Matt Lauer's forum performance is a symptom of a larger problem
"Where in the World is Matt Lauer?" was long a popular segment on "Today." If only he'd been in, say, Jakarta rather than New York City Wednesday night, he wouldn't be suffering rebukes for artlessly questioning Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
He also would have avoided becoming the brunt of a hashtag, "#LaueringTheBar," a pun that began trending on Twitter in the aftermath of his interviews.
Live by social media, die by social media. But you would have thought he'd committed armed robbery in Times Square. The venom missed what's really been trending in debates, forums, town halls and other media dealings with presidential candidates this year: often unimpressive performances by questioners, especially in dealing with Trump and Clinton.
Among the torrent of post-forum tweets was one from Glenn Thrush, a fine reporter at Politico:
Instead of silly closing statements at debates - present candidates w tally of 10 fact-checked statements and have them defend lies/errors
— Glenn Thrush (@GlennThrush) September 8, 2016
It got to a general problem that goes well beyond Lauer, a very talented and hugely successful TV host (he just bought a Hamptons house with private beach for $36.5 million from actor Richard Gere). So I tracked down Thrush, an old-fashioned shoe-leather journalist who has adapted adroitly to the new digital world, mixing terrific reporting with social media, podcasts, you name it.
There have never been as many debates, forums, town halls, etc., in a presidential campaign as this year (and last). Starting with the primaries, what would you generally say about what the voters have got?
I think they got what they usually get — reasonably informed moderators playing by the standard rules of debate discourse. The problem is that one candidate — Donald Trump — didn't play by those rules, and the cable networks were too terrified, stunned, indifferent or addicted to the ratings spike to respond.
Once upon a time, not all that long ago, you basically had a few newspapers, a wire service and one or two network broadcasters setting the agenda and serving as gatekeepers. How has the rise of digital outlets, like yours, and the intense focus on three cable news networks changed coverage?
Complicated question. I think a more important development is the hyper-polarization of news. POLITICO is a relatively conventional nonpartisan outlet — each story might have a point of view or whack an individual candidate, but taken on balance we're more or less neutral. But the advent of social media has rendered our totality — our editorial vision — irrelevant. If you are a Hillary supporter, you read the pro-Hillary stories and vice-versa. And most partisans don't even bother with mainstream news — they just mainline slanted posts based on real stories from sites that suit their politics.
You tweeted frustration last night with the frequent format of these gatherings, notably debates, especially canned closing statements. You propose something different. Explain.
I was an early proponent of using the chyron crawl at the bottom of a cable broadcast to fact-check, in real time, a candidate's claims. All politicians fudge and dissemble, but Donald Trump's insistence on repeating falsehoods — even after he's been corrected — has changed the game.
After watching both candidates at last night's NBC forum — in which Trump (and, to a lesser extent, Clinton) delivered a train of fact-challenged assertions, I suggested that the national debate commission dispense with the largely meaningless closing candidate statements at the upcoming debates and perform the public service of presenting the candidates with the 5 to 10 misstatements of fact they made during the debate. Obviously, they would be given a chance to respond — but so would the fact-checkers.
Finally, why do you think that these very rehearsed candidates will do anything other than quickly respond to a variety of premeditated, canned statements that aren't necessarily on-point when confronted with hypocrisies or outright falsehoods? Do the moderators have to summon their inner Chris Matthews, who effectively badgered Trump during that town hall in Green Bay and elicited rather damaging responses (and non-responses)? It's not a style suited for many of us.
Polite-but-firm pushback is a skill every serious interviewer needs. Just watch a few YouTubes of the late Tim Russert — or watch debate moderator Chris Wallace on FOX, a very tough interlocutor who — to my complete mystification — declared that his job wasn't to fact-check the candidates. That's bullshit. Fact-checking is job one for any reporter.