An estimated 84 million people tuned in Monday for the debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. That number sets the high water mark for televised presidential debates.
With national polls showing the race to be a statistical tie, and with big polling leads for Hillary Clinton in key states like Virginia and Pennsylvania having evaporated in recent weeks, there was a lot riding on Monday night’s faceoff.
Virtually all of the pundit class agreed that Hillary Clinton “won” the debate. Virtually every online poll – from Time Magazine to CBS to local affiliate TV stations and local newspapers across the country – said that Donald Trump won the debate.
Analysts from both sides are in general agreement that Donald Trump missed several opportunities against Clinton. Most notable was his failure to press Mrs. Clinton on her email scandal when the subject of cyber security was put in play by moderator Lester Holt.
And that brings us to what may really be the story from Monday night. Lester Holt.
According to many polls, trust in the media is at an all-time low. According to Gallup, only 32 percent of Americans say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.
NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt did little to improve that statistic Monday.
In the second half of the debate, Holt began asking a series of questions of Donald Trump that went directly at Trump’s vulnerabilities. He went after Trump on his tax returns. He pressed Trump on his changing position vis.a.vis. the Obama birth certificate issue. He pressed Trump hard on the Iraq war, arguing with him as to whether Trump always opposed the invasion or was for it before he was against it.
Holt pressed six follow-up questions on Donald Trump. He did not pose a single follow-up question to Hillary Clinton. He posed 15 questions exclusively to Trump. He questioned Hillary Clinton exclusively just twice.
The exclusive questioning broke format. Holt was supposed to pose questions for both candidates to answer and then let them go at it.
While Trump had to field questions on issues such as his refusal so far to release his tax returns – an area in which many believe that he is vulnerable – there was no probing of Clinton’s soft spots.
Not a single question on the Benghazi disaster. Nothing on the 33,000 missing emails or the FBI’s characterization of the handling of those emails as “extremely careless.” Holt said nothing about the apparent pay-for-play at the Clinton Foundation. There was nothing on Bill and Hillary’s stratospherically high speaking fees paid by the likes of Saudi Arabia and Goldman Sachs. Holt asked no questions of Clinton about the ties her close aide Huma Abedin has to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the eyes of many, the referee was a part of the game Monday night. With distrust in the media at historic highs, it remains to be seen if Holt’s performance will help Hillary Clinton or boomerang to help Donald Trump.