Glenn Kessler illustrates why moderators shouldn’t “fact check”

In advance of Monday night’s debate, Hillary Clinton’s cheerleaders in the media have been encouraging moderator Lester Holt to contradict, during the debate, candidates whose assertions of fact they disagree with. Glenn Kessler, the liberal “fact-checker” for the Washington Post, even compiled a list of assertions he says don’t withstand fact-checking, the vast majority of which are by Donald Trump. He urges the moderator to “clip and save.”

It is wholly inappropriate for a moderator to argue with a candidate about facts, and Kessler’s piece illustrates one of the main reasons why. In his list of allegedly false facts articulated by Trump, Kessler includes this one:

The rise of ISIS is the direct result of policy decisions made by Obama and Clinton.

“This is false,” Kessler declares:

The Islamic terrorist group emerged as a direct result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Thus, Kessler, who, wants moderators to use his list, is encouraging Lester Holt to debate Donald Trump about what caused the rise of ISIS — the policies of Obama and Clinton or the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Any fair-minded person will realize that this is not a moderator’s proper role.

Moreover, Kessler, the fact-checker, doesn’t seem even to understand the difference between a factual question, a matter of opinion, and a mixed question of fact and opinion.

Statements about causation — e.g., what policy produced what result — tend not to be pure questions of fact. Complex phenomena usually have multiple causes and/or things that plausibly can said to be a cause. What politicians and their friends in the media (and litigators) call “the cause” (or “the direct result,” to use Kessler’s phrase) inevitably will be whatever is in their interest (or the interest of their client) to blame.

As a liberal, Kessler wants to blame the invasion of Iraq for the rise of ISIS. As an opponent of Clinton, Trump wants to blame Obama administration policy. Neither is lying or inventing facts. They are using selective facts to support opinions that serve their interest. At worst, they are spinning.

Keep in mind, too, that assigning a causal relationship between a policy and a result usually requires speculation about what would have occurred absent the policy. Such speculation is more a matter of opinion than of fact.

Would ISIS not have emerged in the absence of the U.S. invasion of Iraq many years earlier? I don’t know, and neither does Kessler. But, as a partisan liberal, it’s in his interest to advance the claim that, but for our invasion of Iraq, there would be no ISIS, and that therefore its emergence is “the direct result” of the invasion.

That’s Kessler’s right. But he shouldn’t be asking the moderator of a presidential debate to advance this partisan position on Monday night.

Even if Kessler’s speculation about the effect of the Iraq invasion is correct, moreover, it is still not inconsistent with assigning responsibility for the rise of ISIS to Obama and Clinton. Whatever is true of the Iraq war, it may well be that ISIS would not have emerged as we know it — i.e., would not have risen to the point of being a serious menace — but for the policies of Obama and Clinton.

In other words, it’s possible that the rise of ISIS depended on both the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent policies of the Obama administration in Iraq (where we removed our troops) and Syria (where we were, in the view of many, too passive). Kessler appears to dismiss this possibility, as one would expect a partisan to do.

There are other reasons why moderators should not purport to “fact check” assertions made by candidates while the debate is in progress. Obviously, it allows the moderator’s bias to enter the proceedings, as Kessler’s claims about the rise of ISIS demonstrate.

But even in the absence of bias, moderator fact-checking is a recipe for mischief. The moderator, however he may view himself, is not omniscient. Rather, he knows only some facts.

Let’s say Candidate A asserts a false fact, the moderator knows the fact to be false, and he corrects Candidate A, thereby making him look bad. Now, let’s say Candidate B asserts a false fact, the moderator doesn’t know the fact to be false, and therefore doesn’t correct the candidate.

Candidate B has received an obvious and undeserved boost from the moderator. It should be the goal of the moderator to boost neither candidate.

My final point is that contemporaneous fact-checking by the moderator isn’t necessary. If a candidate misstates an important fact during the debate, the other candidate will probably call him or her on it. If a particular voter finds the dispute important, he or she will likely find out which candidate was right. An army of fact-checkers is available to assist the voter in this endeavor.

Even if the candidate who misstates a fact isn’t corrected by his or her opponent, the same army of fact-checkers will have its say once the debate is over. Voters who consider fact-checking valuable and reliable will consult the fact-checkers.

Unfortunately, the fact-checking army consists mostly of liberal partisans like Glenn Kessler. Even so, the post debate fact-checking likely will be more reliable and comprehensive than in-debate fact-checking performed by a moderator who has no time to check his own view of the facts and is busy enough trying to moderate the debate.

Despite the mischief associated with in-debate fact-checking by a moderator, I expect we’ll see some of it on Monday. Indeed, I expect we’ll see some of it because of the mischief it can cause.

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