I need to preface this by saying that I did not watch last night’s Commander in Chief forum. I’m only going by the reviews. But it appears moderator Matt Lauer bombed, big time. And it’s not just bloggers and liberal websites saying so.
James Poniewozik, The New York Times:
The NBC presidential forum on Wednesday night in Manhattan brought together the candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump to try to determine who has the strength, preparation and presence of mind to lead during a time of crisis.
It sure wasnâ€™t Matt Lauer.
In an event aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier Intrepid, the â€œTodayâ€ host was lost at sea. 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.
The gist of everyone’s criticism of his Hillary Clinton interview is that he spent too much time on the damn emails — no revelations came from this — and then stopped her from providing substantive answers to other questions.
Roughly a third of his questioning dealt with the emails â€” a matter certainly connected to national security, but also a staple issue of this yearâ€™s campaign-trail reporting. It suggested, as the rest of the forum confirmed, that Mr. Lauer was steadiest handling issues familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the morning politics headlines.
That emphasis left relatively little time for the forumâ€™s foreign-policy and military subjects. Mr. Lauer and the audience asked about complex topics â€” the Middle East, terrorism, veteransâ€™ affairs â€” and Mr. Lauer pressed for simple answers. â€œAs briefly as you can,â€ he injected when an audience member asked how Mrs. Clinton would decide whether to deploy troops against the Islamic State.
Thereâ€™s a difference between an interviewer who has questions and one who has knowledge, and Mr. Lauer illustrated it. He seemed to be plowing through a checklist, not listening in the moment in a way that led to productive follow-ups. Short on time, he repeatedly interrupted Mrs. Clinton in a way he didnâ€™t with Mr. Trump. (â€œLet me finish,â€ she protested at one point.)
Trump, on the other hand, got softballs:
When a prominent figure representing the United States on an international stage sat down with Matt Lauer recently, the NBC host asked tough questions probing hisÂ false statements.
The prominent figure was Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte. On Wednesday night, a far different Lauer sat down with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.Â …
… That interview was the apotheosis of this presidential campaignâ€™s forced marriage of entertainment and news. The host of NBCâ€™s morning show interviewed the former star of its reality show â€œThe Apprentice,â€ and the whole thing played out as farce.
Like Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Trump has had a few controversies related to the military. You might recall him feuding with a Gold Star family, or mocking Senator John McCain for being captured in Vietnam, or likening his prep-school attendance to military experience.
Mr. Lauer evidently didnâ€™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 bossâ€™s nephew you know you have to hire anyway.
Frank Rich, New York magazine:
Much ridicule, all deserved, has been aimed at Lauerâ€™s laughably empty reservoir of facts, particularly when questioning the fact-free Trump. (â€œQuestioningâ€ may be an overstatement in this context; Lauer didnâ€™t question Trump so much as feed him anodyne cues to spew any hooey he wanted.) The most widely panned example of the moderatorâ€™s failure is particularly galling: Clinton herself said in the forumâ€™s opening round that Trump was initially in favor of the Iraq War, having said so on Howard Sternâ€™s radio show in 2002. But Lauer didnâ€™t even listen to her. When Trump said just minutes later that he had been against the war from the start â€” and cited a 2004 Esquire article as proof â€” Lauer not only failed to challenge the conflict between what he said and the truth cited by Clinton but seemed oblivious to the fact that the Iraq War began in 2003. And letâ€™s not forget that interlude when Trump was claiming that Vladimir Putin is a superior leader to Barack Obama â€” an outrageous argument that Lauer never challenged. To prove his point, Trump cited â€œpollsâ€ that give Putin an 82 percent approval rating. What polls? Lauer didnâ€™t ask. I dare say Trump could have cited Chinese polls from the 1960s that gave Mao a 100 percent approval rating, and this moderator would have just nodded and moved on to the next topic on his crib sheet.
Of course, these comments were genteel and measured compared to some on the leftie blogs. But you get the picture.
A few were more forgiving:
Charles Pierce, Esquire:
If you assume, as I do, that simply telling El Caudillo del Mar-A-Lago that he is a lying sack of hair who knows less about most major issues than a rhino knows about differential calculus would be frowned upon at the upper echelons of NBC, then there wasn’t much for poor Lauer to do. The man denies he said what he clearly said. He denies he did what he clearly did. He claims to know more about any subject about which he clearly knows nothing. He is the hero of his own epic in which he’s already won because…winning! How do bring someone to a reckoning when he’s already triumphant in his own mind?
Journalism’s great enemy is not untruth. It’s futility.
Donald Trump was appalling last night. He was exposed, again, as someone from whom you wouldn’t buy an apple, let alone a foreign policy. He didn’t know that we already have military courts. He didn’t know that you can’t just go “get the oil.” (Someone should ask the Kurds what they think about this.) He lied, again, about his previous positions regarding the military operations in Iraq and Libya. He defended an old tweet of his about how, if we’re going to have women and men in the military, then the occasional sexual assault is part of the price we should be expected to pay. He pronounced himself impressed by Vladimir Putin’s poll numbers in Russia.
Think about that for a moment.
Hm. Well, if we’re saying here that the media upper echelons will not allow grilling of Donald Trump out of some misguided sense of propriety, then that’s one thing. But then, why even bother? Why have news media at all? Let’s just cut the crap and let the candidates run their own puff pieces and advertising.
Update: See also William Saletan, “NBCâ€™s Commander in Chief Forum Was an Authoritarian Farce.”