Our questions concerning his questions: As we noted yesterday, we thought that New York Times editorial was a bit of a watershed.
The editors hammered Matt Lauer, by name, for his performance at Wednesday's Commander-in-Chief Forum. In the past, this sort of thing has flown in the face of mainstream press culture, in which big news orgs and major journalists tend to maintain a code of silence concerning other members of the guild.
Over the past few decades, the mainstream press corps' code of silence has been extremely unhelpful. It has endlessly stifled debate about the work of the mainstream press. To us, it almost seemed like a watershed when we saw the New York Times criticize Lauer by name.
In our view, Lauer's greatest failure that night involved the presumptuousness of his first real question to Candidate Clinton, in which he suggested that her email practices may have been "disqualifying." That's a remarkable suggestion to lodge right at the start of an hour-long forum. When Lauer spoke with Candidate Trump, he offered no comparable suggestion about any of Trump's many strange actions over the course of the years.
We think Lauer showed extremely bad judgment in lodging that suggestion. That bad judgment was compounded by the harsh language contained in the first audience question to Clinton. No such harshly critical audience question was ever posed to Trump.
(We assume the audience questions were screened. NBC News would be asking for trouble if no screening was done.)
The editorial board was quite direct in its criticism of Lauer. That said, we thought we'd list some other problems with some of the questions he asked or failed to ask.
In the course of the forum, which was too short, Lauer asked some perfectly sensible questions. In our view, insufficient attention has been paid to the four questions, or absence of same, we'll discuss below. For the forum's full transcript, click here.
How does it make them feel: In our view, Lauer's first real question to Clinton was his worst of the night. That was the question in which he suggested that Clinton's email practices may have been "disqualifying" for her as a candidate.
In our view, Lauer was way out over his skis in making such a suggestion. In our view, his second worst question was the very first question he asked after dropping the topic of emails:
LAUER (9/7/16): Secretary Clinton, let’s talk about your vote in favor of the war in Iraq. You’ve since said it was a mistake.What a ridiculous question! Implicitly, Clinton was being criticized for saying she made a mistake in her vote on the war resolution. (Note to Lauer: There was no vote "on the war.") She shouldn't have stated her view, Lauer seemed to suggest, because of the way it may make Iraq veterans feel.
LAUER: Obviously, it was not something you said you would do again. I asked before for people to raise their hand if you served in Iraq. Can you do it again? (HANDS ARE RAISED) 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?
What an absurd suggestion! If candidates followed Lauer's suggestion, no one would ever admit to having made a mistake. For what it's worth, Lauer offered no evidence that any veterans in the audience shared the concern he seemed to advance. This was one of the weirdest questions we've ever seen in a debate or candidate forum.
How does it feel? It was thrilling when Dylan asked that question in "Like a Rolling Stone." It's the question people like Lauer ask when they arrive at the site of a hurricane or a murder. ("Your grandmother just washed away in a flood. How does that make you feel?")
It's bad enough when daytime stars play the ghoul on such occasions. Lauer's question to Clinton extended the culture of feigned empathy beyond any rational border.
The question(s) that didn't get asked: Many people have criticized Lauer for a question that didn't get asked. The watchdog's failure to bark came in the wake of this highly familiar statement by Trump:
LAUER: But what have you done in your life that prepares you to send men and women of the United States into harm’s way?Trump has been making this claim at least since the second Republican debate in September 2015. Fact-checkers have repeatedly noted that the claim is grossly misleading at best, and is closer to utterly false.
TRUMP: Well, I think the main thing is I have great judgment. I have good judgment. I know what’s going on. I’ve called so many of the shots. And I happened to hear Hillary Clinton say that I was not against the war in Iraq. I was totally against the war in Iraq. From a—you can look at Esquire magazine from ’04. You can look at before that. And I was against the war in Iraq because I said it’s going to totally destabilize the Middle East, which it has.
Trump made the bogus claim once again; Lauer simply moved on. He has been widely criticized for letting this bogus statement stand. (Trump's statement was also ridiculous. No one cares if he was against the war by August 2004.)
Laure has been widely criticized for letting Trump's howler stand. Fewer people have noted the way Lauer ignored the apparent problem with this second presentation:
LAUER: Will you be prepared on day one, if you’re elected president of the United States, to tackle these complex national security issues?As every journalist surely knows, Trump was vociferous in his call for military intervention in Libya. In this case, his vociferous war cry exists on videotape.
TRUMP: One hundred percent. Hey, Matt, again, she made a mistake on Libya. She made a terrible mistake on Libya. And the next thing, I mean, not only did she make the mistake, but then they complicated the mistake by having no management once they bombed you know what out of Gadhafi. I mean, she made a terrible mistake on Libya. And part of it was the management aftereffect. I think that we have great management talents, great management skills.
In this instance, Trump didn't make a false statement about his real-time position on intervention. But Lauer compounded his earlier mistake when he let this second statement go.
Not especially brilliant: Candidate Trump has been criticized for claiming again, during Wednesday's forum, that Vladimir Putin once called him "brilliant." As a candidate, Trump has made this self-flattering claim again and again and again, even saying that Putin called him "a genius."
As every journalist surely knows, that claim has been widely criticized as involving a translation error. (Putin himself has said this.) Russian speakers have widely claimed that the Russian term Putin used is being mistranslated by Trump.
In the wake of Wednesday's forum, NBC News said as much in this report by Elizabeth Chuck. On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow mugged and clowned and entertained the troops concerning this familiar point, while making a lazy attempt to establish the best translation.
Here's the problem. This matter was introduced on Wednesday night by Lauer, not by Trump. Here's the question he asked:
LAUER: Let me ask you about some of the things you’ve said about Vladimir Putin. You said, I will tell you, in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A, our president is not doing so well. And when referring to a comment that Putin made about you, I think he called you a brilliant leader, you said it’s always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his country and beyond.We'll retract our previous statement. To judge from Lauer's question, there was still one journalist who hadn't heard that Putin probably didn't call Trump "a brilliant leader." That one last journalist was Matt Lauer, who simply plowed ahead with this long-disputed claim.
At a reported $25 million per year, how do you get this clueless? For the record, neither Maddow nor Chuck noted the fact that the apparent mistranslation was introduced on Wednesday night by Lauer. Within the realm of the upper-end press, such things simply aren't done.
The weirdest question of all: Trump has been widely criticized for remarks he made in Wednesday's forum about his intelligence briefings. We'll leave the critique of Trump to others. Instead, we'll note that this topic only arose when Lauer asked the weirdest question of the night:
LAUER: You recently—you recently received two intelligence briefings.Why in the world, why on earth, would a moderator ask that question?
TRUMP: Yes, I did.
LAUER: Did anything in that briefing, without going into specifics, shock or alarm you?
For starters, let's look on the bright side. Almost surely, that question will gain speedy induction into the Newseum's "Leading Question Hall of Fame."
What was Trump supposed to say in response to that leading question? Of course he was likely to say that he'd been shocked by something he heard. But given the fact that he couldn't discuss what he heard in the briefing, why in the world would a moderator ask such a leading question?
It would be one thing if Trump had raised this matter himself. Why on earth did Lauer ask such a peculiar question?
In closing, let's be fair. Matt Lauer is highly skilled at 1) asking victims how they feel and 2) cashing extremely large checks. (He may also be skilled at protecting himself, and his network show, against cries of liberal bias.)
That said, his work Wednesday night was extremely poor, most notably in its lack of balance. But then, what else is new within the vastly overpaid and celebrified realm of our upper-end "press corps?"
Still coming: What Henderson said