Sizing up Lester Holt’s low-key debate performance

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Nothing Lester Holt did Monday night could have made every viewer happy; the role of debate moderator is a thankless one. But with a steady, if at times quiet, performance in front of tens of millions, the NBC anchor did a solid for a press chagrined again and again throughout this campaign. 

Holt mostly left the debating to the candidates, who at times interrupted each other unchecked (it goes without saying one did this more than the other). In wake of widespread discussion over whether the moderator should truth-squad in real time, however, Holt challenged Donald Trump’s continued embrace of birther conspiracies and continued claims he initially opposed the Iraq War. Watch the latter moment in the clip below: 

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Early reviews by mainstream outlets applauded such pushback, though they characterized Holt’s performance as restrained overall. “Call him the minimalist moderator,” The New York Times wrote. “Lester Holt stays out of the way,” a Politico headline read. The New Yorker’s Andy Borowitz wrote a faux news story about a CNN “manhunt after Lester Holt vanishes from debate.” Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan likewise made the case that the moderator should have taken a more hands-on role. 

But forget such generally positive takes by mainstream analysts. Media fragmentation has been among the primary storylines of 2016, and it was on full display during and immediately after the widely watched contest. Conservative criticisms of Holt might as well have been pre-written based on ideological priors, focusing mostly on what he didn’t ask about, including the attack on an American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.

The writeup by Breitbart News—perhaps the best analog for the id of the Trump movement—is fairly similar to criticism by The Republican Party, Fox News, The Daily Caller, Media Research Center, and more conspiracy driven sources:

Holt lived up to the expectations of his peers. But he lived down to the worst expectations of conservatives, who routinely see Republican candidates treated unfairly by debate moderators.

Again and again, Holt asked Trump tough questions that were straight from the Clinton campaign’s talking points, and which were obvious set-ups for Clinton to attack (and for fact-checkers to pounce on whatever Trump asserted in his own defense).

Heat Street, a conservative opinion site owned by News Corp., meanwhile led with Holt on its homepage Tuesday morning:

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None of this is particularly surprising. The focus on Benghazi and Clinton’s private email server is par for the course for right-leaning media criticism this cycle. But what is notable is that the Republican candidate, who has repeatedly harangued journalists as dishonest and at times blacklisted news organizations from covering his campaign, didn’t immediately share it.

“I thought Lester did a great job,” Trump told CNN’s Dylan Byers during the candidate’s unusual appearance in the post-debate spin room. “Honestly, I thought he did a great job.”

Added Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway in a separate spin-room interview: “I thought Lester Holt did a great job as moderator.”

Interestingly, the Trump campaign seemed to change its tune this morning. “[Holt] gave me very unfair questions at the end, the last three or four questions,” Trump said while calling into Fox & Friends. “But I’m not complaining about that. He did OK.”

The candidate went on to complain about how Holt didn’t ask Clinton about her private email server (he did, though lightly and without follow-ups), Benghazi, and the Clinton Foundation. Conway and vice presidential candidate Mike Pence shared near-identical criticisms in separate TV appearances Tuesday morning.

This is a point worth highlighting: The Trump team decided to blame the ref after sleeping on it. It speaks to the Republican candidate’s perception of his own showing in the debate more so than it does Holt’s performance as moderator. When highlight reels of the contest are cut, it will be Clinton and Trump—not the man sitting before them—on center stage. The NBC newsman challenged clear lies without venturing too far into the fray, an admirable, low-key performance under unprecedented pressure. 

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.