Debate Moderators, Take Note: Don't Be Like Matt Lauer (Guest Column)

Heidi Gutman/NBC

NBC's Commander-in-Chief Forum laid bare a couple of structural problems that television news faces as it prepares to present the presidential debates this fall.

The reviews for Matt Lauer’s performance as interviewer-in-chief at NBC News’ forum on the USS Intrepid were mostly pans. The so-called Commander-in-Chief Forum on Sept. 7, featured successive half-hour Q&As with the main parties’ presidential candidates, first Hillary Clinton, then Donald Trump.

The punning buzz on social media was that Matt had succeeded in #LaueringTheBar of journalistic quality, which his fellow news anchors will have to exceed when it comes their turn as moderators of the presidential debates, the first of which will take place Monday, Sept. 26, with Lauer’s NBC News colleague Lester Holt overseeing the proceedings.

Some of the criticism of Lauer amounted to working the refs: seeking to impose a set of expectations on future moderators not to replicate decisions that Lauer made. For example, Lauer was panned for spending too much time on the former secretary of state’s emails, or for failing to contradict Trump’s false claims about the timing of his opposition to the War in Iraq, or for his lack of preparatory homework on the issues at hand. It does not take much subtlety to pick up a pro-Brooklyn push underlying these complaints.

Fox News Channel anchor Chris Wallace, who will moderate the final presidential debate on Oct. 19, has already declared that it is not his job to "be a truth squad" and fact-check false statements made during the course of the debate. The pans for Lauer have put Wallace on notice that his failure to do so will subject him to similar negative reviews. Wallace has stiffened his spine somewhat since, noting that if the candidates do not fact-check each other, he will. "My preference is that they ride herd and keep check on each other," he told Brit Hume on Sept. 8. "But I'm not saying if they don't, I won't."

Irrespective of whether Lauer was as lackluster as his critics claimed, and irrespective of the particular decisions he made in the conduct of his interviews, the controversy over the Commander-In-Chief Forum has laid bare a couple of structural problems that television news faces as it prepares to present the presidential debates this fall.

They are problems of accuracy and proportion.

First, accuracy. In the fragmented media landscape of this digital age, the old-fashioned mass medium of television can still claim one indispensable national role. It is preeminently successful at presenting our great ritual contests. Television knows how to stage a competition. It is embraced as the medium par excellence for providing a clear, comprehensible, accessible view of such annual contests as the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl and, yes, the quadrennial contests of the presidential debates, too. In 2008, the last time two non-incumbents ran for president, only the 106 million audience of the Super Bowl exceeded the 52 million all-network audience for the Barack Obama-John McCain debates.

On television, we not only receive the verbal arguments that the candidates make as they argue with each other, we also hear their tone of voice, we see their body language. Television can offer what social media cannot: an accurate depiction of the contest at hand. So the first role of the moderators is akin to that of the officials at the Super Bowl: to supervise the contest so that the accuracy of its presentation is unimpeded, mediated with as light a touch as possible.

The structural problem for debate moderators is that, as journalists, they have a second, equally pressing obligation of accuracy. Besides ensuring the accuracy of the presentation, they are also duty-bound to ensure the accuracy of the content. As journalists, rather than stenographers, their duty to their viewers includes an obligation to the truth. When a he-said-she-said is not merely an exchange of opinion but an exchange between fact and falsehood, those moderators who fail to point out truth versus fiction fail as journalists. Such a failure makes it seem as if the lie has been disseminated with their imprimatur. In a normal election, in which both candidates have a track record of abiding by norms of truth-telling and of responsiveness to fact-checking, this second obligation would be marginal. The backlash against Lauer tells us that this year is different.

Second, proportion. The Commander-in-Chief Forum gave us a taste of the structural problems presented by a format that treats both candidates equally. Until now, television news has made the opposite judgment. There is nothing symmetrical about Trump and Clinton. Take the broadcast networks’ weekday nightly newscasts as a yardstick. Year-to-date through Labor Day, all three newscasts have paid more attention by far to the Trump campaign (822 minutes compared to 296 on ABC, CBS, NBC combined) than to Clinton’s.

That means more publicity for Trump and more scrutiny. And quite right, too. The Trump phenomenon is more newsworthy. Compared with Clinton, he is more accessible, more outlandish, more entertaining, more flamboyant, more unpredictable and, by far, a more radical departure from political norms. Any regular viewer of the nightly newscasts would by now have a fully formed, and accurate, picture of the two candidates. He is an egoist, unconcerned with public policy, risk-taking, verbally undisciplined. She is uncomfortable in public, wonkish, conventional, lawyerly, precise. Her campaign has been so buttoned-down that coverage of her email operation as secretary of state has attracted almost a third as much coverage (89 minutes) as her candidacy proper (296 minutes). When Lauer spent so much time questioning her about those damned emails, he was merely following the same agenda of newsworthiness.

Now the debates are upon us. The moderators will have to jettison their journalistic judgment of the last eight months and suddenly treat both candidates as if they are symmetrically worthy of scrutiny. They are not symmetrical. And when the moderators appear on television with a straight face and act as if they are, they will receive the same shellacking that befell Lauer. And there is nothing they can do about it.

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