On Wednesday night viewers of NBC and MSNBC were offered what was billed as an “equal time” presentation from both presidential candidates on their fitness to be “commander in chief.” Many viewers watched with concern as Today Show host Matt Lauer, always eager to burnish his “real journalist” credentials, questioned Hillary Clinton about her emails, repeatedly interrupted her, and left her little time to talk about her actual qualifications and plans. His attitude was snide and bullying: he seemed like someone who, finally given the chance to turn the tables on their third grade teacher, was going to let her know how it feels to be powerless. The assumption was that he would be equally aggressive when questioning Donald Trump about his past mistakes, but instead he approached the other candidate with much less animus. Not only did he not challenge Trump, he neglected to confront  the Republican candidate as he lied on the spot about his Iraq vote.

The criticism this morning to Lauer’s performance has been swift. The New York Times (“Matt Lauer Fields Storm of Criticism Over Clinton-Trump Forum”) reports:

“Charged with overseeing a live prime-time forum with Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton — widely seen as a dry run of sorts for the coming presidential debates — Mr. Lauer found himself besieged on Wednesday evening by critics of all political stripes, who accused the anchor of unfairness, sloppiness and even sexism in his handling of the event. Mr. Lauer devoted about a third of his time with Mrs. Clinton to questions about her use of a private email server, then seemed to rush through subsequent queries about weighty topics like domestic terror attacks.

When an Army veteran in the audience asked Mrs. Clinton to describe her plan to defeat the Islamic State, Mr. Lauer interjected before the candidate could begin her reply.”

Salon, meanwhile, blasted Lauer, commenting that the only good question came from an audience member, pointing out that over and over again the moderator failed to ask the right questions (“NBC’s Wasted Opportunity: The “Commander-in-Chief” Forum was a Complete Bust”).

When Trump came on stage, for example, Lauer questioned him as if he were talking to a slightly naughty frat boy, who could not be held accountable for his actions or whom he was interviewing for a different position. Indeed, The New York Times writes that Lauer seemed “flummoxed by his subject’s linguistic feints,” and pointed out that he has less experience interviewing Trump than his colleagues, such as Chuck Todd.

But the problem seemed like a bigger one than Lauer’s inexperience. The media practice of holding Trump to a different standard is pervasive: “. . . [N]ews organizations and interviewers treat Mrs. Clinton as a serious candidate worthy of tough questions, while Mr. Trump is sometimes handled more benignly,” says the Times. While we will never know if the same disparity in the media’s approach would exist if Hillary Clinton were running against a different male candidate, it often looks like she is the victim of sexism.

Chris Wallace, the Fox News Anchor scheduled to moderate the 3rd debate, has already asserted that he will not be a “truth checker” in his role. How does he see his role? Is it to create good television, to give the public what they “want” or is it to give us what we need to make an informed decision about our next president? Despite her employment at a right-leaning network, Megyn Kelly stands out as the journalist who has been toughest on Trump to date. I don’t know if she would be similarly tough on Clinton, but I expect so. A journalist like Kelly might give the candidates a level playing field.  All candidates, whether they are women or not, have a right to that at the very least.


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  • Shirley September 9, 2016 at 8:13 am

    The best we can hope for with Mike Wallace as moderator is something more interesting will be on TV that night. Lauer is a fake journalist. When he took over the Today Show, I quit watching it.

  • Cecilia Ford Ph.D. September 9, 2016 at 8:11 am

    Paul Krugman weighs in this morning (9/9/16) in an editorial:

    “…the same media organizations that apparently find it impossible to point out Mr. Trump’s raw, consequential lies have no problem harassing Mrs. Clinton endlessly over minor misstatements and exaggerations, or sometimes over actions that were perfectly innocent. Is it sexism? I really don’t know, but it’s shocking to watch.”

  • Cecilia Ford Ph.D. September 8, 2016 at 6:08 pm

    The MattLauer Story is not going away…

    Later on in the day that this article was posted, the New York Times published a follow-up to the story they ran in the morning. (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/09/arts/television/matt-lauer-presidential-election-hillary-clinton-donald-trump.html?) They made many of the same points made in your earlier post, including that Lauer seemed to be interviewing Trump for a lesser job than Clinton and that he approached him with kid gloves when questioning him.

    “Candidates should expect to be challenged. They’re applying for a challenging job. But where Mr. Lauer treated Mrs. Clinton like someone running for president, he treated Mr. Trump like someone running to figure out how to be president, eventually.
    Like Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Trump has had a few controversies related to the military….Mr. Lauer evidently didn’t recall any of that. He kicked off by asking Mr. Trump what in his life had prepared him to be president, the kind of whiffle ball job-interview question you ask the boss’s nephew you know you have to hire anyway.”

    The Times even concluded their article, like your article did, asking why in the world wouldn’t Chris Wallace want to make candidates stick to facts?

    The general consensus is that Lauer didn’t do a good job and the American people are the losers as a result.