Matt Lauer, and The Receding Tide of Media Objectivity

On Wednesday night, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump participated in a televised Commander-in-Chief forum moderated by NBC’s Matt Lauer. What has overshadowed the event was the performance of Matt Lauer. He was almost universally criticized by the left leaning media for appearing to be overly tough on Hillary Clinton, and comparatively light on Donald Trump (‘appearing to be’ is the key phrase here – as we’ll see in a bit).

A summary of the critique of Lauer’s performance is found in this New York Times article. It begins:

Charged with overseeing a live prime-time forum with Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton — widely seen as a dry run of sorts for the coming presidential debates — Mr. Lauer found himself besieged on Wednesday evening by critics of all political stripes, who accused the anchor of unfairness, sloppiness and even sexism in his handling of the event.

 

Granted 30 minutes with each candidate, who appeared back-to-back at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in Manhattan, Mr. Lauer devoted about a third of his time with Mrs. Clinton to questions about her use of a private email server, then seemed to rush through subsequent queries about weighty topics like domestic terror attacks.

 

When an Army veteran in the audience asked Mrs. Clinton to describe her plan to defeat the Islamic State, Mr. Lauer interjected before the candidate could begin her reply.

“As briefly as you can,” he said, one of several moments where the anchor spoke over Mrs. Clinton to remind her that their time was running short.

 

Mr. Trump stormed onstage in his familiar motor-mouth style, often talking over Mr. Lauer and declining to directly answer many of his questions. At times, Mr. Lauer — who has conducted fewer adversarial interviews with Mr. Trump than his colleagues on NBC’s political desk — appeared flummoxed by his subject’s linguistic feints.

….

“Lauer interrupted Clinton’s answers repeatedly to move on. Not once for Trump,” Norman Ornstein, the political commentator, wrote in a Twitter message, adding: “Tough to be a woman running for president.”

Michael Grynbaum, the author of this article, as well as many of his ideological bedfellows throughout the media all seemed to have a problem with the way Lauer constantly interrupted Clinton, asking her to hurry her answers along, while supposedly not doing it once for Trump.

This is technically true, Lauer did not interrupt Trump once to speed him up. He interrupted Trump several times to engage in active debate with Trump, which he categorically did not do with Clinton. Consider the following video:

It shows quite clearly that all of Lauer’s ‘interruptions’ of Clinton were merely in the interest of moving things along to fit as much as he could in a 30 minute segment. He was stern, yes, but he wanted to move things along. There nothing of value in the rambling non-answers Clinton was giving to warrant a waste of precious time.

In contrast, when Lauer (more frequently) interrupted Trump, it was in order to push back against something he said. At stages Lauer was outright debating with Trump point for point, back and forth, in a manner he didn’t do with Clinton. To the extent he didn’t keep going and going down some of the rabbit holes he could have was down to the fact that he was keen to fit a lot into the 30 minutes he had with Trump.

For all the tears in the media over how unprepared Lauer was, he did come armed with a couple obvious ‘gotcha’ setups at the end of Trump’s alotted time. Trump simply did a good job of avoiding those traps, hence the description of Lauer as ‘flummoxed’ by Trump’s ‘linguisitc feints.’

Grynbaum continues:

On social media, surrogates for Mrs. Clinton began mounting a sustained attack on the anchor. “Imagine if @NBCNews had done its job,” wrote Nick Merrill, her press secretary, on Twitter. Neera Tanden, a close Clinton ally, was even harsher: “I guess the good news is that Matt Lauer isn’t moderating an actual debate,” she wrote.

 

The criticism captured what has become a common complaint about media coverage during this election: that news organizations and interviewers treat Mrs. Clinton as a serious candidate worthy of tough questions, while Mr. Trump is sometimes handled more benignly.

Herein lies the crux of the angst from the media, and those on the left over Lauer. Those parties have all declared Trump to be an uncouth buffoon who says offensive things and thus isn’t fit to be president. That basic assertion is a given, a concrete foundation from which everything else follows.

And what follows is this, from the perspective of mainstream media: Given the disaster Trump is, how do we cover him, given he has gotten this far?

Jim Rutenberg of the NYT asked this question, and sought to answer it in this popular column from last month.

If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?

 

Because if you believe all of those things, you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career. If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.

The idea that just now, in 2016, mainstream journalists are struggling to deal with having to be more oppositional to a Presidential candidate is quite laughable, given the fact they’ve been oppositional to every Republican candidate for decades. Mitt Romney faced the same charges of bigotry, sexism and so forth that Trump does now. The difference is that Trump is completely and utterly unapologetic, while Romney tripped over himself to get in the good graces of the media.

This is why there is a new level of ‘danger’ attached to Trump. He truly can’t be coo-opted, and is unfazed by the Power of the Pen which the media has used to criticize its ideological opponents into submission. It does not have such power over Trump, hence the public brainstorming about what sort of strategy it should employ to defeat him.

And make no mistake, despite the waffling journalists like Rutenberg does in his article and others, defeating Trump is the goal, not figuring out how to nobly maintain objectivity in the uncharted seas of the 2016 campaign. Brian Stelter of CNN confirmed as much with this outburst on his show last month:

Journalists cannot just play these soundbites, quote these claims and then move on to the next subject. We can’t just let it seep into the discourse like it’s normal. We have to stop and fact check and contextualize… Right now, it’s the Republican candidate for president who is trying to delegitimize our democratic process without proof. It is unpatriotic for any journalist or any interviewer to help him.

To this end, Matt Lauer’s greatest sin on Wednesday night was that he didn’t spend the entirety of his 30 minutes with Trump calling him a racist, sexist, bigot, homophobe, Islamophobe, Transphobe, whatever phobe repeatedly. That would have been ‘doing his job.’

Given the media has painted Trump as a threat to the world as we know it, they deem this sort of biased criticism, which is supposed to be out of bounds in the journalistic realm, to be acceptable, necessary even.

Furthermore, the Lauer outrage has the potential to set the tone for the Presidential debates, for which the NBC forum was considered a dry run. Consider what David Axelrod, political commentator and former Obama administrative operative, had to say on the matter:

So there we have it. The leftist media has branded Matt Lauer a journalistic failure for not constantly bashing Trump over the head as moderator. The fact that he only bashed him some of the time wasn’t good enough. The message to Lester Holt is clear: If you don’t essentially play Robin to Hillary’s Batman during the debate, we’ll come after you.

From what I know of Holt, he might be hesitant to acquiesce to the baying crowd, regardless of his natural amenability to the leftist worldview. And it might actually be a smart play, for the public as a whole are starting to tire of mainstream media and their complete inability to sympathize with most of America.

Should Holt, or any of the moderators be too transparent in their allegiance to Hillary Clinton, and are too eager to attack Trump, they will run the risk of confirming the stereotype that they are heavily biased, and Trump’s specific critique that the media is dishonest. This will taint any subsequent analysis it offers, which said differently, means it taints the pro Clinton message.