Chris Wallace — and all moderators — should play hardball in debates

Chris Wallace — and all moderators — should play hardball in debates

When Fox News anchor Chris Wallace recently told Fox News media commentator Howard Kurtz that the function of the debate moderator is not to be a truth squad, this comment greatly troubled me, along with many others, especially after the harsh reaction to Matt Lauer’s hosting of the recent “Commander-in-Chief Forum.”

Wallace also said the candidates, not the moderators, should be the story. Fair enough — so long as moderators reject Republican presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor The US-Iranian scuffle over a ship is a sideshow to events in the Gulf South Korea: US, North Korea to resume nuclear talks 'soon' MORE’s tactic of trying to bully journalists and make them the story if they ask and he refuses to honestly answer proper questions.

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I have great respect for Wallace as a highly skilled newsman and news anchor. There are some at Fox News who, at times, fall into the role of propagandist for Republicans, conservatives or Trump. But there are others — including Wallace, Brit Hume, Megyn Kelly and Shepard Smith — whom I have great respect for as professional journalists.

After deep fact-checking in preparation for this column, I now believe that Wallace’s views of his role as moderator are widely misunderstood and he will do fine. For example, a little-noticed recent interview with Hume included this exchange:

HUME: So, your intent would be, in the situation like that, to quickly give the other candidate the opportunity to pick up on what appears to be a factual misstatement?

WALLACE: Yeah, absolutely. And I’m not saying that if they don’t want that I won’t, but that would certainly be my preference that they ride herd and keep checking on each other.

Time will tell, but this and other research leads me to have confidence that Wallace as moderator will not stand idly by and let factual misstatements remain unchallenged.

The major challenge for all moderators in debates is how to address Trump, who often makes statements that are untrue or, to put it bluntly, outright lies.

Consider the Iraq War. The GOP nominee claims that he has always opposed the Iraq War. Debate moderators should ask Trump directly about his statement in a 2002 interview with Howard Stern — before the war began — that he supported it. This is not merely a dispute between two candidates — it is the difference between the truth and a lie. The moderator should intervene on the side of the truth. Trump did not always oppose the Iraq War. Period.

Consider Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, which every other nominee for the last half-century has done, including Richard Nixon while he was being audited. Since the real estate magnate is basing his campaign on his claimed business success, debate moderators should be vigilant about asking tough questions — and, if necessary, assertive follow-up questions — about his refusal to disclose his tax returns.

If Trump gives his usual answer that voters do not care about his returns, moderators then should ask something like the following: Mr. Trump, some observers believe it is possible that you paid no taxes over the last decade. What was your average effective tax rate during this period, and shouldn’t you release the returns to verify this? Since you often praise Russian President Vladimir Putin, a dictator whose intelligence services are engaging in major covert action against American elections, according to American intelligence analysts, shouldn’t you release the returns to verify that you have no business interests with, or loans from, sources associated with governments hostile to American interests in Russia or elsewhere?

Moderators might also ask: Mr. Trump, since your campaign is based on your business success, and some believe your net worth might be far below what you are claiming, shouldn’t you release the returns to validate for voters the business success you claim? A recent investigate story in The Wall Street Journal suggested that you have had relationships with individuals associated with organized crime. What in this story was factually inaccurate? Shouldn’t you release your returns for voters to assess your business relationships?

And moderators should ask: Mr. Trump, if you learned that Putin had ordered the murder or unjust imprisonment of political opponents, would you call those the acts of a strong leader?

Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) and Rep. Bill Alexander (D-Ark.), then chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. in international financial law from the London School of Economics. He can be read on The Hill’s Contributors blog and reached at brentbbi@webtv.net.