Matt Lauer and why moderating presidential debates isn't easy

Social media lit up with criticism of 'Today' host Matt Lauer after he hosted the NBC Commander-in-Chief forum Wednesday night with the presidential candidates. But was the criticism justified? 

Andrew Harnik/AP
'Today' show co-anchor Matt Lauer appears before the NBC Commander-In-Chief Forum held at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space museum aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier Intrepid, in New York on Sept. 7, 2016.

In politics as in sports, the best moderators are the ones who go unnoticed. Judging by the hundreds of negative headlines and thousands of critical tweets Matt Lauer found himself in, the host of Wednesday night's NBC Commander-in-Chief forum "failed the moderator test," according to news media

Mr. Lauer's performance was widely panned by Democrats, Republicans, and even figures from his own network, who said the NBC Today host spent far too long grilling Hillary Clinton on email servers, didn't ask Donald Trump tough questions, and failed to press Mr. Trump on false claims.

Perhaps Lauer's performance was panned for good reason, but it also shed light on the difficult and increasingly scrutinized job of debate moderator. This is, after all, one of the most rancorous election cycles to date, further inflamed by partisan media outlets and millions of social media users poised over their phones and laptops waiting to analyze each word uttered by the candidates – and their moderators.

And it appears Lauer gave them plenty to analyze.

He spent a full 13 of the 30 minutes he interviewed Clinton grilling her on her use of a private email server as secretary of State. Later, when Clinton was asked more complex questions, like whether she would deploy troops against the Islamic State, Lauer pressed her to respond "as briefly as you can."

He failed to press Trump, who cited a 2004 Esquire article, on his claim that he opposed the Iraq War, even though Clinton pointed out in the first half of the event that Trump expressed support of the war prior to the 2003 invasion, while he's claiming throughout his candidacy to have been opposed to it.

"My opponent was for the war in Iraq," Clinton said at the forum. "He says he wasn't. You can – you can go back and look at the record. He supported it. He told Howard Stern he supported it."

Glenn Kestler of The Washington Post's Fact Checker column was among the scores of Tweeters pointing this out.

To be sure, Lauer had only 30 minutes with each candidate and was tasked with a lot: rushing through questions, inviting audience questions, asking follow-ups. In that time, he did manage to address a range of topics and ask some tough questions.

"I think criticism of Lauer is excessive," says Lowell Briggs, instructor of mass communications at York College of Pennsylvania.

"Let's remember, a debate or a forum is not a deposition," says Professor Briggs. "I'm sure Matt Lauer had copious background notes on set last night. But in the heat of the moment, Lauer is not a defense attorney or trained as an interrogator questioning a suspect. He's a morning teleprompter reader and TV interviewer. He shouldn't be expected to have precise quotes from sources 15, 20, 30 years ago to the depth his critics today demand."

But he didn't have to dig that deep to confront the candidates. For example, Lauer never asked Trump about his four Vietnam draft deferments, mocking Sen. John McCain's as an American P.O.W., smearing the Muslim parents of a slain soldier, or likening his prep school experience to actually serving in the military.

As such, the consensus was clear: "Matt Lauer's Pathetic Interview of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Is the Scariest Thing I've Seen in This Campaign" blared New York magazine.

It's not the first time debate moderators have come under fire.

The first GOP presidential debate in August 2015 was followed by a nasty feud between Fox News host Megyn Kelly and Trump, who was upset about questions she asked about controversial remarks the candidate made about women in the past.

The entire cast of GOP candidates ganged up on three CNBC debate hosts in October 2015.

"The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media," Sen. Ted Cruz said during the debate, to cheers. "This is not a cage match."

And it's not just this election cycle: After a 2012 debate between GOP nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called CNN's Candy Crowley's moderation "an act of journalistic terror."

"I knew from the start," Ms. Crowley later told The Associated Press, "somebody is going to be unhappy no matter what you do."

That's not surprising, considering the scrutiny debate moderators are under today: Consider the millions of viewers live tweeting, blogging, and fact-checking every event; partisans waiting to pounce on real or perceived bias; media outlets measuring how many minutes and seconds each candidate gets to speak, even how many times a debate moderator interrupts each candidate.

"[L]et's get this moderator's job straight," the Associated Press wrote last election cycle, in 2012. "Craft sharp questions to get the candidates to talk, while being meticulously fair not to challenge one more than another. Keep an eye on the clock so one candidate doesn't get to hog the time. Don't be bullied; be firm in forcing the candidates to move on. But be flexible enough to keep a productive discussion flowing. Know the difference. Keep the focus off yourself. And do it all on live television before some 60 million people."

If nothing else, Wednesday night's forum was a warning bell for the five presidential debate moderators recently named by the Commission on Presidential Debates, says Briggs.

"It is absolutely imperative that the next set of moderators build on this forum and nail Trump down on specifics," he says. "Without more fact-checking, this may be the only national election where we elect someone merely on persuasive ambiguity, not facts." 

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