Debate prep: How to call out a lie without calling it a lie

Lester Holt. Photo (cc) 2016 by Hermann.

Lester Holt. Photo (cc) 2016 by Hermann.

The big question going into tonight’s debate is whether moderator Lester Holt should call out blatant lies by the candidates—and especially by Donald Trump, whose relationship with the truth is tenuous, to say the least.

I don’t think it’s realistic for Holt or the moderators who come after him to act as a real-time fact-checking machine. He’ll have enough to do with keeping Trump and Hillary Clinton on track and making sure they’re both getting more or less equal time. But if someone—again, most likely Trump—tells a whopper, then Holt shouldn’t let it go. It’s all in how he does it. I’ll adopt the wisdom of my fellow Beat the Press panelists Callie Crossley and Jon Keller, who have both said that the way to do it is through tough follow-up questioning.

For instance, Candy Crowley took a lot of heat four years ago for essentially calling Mitt Romney a liar when Romney claimed that it took President Obama many days before he was willing to refer to the attack on Benghazi as “terrorism.” Given the pressures of the moment, I have no real problem with what Crowley said. But here’s what she could have said: “Governor Romney, didn’t the president refer to the attack as an ‘act of terror’ the next day?” Yes, that’s a loaded question, but it’s not an assertion, and Romney would have had an opportunity to respond.

In other words, fact-checking can be done with persistent questioning rather than by calling out BS. Even when it’s BS.

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