When Lester Holt presides over the first presidential debate on Sept. 26, he may look to Wednesday night’s presidential forum hosted by NBC News colleague Matt Lauer as a warning.
Lauer was pummeled on social media for his performance at the Commander-in-Chief forum, especially among supporters of Hillary Clinton, who were irked by his fixation on questions about her use of a private email server and later for his failure to follow up with her rival Donald Trump on a number of questions.
But Lauer took heat from political journalists for not challenging Trump when he claimed that he opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning, something that reporters have repeatedly pointed out conflicts with interviews that Trump gave at the time in which he expressed support. Trump cited as evidence of his opposition an interview he gave to Esquire in 2004. The war in Iraq started in 2003, and Lauer didn’t challenge him on it.
"Lauer’s performance was not merely a failure, it was horrifying and shocking,” wrote Jonathan Chait in New York magazine.
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One challenge for Lauer was that he was under pressure to get through a number of topics on national security and veterans in a short period of time. For instance, he asked Clinton to explain how she planned to defeat ISIS “as briefly as you can.” But he front loaded Clinton’s half-hour at the forum with questions about her emails.
“Imagine if @NBCNews had done its job,” wrote Nick Merrill, a Clinton spokesman.
Some of the criticism comes amid an ongoing debate over the way that the media is covering Clinton and Trump overall — as her supporters in particular have escalated criticism that she is being challenged on the tiniest of details while her Republican rival is being graded on a curve.
Still, the “news” out of the forum may end up being Trump’s answers, and not Lauer, given that Clinton’s team wasted little time making hay over his support for Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his defense of a tweet he sent in 2013 on sexual assault in the military.
The Commission on Presidential Debates has been pretty clear that it doesn’t want its moderators to become the story, that the focus should be on the candidates. In that regard, the task of Holt and the four others presiding over the upcoming debates may be all the more difficult. Given the dynamics in the race, the pressure is on for them to act as moderator but perform as referee.