean Hannity about the merits of the war at the time.

“I had numerous conversations with Sean Hannity at Fox,” Trump said. “And Sean Hannity said -- and he called me the other day and I spoke to him about it and he said you were totally against the war, because he was for the war and that was before the war started. Sean Hannity said very strongly, to me and other people, he's willing to say, but nobody wants to call him, I was against the war.”

Alan Schroeder, a professor at Northeastern University and author of “Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail,” was surprised to see Holt engage in live fact-checking on stage. Aside from that, he felt Holt succeeded in not making himself part of the story.

“I thought Lester Holt was fine. He kept himself out of it pretty well,” he said.

Clinton supporters were pleased to see Trump held accountable, and they hope that will continue in the two remaining debates.

“I think Holt proved we need moderators who can fact-check during the debate in real time,” said Democratic strategist Matt McDermott. “Some of the more interesting parts of the debate last night were when Holt held Trump's feet to the fire on his past statements, from Iraq to climate change.”

NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke said Tuesday at an event in London that Holt "ended up doing a very good job."

The Trump campaign sent mixed signals in the 12 hours after the debate about their level of satisfaction with Holt. Trump himself initially praised the moderator, telling CNN he was “very fair,” but he later complained that he faced “hostile” questions.

In spin alley following the debate, some Trump surrogates applauded Holt’s handling of an extremely challenging assignment.

“Lester is a very decent journalist and I think he did a decent job,” said Trump director of African-American outreach Omarosa Manigault.

“I thought he did the best he could,” said Bruce LeVell, head of the National Diversity Coalition for Trump, who called the moderator gig for this debate “one of the hardest jobs on the planet.”

He felt Holt allowed many of Trump’s best qualities to shine through to the record-size audience.

“My whole deal was letting one hundred million viewers, which I think is what we hit tonight, see Mr. Trump’s temperament and how strong and poised he really is to lead the nation and to be a major player in the global market and the world,” LeVell said.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has credited the stop-and-frisk policy for much of the reduction in crime in the city since the 1990s, blasted Holt for presenting audiences the impression that the program was clearly unconstitutional.

Holt gave the public “a false fact designed to hurt Donald Trump,” Giuliani claimed. He suggested Trump should not attend the other two debates if he will face similar truth-squading from the moderators.

Republican strategist Brian Fraley said the referee-bashing indicates Trump knows he lost the debate.

“You can tell who won the debate by the volume of complaints about the moderator from the other camp,” he said.

Trump supporters have criticized Holt for interrupting Trump more than Clinton, but Fraley noted that Trump was interrupting and interjecting himself into Clinton’s answers more.

“Keeping Trump's erratic behavior in check is a lot like herding cats,” he said. While Holt occasionally reined Trump in, he also held back at times and let the candidates actually debate.

Aside from the controversial fact-checking, Holt has also taken some heat for not raising any questions about the Clinton Foundation or Clinton’s handling of the Benghazi attacks. Her use of a private email server as secretary of state was only raised briefly in response to a comment by Trump.

Holt did bring up similarly prominent issues surrounding Trump that were not directly related to the night’s themes like his tax returns and his birtherism.

“I do think the one glaring omission was not asking her about the Clinton Foundation and what that says about her ethics and her decision-making,” Fraley said.

However, he laid some blame for that on Trump for not putting Clinton’s biggest weaknesses at the forefront himself and for getting lost in the weeds of his own controversies.

“It is not Holt's fault that Trump didn't just resolve the birther question and move on, but instead kept at it,” he said. “It's not Lester Holt's fault that Trump failed to bring up Benghazi when Clinton used her 11-hour congressional testimony as evidence of her stamina.”

Even some liberals acknowledge that Holt left significant issues unaddressed.

Jeff Cohen, an associate professor of journalism at Ithaca College and founder of liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, argued the debate’s failings lay not with Holt’s performance but with the system that determined who would be on stage in the first place.

He supported allowing Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein to participate, but they failed to reach the threshold of support in national polls set by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

“The two parties/two campaigns chose Lester Holt as their sole questioner... I would prefer a panel of ideologically diverse, respected journalists asking questions of diverse, more than two, candidates,” said Cohen, who once worked with Holt at MSNBC.

He added that Holt asked good, substantive questions, but some major flashpoints still went untouched for both candidates.

“I believe it's in the public interest to focus on policy questions more than personal controversies -- but it meant that Clinton was not asked about the dubious fundraising of the Clinton Foundation, and Trump was not asked about the dubious spending of the Trump Foundation,” Cohen said.

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