Before taking his seat at Monday night's presidential debate, Lester Holt confided to the audience in the hall that his knees were shaking. Ninety minutes later, shaky would be an overly kind way to describe Holt's performance as moderator.
Putting aside any judgment of which candidate fared better, or how the event might affect voters' opinions, Holt faced one of the most difficult tasks in modern journalism and came up short.
My analysis shows that Holt asked a total of 14 questions (plus a few interjections and short follow-ups). Of those, seven were generic, policy-based inquiries, asked of both candidates. Six were specifically directed at Donald Trump, regarding things he has said and done. Only one such specific question – and a gentle one at that – was asked of Hillary Clinton.
Journalistically, that's not even close to the standard trashed regularly by Fox News: Fair and balanced.
How the respected anchorman managed to fumble as he did is not particularly mysterious. Following sharp criticism of his NBC colleague Matt Lauer in the so-called "Commander-in-Chief" one-on-one, where Lauer challenged Clinton repeatedly while allowing Trump to get away with distortions, Holt was determined to be different.
In the days leading up to the debate, several mainstream news organizations, most notably The New York Times, took bold steps in print and online to brand Trump's most egregious statements "lies." There was enormous pressure for Holt to do some form of the same.
If anything is clear in the relatively short history of televised presidential debates, it's that neither the role of the moderator nor the format itself are settled science. While the moderators – approved by both campaigns – are generally the best and the brightest, they are placed on an island. "No one knows tonight's questions other than Lester Holt," the audience was assured in advance. Maybe that's asking too much.
Left to his own devices, Holt had to make several key structural decisions. Would the questions be generic and policy based? (How to create jobs, how to combat cyber attacks, etc.) Or, would they follow more of an interview style? (Why won't you release your tax returns?)
Generic questions allow for full responses from both participants – the essence of a true debate. Interview questions put one candidate on the defensive and prompt a more clipped back-and-forth with the moderator, which is what happened to Lauer as he sat just inches from each candidate.
The challenge for Holt was that Donald Trump's unprincipled and often distorted rhetoric over the course of the campaign practically screamed out for journalistic intervention. So Holt crafted his six direct shots – from Trump's tax returns, to his "birther" claims, all the way to his bizarre assertion that Clinton lacks the presidential "look."
Deftly, perhaps overlooked by many, Holt slipped these questions into discussion of broader topics, making them seem more spontaneous. The generic tax question took Holt to Trump's personal returns. The generic racial healing question led to the birther query.
But Trump's supporters have reason to ask why no such interview questions were put to Clinton – about Benghazi, about the Clinton Foundation, or about her "basket of deplorables" remark, to name but a few. The lone personal question asked of her by Holt was a softball, based on something she said recently: "Do you believe that police are implicitly biased against black people?"
Despite the pressure on Holt to push a few hot buttons, he would have been wiser to stick with basic policy issues and, for what would have been the first time in this tedious campaign, leave the tabloid questions to the cable shows. Yes, Trump needs to be held accountable, and if Clinton had chosen to bring up his more outrageous comments, that would have been fair game.
The next event uses a "town hall" format, with two moderators, so it is likely that even more non-policy questions will come up, as an audience of carefully selected "undecided voters" gets to participate. Prospects for a real debate are dim.
Meanwhile, Monday night's show leaves Clinton's supporters buoyed by her strong performance, Trump's backers understandably miffed by the nature of the questions, and Lester Holt still every bit the nice guy that his colleagues know him to be.
On the journalistic stage, regrettably, the nice guy finished last.