Matt Lauer is getting a taste of the hyperpartisan criticism that all the presidential debate moderators are going to face in today’s polarized atmosphere.
Despite one major misstep, the “Today” show anchor asked a steady stream of tough questions of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during NBC’s commander-in-chief forum.
Just to cite a few examples, Lauer repeatedly pressed Clinton about her email negligence, saying: “You’re communicating on highly sensitive topics. Why wasn’t it more than a mistake? Why wasn’t it disqualifying?”
He also asked about her 2002 Senate vote: “How do you think these people feel when the person running to be their commander in chief says her vote to go to war in Iraq was a mistake?”
In the following half hour, Lauer asked Trump:
“What have you done in your life that prepares you to send men and women into harm’s way?”
He also asked this: “Saying inflammatory things in a presidential campaign is not the same thing as saying inflammatory things as commander in chief. You can spark a conflict, you can destabilize a region, you can put lives at risk. Can we afford to take that risk?”
The transcript is replete with questions like that.
Now Lauer did make one major mistake. When Trump repeated his claim to have opposed the Iraq war before it started, the newsman failed to follow up and point out there is no public record of that, and he offered lukewarm support for an invasion during an interview with Howard Stern. (Trump continues to dispute this point.)
But the torrent of criticism against Lauer came mostly from the left, from partisans who believe Trump is an inveterate liar and that the moderator should have reduced him to rubble.
The New York Times ran one of the most loaded headlines I’ve ever seen on a news story: “Lauer Presses Clinton But Surrenders to Trump.” Surrenders? That’s not the forum I saw.
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza tweeted that Lauer was tougher on Ryan Lochte.
Liberal New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait ripped Lauer’s “pathetic” interview as “horrifying and shocking.” But then, look where he’s coming from, writing that people like Lauer “are failing to convey the fact that the election pits a normal politician with normal political failings against an ignorant, bigoted, pathologically dishonest authoritarian.”
Neera Tanden, head of the Center for American Progress, tweeted that some folks are saying Lauer wouldn’t have interrupted Clinton so often if she was a man. I don’t think insinuations of sexism are the way to go.
Look, no interview is perfect. The clock is ticking. You can’t follow up on every disputed point or you’ll never get to the bulk of your questions. (I’ve been there; it’s frustrating.)
You can’t fit every topic into 24 minutes, in this case, especially when some of the questions—very good questions—were asked by veterans in the audience.
There was also carping on the right. Breitbart, controlled by Trump campaign chief Steve Bannon, ripped Lauer for asking no questions about conflicts between Clinton’s State Department and her family foundation. Ironically, some conservative sites had complained earlier that Lauer would be too soft on Hillary because he was listed as a participant in some Clinton Foundation event.
Trump had one advantage in that the recent controversies surrounding his family foundation and Trump University had no connection to national security, unlike Clinton’s email scandal.
Media critics are entitled to disparage Lauer’s knowledge and performance, as that is their job. But much of the rest of what I’ve seen is thinly disguised anti-Trumpism.
Matt Lauer is one of the best interviewers in the business, but this is the world we now live in. Lester Holt, Martha Raddatz, Anderson Cooper and Chris Wallace can expect much the same during the debates. No matter what they do, the moderators will be subjected to plenty of polarized punditry or toxic tweets.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.