September 28, 2020

The big media event of the week — well, as far as we know as of now — is Tuesday night’s presidential debate. Fox News’ Chris Wallace will moderate the first of three scheduled presidential debates. (There also will be one vice presidential debate.)

So what is the role of a moderator? To ask good questions on a variety of topics and to keep the candidates focused on those topics. A good moderator also needs to make sure the candidates answer the questions asked if they try to pivot or duck.

But is it their role to fact-check? No, according to Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chair for the Commission on Presidential Debates. On his CNN “Reliable Sources” show, Brian Stelter asked Fahrenkopf if Wallace would be empowered to fact-check Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

“When we choose moderators, we make very clear that there’s a vast difference between being a moderator in a debate and being a reporter who is interviewing someone,” Fahrenkopf said. “When you’re interviewing someone, if they say something that is in direct opposition to something they said a week ago, your duty is to follow up and say, ‘Wait a minute, you didn’t say that a week ago.’ But that’s not the case in a debate.”

Fahrenkopf said if one of the candidates says something untrue or flip flops on a previous position, it’s the role of the other candidate to call it out. Fahrenkopf said that’s the whole point: to get the candidates to debate one another.

“We don’t expect Chris or our other moderators to be fact-checkers,” Fahrenkopf said. “The minute (the debate is over) there are going to be plenty of fact-checkers at every newspaper and every television station in the world.

This piece originally appeared in The Poynter Report.

Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer. For the latest media news and analysis, delivered free to your inbox each and every weekday morning, sign up for his Poynter Report newsletter.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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