“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.”
Some media pundits have called on TV networks to impose their own fact-checks in real-time, through onscreen graphics, clarifying captions or cutaways to reporters offering context. Anchors on CNN and MSNBC occasionally broke into speeches during the Republican National Convention in August, pointing out falsehoods or baseless accusations.
That interventionist approach is less likely to occur on Tuesday, according to executives and producers at several TV networks. Unlike the conventions, executives said, the debates are intended as an unfiltered test of the candidates’ wits, stamina and ability to persuade the electorate.
“The debate is one of the rare opportunities where the public is seeing both of the presidential candidates together on the same stage, where they have a chance to not only respond to and address each other, but to speak directly to the American public,” said Caitlin Conant, the political director at CBS News. “We don’t want to get in between the voters and the candidates.”
That doesn’t mean Ms. Conant or other executives plan to shy away from correcting falsehoods. CBS, for example, has its Washington correspondent Major Garrett on standby for fact-checking during its prime-time broadcast. CNN’s in-house Trump fact checker, Daniel Dale, will be featured in the network’s coverage. Many TV news outlets are providing live fact-checking and analysis on their websites.
On Fox News on Sunday, Mr. Wallace said he had “an awful lot” to cover in 90 minutes, citing the coronavirus, racial tensions, economic problems and protests across the country. Just this weekend, the president nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and The New York Times published a major investigation revealing that Mr. Trump paid no federal income taxes in 10 of the 15 years before 2017.
How many viewers can even be swayed by Tuesday’s proceedings is an open question.
Roughly 70 percent of Americans said the debates would not matter much to their ultimate vote, according to a poll this month by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News. The survey found that 44 percent of respondents said the debates would not matter at all.