What in the World Got Into Matt Lauer at the Commander-in-Chief Forum?
The Today host is getting flak for firing fastballs at Hillary Clinton and lobbing softballs at Donald Trump on Tuesday night. But Lauer might not be the only one to blame.
Somewhere, Ann Curry must be smiling.
Not since NBC News star Matt Lauer was accused of orchestrating his Today show cohost’s firing four years ago—a widely reported charge that he was at pains to deny, even though Curry’s body language during her on-air farewell seemingly confirmed it—has Lauer absorbed so much abuse from the chattering class.
Unlike last time, however, he cannot distance himself from his much-criticized performance moderating the NBC/MSNBC Commander-in-Chief national security forum—in which he appeared to throw fastballs at Hillary Clinton, drilling down on her lingering email problems, while going easy on Donald Trump, allowing the Republican presidential nominee to utter one unchallenged falsehood after another—notably his easily contradicted claim that he never supported President George W. Bush’s military adventure in Iraq.
Indeed, a real-time analysis of the candidates’ assertions by PolitiFact indicated that Trump was a veritable conflagration of “Pants on Fire,” with 44 of his claims earning that worst designation, while Clinton garnered only six. (Despite her reputation for political evasion, the great majority of the Democrat’s statements were deemed true, mostly true, or half true, while Trump’s truth-to-lie ratio was the polar opposite.)
Interviewing the candidates back to back in 26-minute segments, with occasional questions posed by military veterans in the studio audience, Lauer let Trump’s answers speak for themselves—the moral equivalent, some would argue, of a campaign video.
“It’s not a good day for Matt Lauer,” former CNN Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “He was just more forward-deployed with Hillary Clinton than he was with Donald Trump. Going after her for the umpteenth time on her emails, and not going after him when he says he never favored the Iraq War, is just this side of egregious.”
Sesno, the director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, agreed that Lauer’s difficulties might serve as a piquant object lesson for the recently chosen moderators of the three televised presidential debates and one vice presidential debate scheduled to air from late September through mid-October.
“They have to be fiercely prepared,” he said about the moderators, who include NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, ABC’s Martha Raddatz and CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and Fox News’s Chris Wallace. “They have to be prepared on the issues. They have to be prepared on the atmospherics. They have to be prepared on the personalities. And they have to be prepared to strike their own very disciplined, important voice for completeness and accuracy in the responses that they get.”
University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato, meanwhile, said being subjected to occasionally unfair criticism is part of a moderator’s portfolio.
“They know they’re going to get loads of criticism no matter what they do, and they have to accept that,” he said. “Are they going to let the candidate roam freely and ignore the questions, and misstate the facts, or are they going to intervene, and to what degree? They have to think about this.”
Despite Lauer’s ample talents as a broadcaster, and his long experience as a generalist, anchoring live from crime scenes and natural disasters, and interviewing everyone from Kardashians to world leaders in six-minute slices, the 58-year-old Today host is not a political journalist, and there’s scant evidence that he spends time on the campaign trail or regularly subjects himself to detailed issue briefings by campaign policy staffers.
While he and co-host Savannah Guthrie, a former NBC White House correspondent, have interviewed Trump several times during the 2016 campaign, most often when the candidate has called in to the program, Lauer, like most of Trump’s interrogators, seems not to have figured out how to prevent the reality TV billionaire from filibustering and making boasts, untethered to facts.
“In an event aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier Intrepid, the ‘Today’ host was lost at sea,” New York Times television critic James Poniewozik wrote in a savage review that encapsulated the media-political complex’s harsh verdict on Lauer’s handiwork. “Seemingly unprepared on military and foreign policy specifics, he performed like a soldier sent on a mission without ammunition, beginning with a disorganized offensive, ending in a humiliating retreat.”
Even NBC News, confronted by a fusillade of condemnation aimed at its most important and highest-paid commodity—said to be earning upward of $20 million a year—declined to publicly defend Lauer’s performance.
In a brutal postmortem, CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter quoted an anonymous NBC News exec as calling it a “disaster.”
Stelter reported that NBC News and MSNBC Chairman Andy Lack—who helped stage-manage the forum and bypassed in-house political junkies such as Hardball host Chris Matthews (who conducted a widely praised and illuminating interview with Trump in March), prime-time anchor Rachel Maddow, and Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd to pick his longtime pal Lauer for the job—is also shouldering his share of the blame internally at NBC.
“This should be black eye for Lack,” a network source told Stelter.
My own soundings at NBC News are very much in sync with Stelter’s, although nobody used the d-word with me.
What seems clear, however, is that Lauer and his producers blundered by not making sure that if the first questions to Clinton were going to be adversarial, Trump’s should have been as well, and that the dual interviews should have demonstrated a certain structural balance, if not equality, in tone and content.
Although many of Trump’s answers to Lauer were revealing—such as lavishing praise on Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin as a better leader than President Obama—Lauer didn’t seem to want to satisfy television’s need for conflict and drama. While he pointed out to Trump that Putin is a former KGB agent who invaded Ukraine and supports Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Lauer’s tone was non-confrontational, as though trading polite opinions over cocktails in the Hamptons.
“I shared some of the frustration being vented on social media,” said a person who asked to be identified only as a Lauer defender. But addressing the severest judgments on the Today show star’s performance, the defender said, “This is all bullshit and ridiculous and hyperbolic and overblown.”
The defender pointed out that Lauer’s softly delivered grilling did challenge Trump—and made news—with questions about Putin, a tweet suggesting that the men and women together in the military inevitably led to rape, and Trump’s assertion that American generals have been “reduced to rubble.”
“I share the frustrations” of the media being largely unable to hold Trump’s feet to the fire, the defender said, “but the truth is that Matt is sort of the somewhat unwitting victim of a lot of those frustrations. I’m not saying he’s an innocent bystander, but the criticism is overblown because of that dynamic.”