“NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt moderated his first presidential debate like a boxing referee who lets the fighters go at it in the middle of the ring.
Holt’s largely unobtrusive style during the first meeting Monday night of Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton had its detractors on social media. But it played well in the spin room at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., where the media were gathered to cover the event.
“I thought he had a great night,” said Mark McKinnon, a former Republican consultant who is now a producer and co-host for Showtime’s political series “The Circus.” “I thought he pressed where he needed to press. It never got out of control, which is what you want from a debate moderator.”
When was the last time you had a debate where the moderator was able to get out of the way and make sure all of the issues were hit?
Tammy Haddad, co-host of the “Bloomberg Masters in Politics” podcast and a veteran TV news producer, agreed.
“I think he did the impossible,” she said. “When was the last time you had a debate where the moderator was able to get out of the way and make sure all of the issues were hit? I think he did it. I think he did it well. I think you learned more in this one evening than the last month of the campaign. But that’s a tribute to him pulling himself aside but keeping the pressure on.”
Joe Peyronnin, a former CBS News executive who teaches journalism at Hofstra, noted that Clinton supporters were critical of Holt for allowing Trump to speak “too many times” during the debate.
But Peyronnin noted how Holt did try to make up for the shortcoming of his network’s poorly received “Commander-in-Chief Forum” with the candidates on Sept. 7. At that event, “Today” co-anchor Matt Lauer received major heat for failing to fact check Trump for falsely stating his opposition to the Iraq war. This time around, Holt did fact check his statements.
“He did a very effective job,” Peyronnin said. “He gave the candidates their time, although Trump was harder to control.”
Political strategist David Plouffe, who supports Clinton, said Holt did “a pretty good job,” but believes the candidates need to focus on their own performance than the moderator.
“Generally you’ve got to take care of your own business,” Plouffe said. “You’ve got to prosecute the case. He moved the debate along. I’m just a believer that you have to control your own destiny. You better be prepared to win the debate or do as well as you can, no matter what the moderator does or does not do.”