Are We Really Arguing Over Whether Journalists Should Fact Check the Debates?

You cannot possibly consider this a question worth discussing

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton face off in the first general-election debate Monday evening. Credit: Steve Pope/Getty; Melina Mara/Getty

If a fact falls in the forest and nobody's around to check it, does it make a goddamn bit of difference?

Some journalists are – astoundingly, mind-blowingly – engaged in a fierce debate over whether moderator Lester Holt should fact check the candidates during Monday's first presidential debate. One candidate's campaign opposes the idea of live fact checking; the other supports it.

Of course inveterate liar Donald Trump doesn't want anyone checking what he says. But how can anyone who claims to be a journalist possibly contemplate not checking his lies? What do journalists believe their job is?

That cult of objectivity has been a straightjacket wrapped tightly around much of the media over the course of this election (and many before it). It is difficult to call someone a liar to his face on live television, no matter how the facts back you up. Stating the truth about who Trump is and what he does in simple, clear terms crosses some sort of line too many anchors and journalists are unwilling the cross.

Telling the truth is impolite.

So instead, too often journalists fall back on the false idol of objectivity. It sounds good, doesn’t it? Looking at all sides fairly, balancing your coverage, treating everyone the same? That’s what journalists should do, in theory. But what happens when the facts themselves aren't balanced – when, for example, one candidate for president is an experienced public servant with a broad and deep understanding of policy, and the other is the human equivalent of Burger King's new Cheeto-coated chicken fries?

The truth there doesn't look objective. Covering Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump fairly can look like you're biased against Trump and in favor of Clinton, because he's so absolutely, genuinely awful: an inexperienced, racist, misogynist liar who isn't smart enough to speak intelligently on any matter of policy without a pre-written speech.

Trump isn't smart, but he is savvy – savvy enough to understand the media dynamics of this race. Trump has spent the last several decades inserting himself into tabloid headlines, even pretending to be a spokesman for himself without bothering to disguise his distinctive voice. He knows as well as anyone that sometimes an outlet will put truth aside to make a story fit its narrative. And he understands the media has helped make his campaign a success. His strategy during the primaries was to garner as much coverage as he could with as little money and effort as possible, and it worked.

The result has been to give Trump, the least qualified human being to ever look askance at the presidency, a real shot at winning the White House. The media's collective failure – treating an unserious man as serious – has put the country in real danger.

We fix it with the truth, unbiased and unvarnished – the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That means calling Trump a liar when he lies, calling him a racist when he says racist things, reminding viewers and readers that Trump is dangerously unqualified for the presidency, and pointing out that his answers to serious questions amount to unserious nonsense.

The expectations for Monday's debate are already set in stone. Clinton has to be perfect. She has to be brilliant and warm. She can't talk too loudly or smile too little. Any mistakes of substance or style, and the press will pounce.

Trump has to act like a relatively normal human being for 90 minutes.

But let's be frank about what will actually happen Monday night. A smart, experienced woman will speak intelligently about what she wants to do for the country. She'll probably try to score a few zingers, because that's what you do at presidential debates; they may or may not land. At the other lectern, a man will spout nonsense. He'll lie. He will have the thinnest possible understanding of the issues being discussed, and it will be apparent with every word out of his mouth.

An honest assessment of Monday's debate will make it clear a qualified candidate for president debated an unqualified candidate. That's the story. That’s the truth of the matter.

But what story will be blasted across headlines? Will Lester Holt fact check Trump every time – or even some of the times – he says something flatly untrue? And after the debate ends, will major outlets grade Trump on a curve, pretending the thin gruel of his answers represents presidential seriousness? If he manages to make it through an hour and a half without an outward eruption of misogyny, will they declare an unprepared clown prepared to be president?

There should be no debate about fact checking debates. The job of journalists is not to achieve balance or some fantastical notion of "objectivity." It isn't to treat two candidates with the same seriousness just because they're running for the same office.

The job of journalists should be to reveal truth, plainly and simply, no matter how impolite it might be. And this year – of all years! – that job is more important than ever. A failure to tell the complete truth could put a dangerously unprepared and underqualified, overinflated orange balloon into the Oval Office. The consequences of letting his lies go unchecked could be unthinkable.