Don't Get Lauer'd: Nervous Networks Prep for Presidential Debates

30rep_opener+2 - H - 2016

The Clinton-Trump showdown has put news chiefs on unsure footing as the media — not just the candidates — become the story. Says retired PBS anchor Jim Lehrer, who has moderated 12 debates, "There's no way to do it without being criticized."

As the clock ticks town to the first presidential debate on Sept. 26, network and cable news divisions tasked with moderating the three face-offs between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are girding for an especially tricky candidate in Trump, a likely surplus of animosity from both sides and unprecedented attention being placed on the moderators themselves. "If you look into the abyss of social media, it's just fulminating hate all the time," complains one news executive. "The environment is so toxic."

Moderating a presidential debate should be an honorific, a chance to showcase a network's anchor in front of an enormous TV audience. More than 67 million people across networks watched the first 2012 tussle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, a viewership high not seen since 80 million people tuned in to Jimmy Carter's first debate with Ronald Reagan in 1980 (the last time a candidate with a Hollywood pedigree stepped into the presidential spotlight). This year's numbers could be higher. "It's going to be probably the most watched presidential debate in history," predicts Jim Lehrer, the retired PBS anchor who moderated 12 presidential debates, including the first Obama-Romney back-and-forth in 2012. "We've got two candidates for president who are sharply divided in all kinds of ways. And the campaign has gotten very personal between them."

Trump's TV skills, honed during his years on The Apprentice, as well as his contentious relationship with the press, are putting the moderators under increased media scrutiny. NBC's Lester Holt has the unenviable task of going first. Already, on Sept. 19, Trump lashed out at Holt, telling Fox News' Bill O'Reilly: "Lester is a Democrat. It's a phony system. They are all Democrats. It's a very unfair system." This despite New York voting records showing the Nightly News anchor has been a registered Republican since 2003 and Holt earning positive reviews from both sides of the political spectrum for moderating NBC's only primary debate in January — with the Democrats. Adding to the anxiety at NBC News, Holt is following closely on the heels of colleague Matt Lauer's widely criticized handling of a Sept. 7 forum with the candidates on national security, in which Lauer is perceived to have gone easy on Trump.

The added scrutiny, much of it fueled by social media, means news divisions are on lockdown like never before as they prep for what many assume will be vitriolic exchanges, full of opportunities to fact-check the candidates' statements (especially Trump's). "The process is so buttoned up," says one source at NBC News. "Nothing is coming out of the prep team at all." At NBC, that team includes NBC News and MSNBC chairman Andrew Lack, NBC News president Deborah Turness, NBC's political unit and Janelle Rodriguez, senior vp editorial and a veteran of CNN. Nightly News executive producer Sam Singal also is involved. Holt has announced three broad topics for the debate, to be held at Hofstra University on Long Island in New York: America's direction, achieving prosperity and securing America. Certainly, national security will be top of mind given the terrorist-linked bombings in New York and New Jersey a week before the candidates are to meet.

Much of the criticism of debate moderators is coming from Trump himself, who has hurled personal insults at reporters, banned outlets from events and demanded payment (indirectly) from TV networks carrying much watched primary debates. In a Sept. 14 interview with the Washington Post (a paper once banished from covering Trump events), the candidate claimed moderator Anderson Cooper will be biased. "I don't think he should be a moderator. … CNN is the Clinton News Network." Reps for CNN and NBC News declined comment and refused to make anchors available.

At the same time, Clinton supporters have called out the media for "grading [Trump] on a curve," as President Obama put it at a rally in Philadelphia on Sept. 13. He says the media is not holding Trump to the same standard it holds Clinton: "Donald Trump says stuff every day that used to be considered as disqualifying a president, and yet because he says it over and over and over again, the press just gives up."

Cooper and ABC News' Martha Raddatz will co-moderate a town hall debate Oct. 9, while Fox News Channel's Chris Wallace will handle the final debate Oct. 19. Wallace, who is a registered Democrat so he can vote in Washington, D.C.'s Democrat-dominated primaries, is working with his researcher on prep but has said he won't begin to compose questions until after the other two debates. CBS News correspondent and CBSN anchor Elaine Quijano perhaps has the least fraught task: She'll moderate the Oct. 4 vice presidential debate between Republican Gov. Mike Pence and Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine.

Insiders note that, more than ever, how moderators craft their questions and, more importantly, their follow-ups, is paramount. "You have to be comfortable enough to make these kinds of split-second decisions, and the only way you get comfortable is to do your homework," says Lehrer. All the moderators will be on guard to halt candidates (and perhaps especially Trump) from eliding past statements and facts. "He just blows by questions," notes one TV news veteran, referring to Trump. For instance, Trump claimed in a bizarre media op Sept. 16 at his new Washington hotel that Clinton started the so-called "birther" movement and he "finished it" by compelling Obama to release his birth certificate in 2011. (Politifact has rated this "pants on fire" yarn a "full flop.")

It's unclear whether Holt will wade into the renewed controversy surrounding the fictitious birther conspiracy. But if he doesn't follow up on incorrect statements, media watchdogs and social media users will pounce, much like they did on Lauer.

"The debaters should be given the first opportunity to call out their opponent, but if they don't, the moderators must do it, and that is more important than ever because there is so much distorted and just flat wrong information out there," says CBS' Bob Schieffer, who served as a moderator in each of the past three elections. "For example, one in five Americans [incorrectly] thinks the president was not born in America, and nearly 30 percent believe he's a Muslim."

Lehrer, who was criticized in 2012 for letting Romney talk too much, says attacks from either side can't be a deterrent to aggressive questioning: "If you don't want to be criticized, don't be a moderator. There's no way to do it without being criticized."


The Battlefield

Sept. 26: NBC's Lester Holt in Hempstead N.Y.

Oct. 4 (VP debate): CBS' Elaine Quijano in Farmville, Va.

Oct. 9 (Town Hall): ABC's Martha Raddatz and CNN's Anderson Cooper in St. Louis

Oct. 19: Fox News' Chris Wallace in Las Vegas

This story first appeared in the Sept. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.