Lester Holt’s Debate-Night Job Has Grown Exponentially More Difficult

Presidential Debate: Lester Holt's Moderator Job
Courtesy of NBC

Analysis: The NBC News anchor takes a role that is under more scrutiny than ever

Lester Holt is taking a big swing tonight for a very special kind of TV-news operative.

The anchors who moderate presidential debates have long walked a tightrope. If they let the candidates prattle on about every talking point, they are perceived as soft. If they interrupt too frequently to correct the record or make sure the candidates don’t pivot to overt promotion, they’re seen as stepping beyond the bounds of their position.

Holt takes on the duty in a race for the White House that is unlike any other in recent memory. Both candidates bring with them heavy baggage: Hillary Clinton is bogged down with controversy from her husband’s term as President as well as her service as U.S. Secretary of State. Donald Trump has demonstrated a willingness to prevaricate and embellish, without offering much detail on the nuts and bolts of his policies and ideas.

In years past, viewers tuned in for the clash of candidates. Now they’re likely to scrutinize a role that in years past was perceived as a mere element of the show. “There will be about as much focus on the moderators as there will be on the candidates,” said Krista Jenkins, a professor of political science at Farleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.

In the past, this wasn’t necessarily the case.  But veteran moderators in the past never had to grapple with being critiqued in real time on Twitter – or with two candidates who have proven so polarizing.

“Holt will need to be more proactive, unafraid to challenge a candidate when they are evasive or inaccurate,” said Laura Merrifield Albright, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis.  “Many of the moderators for the round of primary debates received criticism for perceived bias questioning or a failure to challenge a candidate for false statements and because of this and the fact that both candidates have markedly low approval ratings, expectations for the moderators are going to be higher.”

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The ”NBC Nightly News” anchor will test his mettle before what is expected to be a massive audience in today’s world of splintered TV viewing. The first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney in 2012 reached 67 million viewers. Given the professional-wrestling vibe that has attended this year’s contest, some estimates have called for as many as 80 million to 100 million viewers to tune in to various broadcasts by ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, CNN. CSPAN, MSNBC and CNBC. Many of the TV outlets are covering the debate as if it’s a Super Bowl, complete with pre-shows – which only fuels the spectacle.

Holt isn’t the only news anchor who will work under a microscope in the coming cycle of debates. Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC News’ Martha Raddatz will also have a turn at questioning the candidates in coming weeks while CBS News’ Elaine Quijano will moderate a debate between the candidates for Vice President.

But he is the TV-news personality who leads off the series. Not only will viewers watch his work with a closer eye, aided by the amplification of social media, but Holt will also be working on behalf of his employer, NBCUniversal. The company has taken some lumps in recent months for its political coverage. In the fall of 2015, a CNBC-hosted debate among Republican candidates was viewed as poorly handled, with moderators who seemed ill-prepared.  A forum held earlier this month that had Matt Lauer questioning Clinton and Trump individually came off as awkwardly staged and drew stinging criticism. Trump’s recent visit to Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight” sparked outrage that the host – who has never portrayed himself as someone who puts guests on the hot seat – didn’t ask the candidate tougher questions.

Even if Holt challenges the candidates, it may not save the day. Conservatives in 2012 took CNN’s Candy Crowley to task after she corrected Republican candidate Mitt Romney after his claim that President Obama did not quickly refer to the attack in Benghazi, Libya, against the U.S. consulate as an “act of terror.” Obama had, Crowley told him, and Romney was mistaken.

“Questions have to be framed very carefully,” noted David Denomie, director of debate at Marquette University. “Both candidates and their campaigns will be on hair-trigger to jump on any possible unintended wordings that seem to tilt one way or the other. And the moderator in every debate will have to be very cautious to avoid being seen as yet a third, unpredictable, big personality that may compete with one or the other of the two candidates.”

Holt has entered his own personal version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” He can’t be too soft. He can’t be too hard. And yet, being “just right” may rankle the sensibilities the supporters of either candidate.

He has been just that for NBC. He took over “Nightly News” unofficially in the wake of the scandal surrounding its longtime anchor Brian Williams last year. Once NBC gave him the role officially, the evening newscast bounced back in the ratings and has largely dominated both ABC and CBS week after week. Holt is credited with having a calm but authoritative presence and maintaining control even when the job calls for long hours in crisis moments.

He has before him a balancing act many could never pull off. Unlike those who have suffered scrutiny for their handling of recent events, Holt isn’t an entertainer or cable-news host who has to keep audiences fascinated with a story for hours. If he calls balls and strikes on both sides with equal measure, perhaps he can win the game.

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  1. goatsandmonkeys says:

    Holt was fine.
    If he’d tried to catch Trump on all his lies, it would’ve turned into a Holt/Trump debate. He let the candidates both talk enough so that we could get a good grasp of their natures.
    He remained as transparent as possible.

  2. BillUSA says:

    “Lester Holt’s Debate-Night Job Has Grown Exponentially More Difficult”

    How? Was he told to be even-handed?

    • Lester Holt in my opinion has not done a good job with this debate. Too much time giving Donald Trump and not holding him accountable on this debate. In my estimate, a terrible job monitoring. Is he scared of Donald Trump? I had hoped he would have been more in control!!!!

      • James Shepherd says:

        Naturally it was more difficult. He clearly showed favoritism toward Clinton and he set the stage accordingly. Back 50-60 year ago, when we had a good education system in this country, we were taught to debate with each other, not be “controlled” by a moderator. Good debates then were designed to allow the debaters to face each other and do what they are there to do – debate, not talk through a 3rd party. I wasn’t watching this to evaluate the moderator. The sparring between the two candidates is what we turned on our TV to see, and what Donald Trump did is to set the bar way higher on how to debate. He clearly came out on top because he had the courage to tell it like it should be told. That is the way all the debates should be conducted from now on, not like some wimpy tea party, with all its “political correctness” spin. Have someone, anyone, especially a non-media person, open the debate with one question and then sit back and let the candidates talk it out – arguing, countering, agreeing. Just let it all be natural. Would the media please just once please stop trying to control everything. We get our fill of it every night by the hyped up news anchors.

  3. This article carefully avoids Lester Holt’s race as a factor given Trump’s characterization of ALL blacks as well as the bias-reporting NBC has shown for Clinton and against Trump.

    There are greater concerns than lying, which both candidates have done. And a lack of detail is not among them. Policies at home, eorking with Congress, and d taring down world leaders is more a concern than Bill’s lack of morality or Trump’s tax records.

  4. Lorin Ryle says:

    I would love to see this asked. To each candidate. List 3 accounts of public service to our country you have served prior to running for President. Factually.

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