It’s 9:00 p.m. on Monday, September 26. You are sitting at your desk, or on your bed, or in a bar or a classroom. Maybe you’re surrounded by friends or strangers. Maybe you’re alone. But if you are like 84 million Americans across the nation, your eyes are glued to a particularly strange scene: former The Apprentice producer Donald J. Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton duking it out at the first presidential debate.
If that sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. Never before has America had two presidential nominees be so different—and so unpopular. And with over a quarter of the American population watching, Monday’s presidential debate was also the most-watched debate in American history. What made it so exceptional?
Monday’s debate marked the first time a general election debate included a woman. I don’t want to understate the importance of this fact: Clinton’s participation in Monday’s presidential debate was a landmark step for women in politics. And in an election marred by sexist rhetoric, Clinton’s gender was bound to be an important factor in the debate—and a political minefield, if history is any indication. With Trump’s penchant for incendiary language, it also proved to be a ratings magnet too obvious for Lester Holt, anchor of NBC Nightly News and moderator for the debate, to ignore.
“Mr. Trump,” Holt began. “This year, Secretary Clinton became the first woman nominated for president by a major party. Earlier this month, you said she doesn’t have, quote, ‘a presidential look.’ She’s standing here right now. What did you mean by that?” (Trump’s answer? “She doesn’t have the stamina.”)
Perhaps more exceptional than the nominees’ actions (or genders), though, were Holts’ inactions. For most of the debate, Holt chose to stay silent, enabling Trump and Clinton to talk over each other—and over him—for minutes at a time. Holt became more active later on, probing Clinton about her emails and Trump on birtherism, but the effect remained. At various points, the audience even clapped after nominees’ responses, ignoring explicit instructions by Holt to remain silent.
Holt’s decision to lie low follows weeks of intense criticism aimed at Matt Lauer, host of The Today Show, who moderated a Trump-Clinton forum widely viewed as a test run for the debates. By taking a restrained approach, Holt attempted to dodge criticism and keep the focus on Trump and Clinton. Broadcasts of the debate followed suit, hiding Holt from the camera in favor of close-up shots of the nominees.
In an election defined by Trump’s control over the news cycle and focus on social media, Holt’s decision to take a back seat hints at a greater shift in political discourse. Increasingly, Americans are turning to social media for their news. In turn, the media’s role as political gatekeeper is decreasing. Whereas news outlets were able to filter and format campaign information during past elections, this election cycle has seen a rise in politicians using social media to reach voters directly—and avoid media backlash. Trump’s campaign, which has heavily emphasized social media and only began airing campaign ads in August, is a prime example: it’s earned more media coverage with a smaller budget than those of any of Trump’s major competitors. Trump has also nearly tied Clinton in national polls despite frequent lies and controversies that would have crippled other candidates. The result is an election cycle defined by candidates rather than news outlets.
Monday’s debate offered us a glimpse into what a shift toward social media means for politics. For one, fact-checking became a topic of controversy. During the lead-up to Monday’s debate, the Clinton campaign made it clear that it expected Holt to fact-check Trump. Trump’s campaign made it clear that fact-checking wasn’t Holt’s responsibility. The decision to fact check, then, was made political by the campaigns. “It’s unfair,” said Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, in an interview on ABC’s This Week, “to ask for Hillary both to play traffic cop while with Trump, make sure that his lies are corrected, and also to present her vision for what she wants to do for the American people.”
Realistically, though, it didn’t matter that Holt fact-checked. Trump’s campaign has relied heavily on factually inaccurate statements to increase support, despite frequent fact-checking by media organizations. The strategy has worked, in part, because Americans now trust media less than ever before. When journalists fact-check Trump, they are effectively entering into a political battle of narratives. And Trump seems to be winning.
In other words, when journalists aren’t trusted to accurately fact check candidates, whether or not they do it stops mattering. Instead, people turn to other sources—typically on social media—to decide which narrative to believe. And when people trust different sources, their views on politics are bound to be polarized. Just look at Twitter: #TrumpWon, a top trend following the debate, included both ironic jabs and earnest praise.
Monday’s debate, with its petty jabs, zippy one-liners, and viral shimmies, was exceptional exactly because it was so quotable—so friendly to the 140 character limit. Nielsen reported—for the first time in debate history—that there were 17.1 million Twitter interactions related to the debate on Monday night alone. Hillary Clinton, for her part, mentioned social media for the first time in presidential debate history: “a man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes.” Unless Americans stop using social media, its influence on politics—and the campaign strategies that focus on it—are probably here to stay.
What, then, can we expect out of these next few months? For one, mainstream media has an uphill battle to fight if they want to maintain their role in political discourse. Moderators cannot continue to stumble through presidential debates, unsure of their role as timekeepers and fact-checkers. (Plans for presidential debates without moderators have already been suggested.) Journalists, for their part, cannot continue to regurgitate tweets in search of ratings.
If they do, then media’s role as gatekeeper may disappear for good. No longer will our presidential nominees be distant figures fielding questions from hard-hitting moderators. Instead, they may only be a tweet, like, or comment away. And who’s to say what effect that level of interaction will have?