How the Biden-Trump Debate Will Play on TV (Don’t Expect Fact-Checks)
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Chris Wallace does not hold mock debates. Instead, the “Fox News Sunday” anchor and presidential debate moderator has been honing his questions at his weekend home on Chesapeake Bay, before he flies to Cleveland to take charge of the opening bout between Joseph R. Biden Jr. and President Trump.
Tuesday’s debate, which airs commercial free from 9 to 10:30 p.m. Eastern time on every major network, is likely to attract a television and livestreaming audience of close to 100 million for the kind of civic gathering increasingly rare in a polarized, pandemic-stricken age.
A fragmented news media means that many voters will consume the Biden-Trump clash through a preferred, possibly biased lens, be it partisan cable news stations, custom-tailored social media feeds or online outlets that cater to ideological tribes.
But the few-frills format of Tuesday’s debate — two candidates, two lecterns, one moderator — is a break from highly produced events, like virtual conventions and overloaded primary debates, that have otherwise defined the major television moments of the 2020 presidential race.
The Commission on Presidential Debates, a bipartisan nonprofit group, controls the look and feel of Tuesday’s event, which is designed to evoke a more retro era of political combat. Because of social distancing, barely 100 people are expected to attend in person. Each candidate has two minutes to respond to a question, a Tolstoyan span by rapid-fire TV news standards.
Mr. Wallace, who won rave reviews in 2016 for his stewardship of the third debate between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton, is now in the catbird seat: The opening round typically attracts the largest audience of the campaign. The Fox News anchor will also face intense scrutiny on how he handles the evening, particularly given Mr. Trump’s tendency to hurl false and baseless claims at his opponents.
“My job is to be as invisible as possible,” Mr. Wallace, who has declined outside interviews ahead of his Tuesday appearance, said during a Fox News segment on Sunday. “I’m trying to get them to engage, to focus on the key issues, to give people at home a sense of, ‘why I want to vote for one versus the other.’”
That sink-into-the-background approach extends to fact-checking, which Mr. Wallace has regularly argued is outside the purview of a debate moderator, calling it “a step too far.”
“I do not believe it is my job to be a truth squad,” Mr. Wallace said in the run-up to his 2016 debate. “It’s up to the other person to catch them on that.” Those comments caused a minor stir at the time, but the debates’ organizers have made clear they agree.
“There’s a vast difference between being a moderator in a debate and being a reporter who is interviewing someone,” Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a co-chairman of the debate commission, told CNN on Sunday. “We don’t expect Chris or our other moderators to be fact checkers. The minute the TV is off, there are going to be plenty of fact checkers in every newspaper and every television station in the world. That’s not the role, the main role of our moderators.”
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Some media pundits have called on TV networks to impose their own fact-checks in real-time, through onscreen graphics, clarifying captions or cutaways to reporters offering context. Anchors on CNN and MSNBC occasionally broke into speeches during the Republican National Convention in August, pointing out falsehoods or baseless accusations.
That interventionist approach is less likely to occur on Tuesday, according to executives and producers at several TV networks. Unlike the conventions, executives said, the debates are intended as an unfiltered test of the candidates’ wits, stamina and ability to persuade the electorate.
“The debate is one of the rare opportunities where the public is seeing both of the presidential candidates together on the same stage, where they have a chance to not only respond to and address each other, but to speak directly to the American public,” said Caitlin Conant, the political director at CBS News. “We don’t want to get in between the voters and the candidates.”
That doesn’t mean Ms. Conant or other executives plan to shy away from correcting falsehoods. CBS, for example, has its Washington correspondent Major Garrett on standby for fact-checking during its prime-time broadcast. CNN’s in-house Trump fact checker, Daniel Dale, will be featured in the network’s coverage. Many TV news outlets are providing live fact-checking and analysis on their websites.
On Fox News on Sunday, Mr. Wallace said he had “an awful lot” to cover in 90 minutes, citing the coronavirus, racial tensions, economic problems and protests across the country. Just this weekend, the president nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and The New York Times published a major investigation revealing that Mr. Trump paid no federal income taxes in 10 of the 15 years before 2017.
How many viewers can even be swayed by Tuesday’s proceedings is an open question.
Roughly 70 percent of Americans said the debates would not matter much to their ultimate vote, according to a poll this month by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News. The survey found that 44 percent of respondents said the debates would not matter at all.
Eighty-four million Americans tuned in for Mr. Trump’s first debate with Ms. Clinton in 2016, on a par with major football games and last century’s sitcom finales. This year’s ratings may not match that, in part because so many viewers now use streaming services that cannot be credibly measured.
But some in the industry believe that the appeal of seeing Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump joust for the first time will be hard to resist.
“We’ve all seen a lot of politics on TV for months and months,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, a former producer of political event coverage at NBC News. “But Trump face to face with Biden is new.”