October 5, 2016

The first presidential debate was preceded by lots of chatter about the fact-checking duties of the moderator.

While NBC’s Lester Holt occasionally pushed back during the first debate regarding inaccurate claims — and was accused of being an “ignorant fact-checker” by former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani — vice presidential debate moderator Elaine Quijano completely avoided fact-checking Tuesday night.

After the debate, media observers judged whether Quijano’s questions, uttered over continuous interruptions, made positions from the rival candidates clearer. But leaving those questions aside, did she miss opportunities to fact-check on the debate stage? As we did with Holt last week, we rate her on our freshly-minted Potted-Plant-O-Meter from no plant (?) to three potted plants (???).

On the Iranian nuclear deal

Kaine suggested Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton led successful negotiations to “eliminate the Iranian nuclear weapons program,” which Pence responded to by repeating the claim in disbelief. As The Washington Post Fact Checker has written “Kaine leans way over on his skis here.” The deal, concluded by Clinton’s successor John Kerry, can more appropriately be characterized as freezing and delaying Iran’s nuclear capabilities rather than eliminating them altogether.

Quijano jumped in shortly after to move the debate toward the economy. Closing the argument by summarizing the actual Iran deal would have provided a service to the audience at home.

Rating:  ???

On Bill Clinton calling the Affordable Care Act a crazy plan

Pence slammed the ACA (“Obamacare”) and noted that former president Bill Clinton had called it a “crazy plan.” The aspiring First Gentleman partially walked the comment back, calling the health care law “the craziest thing,” and Quijano did well to avoid litigating what a campaign surrogate did or didn’t say.

Rating: ?

On poverty numbers

“There are millions more people living in poverty today” than when Obama was sworn in, said Pence. The poverty level “improved dramatically between 2014-2015,” rebutted Kaine.

While the Director of the Commission for Presidential Debates would have undoubtedly disapproved of the moderator “serving as the Encyclopaedia Britannica,” Quijano could have projected the actual poverty numbers on a screen.

These show, as Kaine says, a dramatic improvement between 2014 and 2015, but also an increase since 2008. Introducing some nuance and informing the audience that we are only armed with numbers that tell us the situation in 2015, not the condition today, would have enriched the debate experience.

Rating:  ???

On tax returns and Richard Nixon

Kaine was clearly more than keen to bring up the subject of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s tax returns. On the debate stage he mentioned a talking point he’s been fond of, tweaking it slightly: “Richard Nixon released his tax returns when he was under audit,” Kaine said.

Quijano interrupted them both to restore some order and moved on to Social Security. She could have pointed out that Nixon was under audit but not running for election when he released his returns.

While Kaine was more careful with his wording than in the past, tax returns in general and this comparison in particular have surfaced so often that this would have been a useful point of fact to assert in front of a large audience.

Rating:  ??

On the Clinton Foundation vs the Trump Foundation

Pence and Kaine spent a significant amount of time towards the end of the debate tearing down their respective running mates’ foundations.

Pence first quoted an AP investigation on the overlap between Clinton Foundation donors and meetings Hillary Clinton had while at the State Department. He then said only 10 percent of Clinton Foundation money goes to charity, when Charity Watch says the figure spent on programs is close to 90 percent. He concluded by arguing that “virtually every cent in the Trump Foundation” goes “to charitable causes.” As David Fahrenthold’s dogged investigations show, that is quite a stretch.

This would have been a lot to unpack in one go and close to the end of the debate was probably not a good time for a lengthy primer on the foundations. Mentioning that the AP, The Washington Post and many fact-checkers had more on both organizations could have been a quick way to direct curious viewers to find helpful context.

Rating: ?

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Alexios Mantzarlis joined Poynter to lead the International Fact-Checking Network in September of 2015. In this capacity he writes about and advocates for fact-checking. He…
Alexios Mantzarlis

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