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Debates Will Showcase 'NBC Nightly News' Anchor Lester Holt

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're almost there. Monday is the first of four debates in this presidential election. A lot at stake for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and also for the moderators, who can become part of history. Like in 1984, it was Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. Moderator Henry Trewhitt of the Baltimore Sun tried to challenge President Reagan about his age.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HENRY TREWHITT: I recall, yet, that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?

RONALD REAGAN: Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt. And I want you to know that also, I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Easily one of the most memorable comebacks in presidential debate history.

We spoke with NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik about this year. He said Lester Holt, who's refereeing this Monday's debate, is under pressure to repair some damage done by his NBC colleague Matt Lauer.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: And also, it's worth recounting that in recent days, Donald Trump attacked Lester Holt as a Democrat, which, by the way, the public record - New York state voting record shows is completely untrue. He's been a registered Republican for many years. You know, here he is trying to undercut the idea that the moderator of the first debate can be fair because of his partisan ties, even though Donald Trump has been a Republican less long than Lester Holt has.

GREENE: When we look at the other moderators, there's Elaine Quijano. There's Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper, who are going to be doing a debate together. You have Chris Wallace from Fox News. Trump is going after not just Lester Holt but all of the moderators ahead of these events.

FOLKENFLIK: Right. I mean, Trump has done well, at least with his base, in attacking the press repeatedly, treating it with contempt throughout this campaign season, even as he's courted the press in the sense of demanding and securing an incredible amount of time on the air.

He's assailed Anderson Cooper in some ways as a partisan, although he's appeared on Anderson Cooper's CNN show. He was very upset with Chris Wallace last August. You know, all the attention went to Megyn Kelly because Donald Trump kind of personalized his anger with Fox News and the tough questions he received from the panel in that first GOP debate last August from Fox.

So these are folks whom Trump is going to be a little antagonistic toward, even as Trump has suggested he'd rather do without moderators altogether, have some sort of Lincoln-Douglas-style debates with Hillary Clinton and no moderator at all.

GREENE: Matt Lauer has been all the talk, I mean, many people pointing to those conversations with the two candidates that he had as a total disaster.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: ...To exert the kind of pressure through sanctions that the United States alone could not do. So we...

MATT LAUER: Right, but you've said that...

CLINTON: ...Now wait, let me...

LAUER: ...You think they're going to cheat.

CLINTON: ...Look, this is an important issue. I know we're in - on TV, we don't have a lot of time...

LAUER: I want to get to a lot of questions.

CLINTON: ...I will talk quickly.

GREENE: What went wrong? What can we learn from that?

FOLKENFLIK: I thought and many people thought Lauer repeatedly interrupted Hillary Clinton, asked her not just once or twice about the implications of the handling of classified material on her private email server but kept asking her question after question. So that by the time other significant national security questions were raised involving things like ISIS, there was almost no time to deal with those.

And by contrast with Trump, particularly his assertion that he had been opposed to the invasion of Iraq prior to March of 2003, you know, was left unchallenged when the public record shows no opposition prior to the invasion. If Matt Lauer had been present in that interview, he would have heard that. And he would have responded to it saying well, that's clearly not before the invasion. What are you saying there, Mr. Trump?

GREENE: Well, David, here's something I'm curious about. I mean, you're a moderator in a debate like this. It is your job as a journalist to fact-check. But how do you do that without seeming like you're interrupting all the time and being too aggressive?

FOLKENFLIK: Right. You have to pick your moments. You can't challenge on everything. But you also have to be present. I don't think you abdicate your role as a truth-seeker and a journalist by being a moderator. Candy Crowley came under some fire in 2012 for, I think, rightly contesting a characterization that Mitt Romney made about how President Obama reacted in his rhetoric to the deadly attack in Benghazi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITT ROMNEY: Want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.

BARACK OBAMA: Get the transcript.

CANDY CROWLEY: He did, in fact, sir - so let me - call it an act of terror...

OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy?

(APPLAUSE)

CROWLEY: He did call it an act of terror. It did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea of there being a riot out there about this tape.

FOLKENFLIK: She was right, but there was such a back and forth that it made her more of a part of the debate than I think a lot of people were comfortable with. And certainly, Republican partisans attacked her for that although she was right on the points. I think journalists need to be able to help the ball go back and forth, to get a sense of these candidates - who they are, what direction they want to lead the country in, what the implications are of their policies. But I don't think they need to melt away into the backdrop either. I think they can play a constructive and vital role, some of them more willing to do so than others.

GREENE: OK. Getting ready for the debates - the presidential debates, which begin on Monday, with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

David, thanks.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.