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Presidential debate moderator Lester Holt also in spotlight

"NBC Nightly News" anchor Lester Holt will moderate. He's pictured Oct. 28, 2015. Credit: AP / Jose Luis Villegas

The spotlight will be trained Monday at Hofstra University not only on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but also on debate moderator Lester Holt in a role that experts say may be subject to criticism whatever his performance.

How Holt, anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” referees the first general election matchup will be compared to that of network colleague Matt Lauer, criticized for for not immediately challenging Trump’s claim of early opposition to the Iraq War, experts said.

Clinton’s campaign has said Holt should fact-check, while Trump has suggested he let the candidates duke it out themselves.

It would seem moderators in the current political environment can’t win, said María Elena Salinas, a Noticiero Univision co-anchor, at a Paley Center of Media discussion earlier this month.

“No matter how well-prepared the moderators are going to be . . . they’re going to be criticized,” she said. “There’s always going to be someone who says it was an unfair question or there was not enough follow-up or they tried to beat me up.”

Both campaigns have laid out expectations for Holt set by past performances by moderators.

“All that we’re asking is that if Donald Trump lies, that it’s pointed out,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

Aides have said they believed GOP nominee Trump got easier questions than Clinton from Lauer at the recent forum viewed as a practice run for Monday’s formal face-off.

A Clinton fundraising pitch emailed in the days after the event bore the subject line, “Matt Lauer let Trump walk all over him.”

Meanwhile, Trump has called recently for the scrapping of debate moderators altogether. He also said he believes Holt is a Democrat — the anchor is a registered Republican — and cited the CNN correspondent who fact-checked Mitt Romney at a 2012 debate as an example of what Holt should not do.

“If she makes a mistake or if I make a mistake, we’ll take each other on,” Trump said of Clinton Thursday on “Fox and Friends.” “But I certainly don’t think you want Candy Crowley again.”

Crowley faced criticism in 2012 at Hofstra after she sought to correct Romney over when President Barack Obama called the Benghazi, Libya, attacks an “act of terror.”

Hofstra political science professor Meena Bose said a moderator’s role is a high-pressure balancing act.

“The moderator asks the questions, does the follow-up, oversees the time, and is responsible for both the substance and the process of the debate while it’s live in action,” she said.

Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University trustee professor of television and popular culture, said Holt has a record as a straight shooter.

Holt took over the lead anchor chair of “NBC Nightly News” from scandal-plagued Brian Williams more than a year ago. He has 35 years of experience in television journalism and was named this year to Time’s “100 Most Influential People” list.

“Lester Holt is not a guy who does one of these opinion shows on 24-hour cable news,” Thompson said. “He does a pretty old-school nightly news kind of thing.”

Errol Louis, a Time Warner Cable News NY1 anchor who helped to moderate the Democratic primary debate in April in Brooklyn, spoke at the Paley Center about the grueling preparations that Holt was likely also undergoing.

“It was many, many, many, many hours gaming out every question,” Louis said. “Not just what the question should be, but what’s the likely response, how do you catch the evasion, what words are they going to use?”


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