How the Biden-Trump Debate Will Play on TV (Don’t Expect Fact-Checks)

“My job is to be as invisible as possible,” said Chris Wallace of Fox News, the moderator of the opening matchup on Tuesday.


By Michael M. Grynbaum

[Follow our live updates on Trump vs Biden in the 2020 Election.]

Chris Wallace does not hold mock debates. Instead, the “Fox News Sunday” anchor and presidential debate moderator has been honing his questions at his weekend home on Chesapeake Bay, before he flies to Cleveland to take charge of the opening bout between Joseph R. Biden Jr. and President Trump.

Tuesday’s debate, which airs commercial-free from 9 to 10:30 p.m. Eastern time on every major network, is likely to attract a television and livestreaming audience of close to 100 million for the kind of civic gathering increasingly rare in a polarized, pandemic-stricken age.

A fragmented news media means that many voters will consume the Biden-Trump clash through a preferred, possibly biased lens, be it partisan cable news stations, custom-tailored social media feeds or online outlets that cater to ideological tribes.

But the few-frills format of Tuesday’s debate — two candidates, two lecterns, one moderator — is a break from highly produced events, like virtual conventions and overloaded primary debates, that have otherwise defined the major television moments of the 2020 presidential race.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, a bipartisan nonprofit group, controls the look and feel of Tuesday’s event, which is designed to evoke a more retro era of political combat. Because of social distancing, barely 100 people are expected to attend in person. Each candidate has two minutes to respond to a question, a Tolstoyan span by rapid-fire TV news standards.

Mr. Wallace, who won rave reviews in 2016 for his stewardship of the third debate between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton, is now in the catbird seat: The opening round typically attracts the largest audience of the campaign. The Fox News anchor will also face intense scrutiny on how he handles the evening, particularly given Mr. Trump’s tendency to hurl false and baseless claims at his opponents.

“My job is to be as invisible as possible,” Mr. Wallace, who has declined outside interviews ahead of his Tuesday appearance, said during a Fox News segment on Sunday. “I’m trying to get them to engage, to focus on the key issues, to give people at home a sense of, ‘why I want to vote for one versus the other.’”

That sink-into-the-background approach extends to fact-checking, which Mr. Wallace has regularly argued is outside the purview of a debate moderator, calling it “a step too far.”

“I do not believe it is my job to be a truth squad,” Mr. Wallace said in the run-up to his 2016 debate. “It’s up to the other person to catch them on that.” Those comments caused a minor stir at the time, but the debates’ organizers have made clear they agree.

“There’s a vast difference between being a moderator in a debate and being a reporter who is interviewing someone,” Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a co-chairman of the debate commission, told CNN on Sunday. “We don’t expect Chris or our other moderators to be fact checkers. The minute the TV is off, there are going to be plenty of fact checkers in every newspaper and every television station in the world. That’s not the role, the main role of our moderators.”

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