Armchair pundits of all political stripes are hammering NBC’s Matt Lauer for his questions in last night’s presidential forum with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Examples abound, but for now this one will do.
The criticism is wrong. In a no-win situation, Lauer performed better than one would expect — and certainly better than his second-guessing critics allow.
I’m not a real Lauer fan, and I haven’t watch the Today show for more than a decade. The show’s pivots from, say, “Syrian refugees” to “vegetables your kids will eat” is too jarring for me.
But I have had experience in televised debates and interviews. They’re much more difficult than most people know.
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Lauer was under enormous time pressure Wednesday night. I haven’t timed the show precisely, but it appeared each segment was about 28 minutes long. The open and close took a minute of that, leaving 27 minutes for discussion.
If each answer averaged three minutes in length, Lauer would be left with just nine questions for each candidate. But remember: asking the questions takes time, too. And since audience members asked their own questions, Lauer was left with the chance for maybe five or six main queries for each candidate — not counting overlaps, interruptions, and clarifications.
From those five questions, he’s expected to extract paradigm-changing comments from the candidates. Try it some time, perhaps with your teenage son. See how it goes.
Additionally, the short time-frame — almost certainly not of Lauer’s making — exerts a subtle pressure on any moderator. He or she is certainly aware of the need to cover lots of topics: in this case, Russia, the Middle East, veterans, military preparedness, suicides, sexual assaults, China, and more. The pressure often leads moderators, unavoidably, to concentrate on the next question or issue, and not hear the candidate’s response.
That’s a serious flaw: it limits quality follow-up questions. But it’s a flaw all interviewers share.
That leads us to the sharpest criticism of Lauer, that he somehow failed to fact-check the candidates in real time. Somehow, we’re told, he should have pressured the candidates, particularly Trump, to own up to misstatements and contradictions during the program.
As a fundamental matter this is problematic. Candy Crowley still takes heat for her fact-check of Mitt Romney in 2012 — was she right to do it? Was she right? Not everyone agrees, four years later.
More importantly, though, the criticism assumes the moderator can and must do what the audience can do for itself. Let’s say I’m conducting a live interview and I ask a candidate the color of the sky. If he or she says “green,” am I required to say “no, that’s stupid. It’s blue”? Or is it possible — possible — the audience can figure that out for itself?
Lauer is supposed to have pointed out Trump’s misleading statements on the Iraq war. Yet Clinton did exactly that earlier in the show. The moderator should be allowed the space to let the audience think for itself, a concept foreign to much of the punditocracy.
That’s particularly true in real time, by the way. Second-guessing an hour or two later is a much easier task. And unlike Lauer, the second-guessers sit in the comfort of an armchair, not under lights and cameras with people whispering in your ear. In real time.
And with all that, what did Lauer actually accomplish during the program? Well, during the Trump segment, the candidate: 1) Called the nation’s military leadership “rubble”; 2) All but named Vladimir Putin as his running mate; 3) Doubled down on a suggestion that sexual assaults in the military are inevitable when men and women serve together; 4) Made his “take the spoils” attitude in the Middle East clear, angering allies and enemies in the region; 5) Kept his plan for ISIS secret. Very secret.
Not bad for five or six questions.
Early in the discussion, Trump said getting into a war in Iraq was huge mistake, and getting out of Iraq was a huge mistake. That kind of Trumpian contradiction is routine, but was there Wednesday for all to see.
Not everyone will see it, of course, but don’t blame that on Lauer. Do we think Trump or Clinton would have melted had Laurer been more aggressive? Or is it more likely they knew what they wanted to say, and said it? And that supporters and opponents of each candidate heard what they wanted to hear?
And what if Lauer had badgered the candidates anyway? Today, the pundits would be attacking him for showboating, and hogging the show. You literally cannot win.
So we should approach the Lauer bashing with some skepticism. What his critics are really saying is “I would have done better,” which isn’t criticism. It’s egotism.