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

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

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

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.”

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.