Bogus Claims of Debate Moderator Bias
By Saranac Hale Spencer
Posted on October 22, 2020
A tabloid story alleging that Kristen Welker, moderator of the final presidential debate, is politically biased has spawned several falsehoods on social media. Welker hasn’t donated to any federal candidates, and she wasn’t “busted” for revealing a question to the Clinton campaign in 2016.
The posts aim at discrediting Welker, making her appear to be biased against President Donald Trump. The president called her a “radical Democrat” during a rally in Arizona on Oct. 19.
But Welker, who lives in Washington, D.C., is not currently registered with a political party, according to the District of Columbia Board of Elections. Also worth noting is that Trump praised Welker in January when she was named a co-host of NBC’s “Weekend TODAY” show. Then, he said, “They made a very wise decision.”
Despite that, the posts amplify claims of bias about Welker that were first made in a tabloid story, from the New York Post, on Oct. 17. We’ll go through the most widely shared examples below.
Claim: A 2012 photo with the Obamas proves bias.
Visitor logs show that Welker was at the White House on the evening of Dec. 11, 2012, when there was a party attended by other journalists. Presidents have had a tradition of hosting the White House press corps for a holiday party, although Trump stopped the practice during his second year in office.
In 2012, though, then-President Barack Obama held the party and, in the picture, Welker is joined by the president and the first lady beneath a portrait of George Washington. Another, unidentified person is in the picture.
Similar pictures online show the Obamas posing with many others in the same way. Brit Hume, a political analyst on Fox News, took to Twitter to comment on one viral version of the claim, saying, “This is a standard White House Christmas party photo. It means nothing. There are hundreds of these pictures with journalists of all stripes posing with first families of both parties.”
But the story published in the New York Post linked to the photo and claimed, “In 2012, Welker and her family celebrated Christmas at the White House with the Obamas.”
All that the picture shows, though, is that she attended a White House holiday party with numerous colleagues (the White House visitor logs show 700 attended, including some from Fox News) while Obama was president.
Claim: Welker is “registered as a Democrat.”
Facts: Welker was a registered Democrat, but she is no longer registered as a member of any political party, Nick Jacobs, spokesman for the District of Columbia Board of Elections, told FactCheck.org in a phone interview.
“She has been unaffiliated with a party since 2016,” he said. Before that, starting in 2012, she was registered as a Democrat.
The New York Post reported that correctly, but some who shared the story on social media with their own commentary didn’t pass along the facts. They claimed that Welker is currently a registered Democrat. Others suggested that her previous party registration was proof of bias.
But just because Welker was once registered as a Democrat doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about her current political preferences, or her ability to fairly cover politicians of both parties. Trump himself was a Democrat for eight years.
Claim: Welker “gave thousands of dollars to Obama, Clinton and Biden.”
Facts: Welker has made no donations to any candidates for federal office at all, according to a search of the Federal Election Commission.
Her parents, however, have contributed to various Democratic campaigns. That was noted in the news story. But, as with some of the other claims, the donations made by Welker’s family members don’t say anything about her personal politics or bias. Social media posts claimed that Welker, herself, had donated. She hasn’t.
Claim: Welker was “Busted Tipping Off Team Hillary in 2016.”
Facts: Some partisan websites posted stories with deceptive headlines suggesting that Welker had provided a debate question to the Clinton campaign ahead of time. No such thing happened.
For example, the Western Journal posted this headline: “Kristen Welker, the Next Debate Moderator, Got Busted Tipping Off Team Hillary in 2016.” That story has been shared more than 55,000 times on Facebook, according to data from CrowdTangle.
Another site, the Post Millennial, published this headline: “FLASHBACK: Final debate moderator busted on hot mic coaching Clinton campaign director.”
But those are exaggerations of a claim from the tabloid story.
The New York Post included a roughly one-minute video clip from the YouTube channel for the conservative Washington Free Beacon. It described the clip this way: “In March 2016 Welker was busted on live television tipping off Hillary Clinton’s Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri about at least one question she planned to ask her during a post-debate interview in Michigan.”
The headlines that followed, as we noted above, dropped the important fact that the claim was based on a few seconds of a post-debate interview, not on a question related to the debate itself. Welker wasn’t the debate moderator, either. It was Anderson Cooper.
The clip shows Welker interviewing Clinton’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, after a March 2016 debate in Flint, Michigan. Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders were vying for the Democratic presidential nomination at the time.
When the shot moves from the studio to Welker and Palmieri live in Flint, Welker appears to be confirming something to a person off camera, then looks to Palmieri and says, “and I’m going to ask you about Flint.” (Welker was likely referring to the dangerously high lead levels in the city’s drinking water that became an issue during the primary and had come up earlier in the debate.)
There’s a problem with communication between the live shot and the studio and the clip goes back to Ari Melber, the host of the show.
He segues again to Welker, who isn’t shown on screen, but can be heard saying, “I think this is his last question.”
When the camera is on her, she turns to Palmieri and asks for “your initial reaction to tonight’s debate.”
Palmieri begins to answer, but the communication glitch interrupts and prompts Welker to ask the same question again. Palmieri answers again and that’s the end of the clip.
So, it doesn’t even show that Welker asked the question about Flint that she said she would.
That’s not evidence that Welker was “Busted Tipping Off Team Hillary in 2016.” It shows only a reporter and a campaign official engaged in a post-debate interview.
This fact check is available at IFCN’s 2020 US Elections FactChat #Chatbot on WhatsApp. Click here for more.
The Sun. “Live: Trump campaigns in Prescott, Arizona.” YouTube. 19 Oct 2020.
TODAY. “Watch President Trump Congratulate Kristen Welker On Weekend TODAY Role.” YouTube. 25 Jan 2020.
Levine, Jon. “Kristen Welker, upcoming presidential debate moderator, has deep Democrat ties.” New York Post. 17 Oct 2020.
Welker, Kristen. “Christmas at the White House!” Facebook. 13 Dec 2012.
White House visitor records. 2012. Obamawhitehouse.archives.gov. Accessed 21 Oct 2020.
Hume, Brit (@brithume). “This is a standard White House Christmas party photo. It means nothing. There are hundreds of these pictures with journalists of all stripes posing with first families of both parties.” Twitter. 18 Oct 2020.
Jacobs, Nick. Spokesman, District of Columbia Board of Elections. Telephone interview. 20 Oct 2020.
Gillin, Joshua. “Bush says Trump was a Democrat longer than a Republican ‘in the last decade.’” PolitiFact. 24 Aug 2015.
Federal Elections Commission. Search — Kristen Welker. Accessed 21 Oct 2020.
Washington Free Beacon. “MSNBC Reporter Doesn’t Know She’s Live, Tips off Clinton Aide What She’ll Ask Her.” YouTube. 6 Mar 2016.