Presidential Debates Executive Director on Moderators Fact Checking: ‘I Don’t Think It’s A Good Idea’

Sunday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” while discussing the moderator’s role of  fact checking during the presidential debates, the executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Janet Brown said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopedia Britannica.  And I think it’s better for that person to facilitate and to depend on the candidates to basically correct each other as they see fit.”

Partial transcript as follows:

BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST AND SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT:  Welcome back.  We are live from Hofstra University, the site of Monday night’s presidential debate.  We are here inside of the hall where the cameras are in place and the pretend stand-ins are actually practicing behind us.   What you may not know is that although you can watch the debate on CNN and pretty much other network and website, the debates are not produced or sponsored by any television network.  They are actually run by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonprofit group lead by both Republicans and Democrats So, just what has the commission had to contend with this extraordinary year?   Who better to ask than Janet Brown, the executive director of the commission, who joins me now for an exclusive interview. Janet, great to see you.


STELTER:  Is everything ready?  This is a brand-new set.  Is it ready?

BROWN:  Everything is ready.  It is a brand-new set.  We’re very proud of it.

STELTER:  How hard has it been to get Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton onto the stage tomorrow night?  You know, because there was speculation all summer that Trump might try to back out of this debate.

BROWN:  We have been having productive and civil, progressive communications with the campaigns.  Everything is going very well — all of it is focused on exactly what you’re looking at behind you, which is bringing everything together in time for the debate tomorrow night.

STELTER:  Had there been any giant issues behind the scenes, any complaints from the campaigns?

BROWN:  No, I’m happy to say that there is agreement on almost everything.  It’s been very productive.

STELTER:  What about who’s going to be sitting in the front row?  We know Clinton campaign invited Mark Cuba.  Trump threatens to invite Gennifer Flowers.  Now, the campaign says that’s not happening. Is there anybody who wouldn’t be allowed to sit in the front row?

BROWN:  The first several rows are generally the close family and friends of the candidates.  It’s up to them to decide who is in those seats.   But the most important thing, Brian, for everyone to understand is that there is a very small audience behind us, a live audience will be here tomorrow night.  The big audience, the important audience is the home audience in this country and abroad.  And the job of everybody in this hall is to be respectful and silent and to make sure —

STELTER:  Silent?

BROWN:  Silent, and to make sure that all of the time any attention is given to the candidates and their positions.

STELTER:  Some people on Twitter have asked me, why have an audience at all?

BROWN:  You know, we’ve held the debates on college and university campuses, almost every single one since we got started in ’88.  This is a great opportunity to involve the young people in what is at the end of the day, the biggest civics education forum that’s going on.   A huge number of these seats will be given to the students of Hofstra University, which I think is just a great opportunity for them to be involved and to see this firsthand.  A live audience makes it different in terms of what the candidates are doing to whom they are speaking, and I think that it warms it up, but unlike the primary debates where there was audience participation, there is to be none here, and I think whoever is in those seats will respect that.

STELTER:  You mentioned the audience at home, what’s your ratings prediction?  One hundred million?

BROWN:  I don’t know.  That’s what — you guys are the pros.


BROWN:  And the networks are saying they think in that range.

STELTER:  What makes this debate different?  Why does the format matter?

BROWN:  The format matters, because the 90 minutes without any commercial interruption are the only chance that the public gets to see the leading candidates in the same situation answering the same questions which are not known to the candidates nor to the commission.  The moderator is in charge of picking those.   This is a unique opportunity to learn more about the candidates and the formats are designed to get away from any kind of time interference.  There’ll be six 15-minute blocks of time, each of which is devoted to a major question.

STELTER:  What about the issue of fact checking that has been talked about so much in the past few weeks?  Does the commission want Lester Holt to fact check?

BROWN:  The commission asks independent, smart journalists to be the moderators and we let them decide how they’re going to do this.  But I have to say, in our history, the moderators have found it appropriate to allow the candidates to be the ones that talk about the accuracy or the fairness of what the other candidate or candidates might have said.   I think, personally, if you are starting to get into the fact-check, I’m not sure what is the big fact, and what is a little fact?  And if you and I information, does your source about the unemployment rate agree with my source?   I don’t think it’s a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopedia Britannica.  And I think it’s better for that person to facilitate and to depend on the candidates to basically correct each other as they see fit.

STELTER:  What’s the hardest part for you during all of this preparation?

BROWN:  The hardest part maybe just to — given the long to-do list, is to be able to keep perspective on the fact that we are really lucky that we can see civil substantive debates in this country.  This is a remarkable facet of our democracy and it’s an incredible privilege to work on it.

STELTER:  I always wish that we could have more than three, and how about you?

BROWN:  Yes, we’re game.  We’re game.

STELTER:  You like to do more — if the candidates would be willing?

BROWN:  It’s a short period of time, and three and one, three presidential, one vice presidential seem to be enough.  But it’s a great thing to work on together as you know.

STELTER:  Janet, thank you so much.

BROWN:  Thanks, Brian.

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