Lauer-ing the bar
September 13, 2016
Last week NBC hosted a dry run of sorts for the upcoming presidential debates. The Commander In Chief Forum should have given the voting public some confirmation regarding which candidate is best qualified to be America's next leader. Unfortunately, the only thing it confirmed was that Matt Lauer is decidedly unqualified to help voters decide.
By all accounts, the veteran journalist and long-time host of NBC's "Today" show was a total flop. Lauer failed to fact-check or follow up when Trump claimed he opposed the Iraq War when it started (he did not). Nor did he press for details when Trump refused to provide specifics on anything. Donald Trump probably could have gotten away with suggesting he was qualified to lead the U.S. armed forces because he once won at Battleship when he was nine, and Lauer would have nodded in agreement. Trump spoke in so many generalities, viewers learned nothing. Lauer might as well have asked Trump, "How do you feel about Apple removing the headphone jack from the new iPhone 7?" At least then we'd know where Trump stands on something important to the majority of Americans.
In contrast, Secretary Clinton was held to a much higher standard than her opposition. Lauer had just 30 minutes to help Americans determine which candidate is capable and competent to lead our nation, and he spent about one-third of it digging through her inbox. Though many voters are curious, if not concerned, about Clinton's email scandal and do deserve to hear from her regarding the matter, I think we are more deserving to hear about her strategy and plans for the country's safety and future. From education to the economy to foreign policy and terrorism — those are complex topics that deserve thoughtful, unrushed answers. Anyone with an Internet connection can learn what they need to know about Mrs. Clinton's use of a private email server during her time as Secretary of State. Allotting the topic so much time in front of an estimated 15 million viewers was a disservice to the voting public.
And it wasn't just those on Team Hillary who felt this way. Voters from both parties, as well as prominent political journalists and those sitting in the audience, were critical of Lauer's performance. The general consensus was that Hillary Clinton was drilled like a CEO testifying before Congress while Donald Trump was interviewed like he was the boss's nephew you know you have to hire no matter how he responds.
There have been a number of theories about why Matt Lauer's performance was so disgraceful. People have called him sexist. Others suggested he was afraid of Trump later blasting him on Twitter. Some have said he was simply unprepared and hadn't done his research. I tend to think he was promoted to a job he wasn't qualified for, even if he should have been. Matt Lauer is a morning talk show host, not a political reporter. His interviews include what's new in fall fashion and how to make pumpkin spiced meatloaf. He might have to read a teleprompter some mornings and report the news, but there's a big difference between reading a story and getting the story. You can't expect someone who skirts by on training wheels to compete in the Tour de France.
The first presidential debate is Sept. 26, and fortunately Matt Lauer isn't moderating it. But that doesn't necessarily mean the viewers will fare any better. It's impossible for a moderator to satisfy both candidates and millions of viewers at the same time.
Moderators are given sole discretion over the topics to be covered in the debates. They also have to fact-check on the spot, decide how much to probe, keep the candidates on topic and often act as a parent. When I watch these debates there's often so much shouting I half expect the moderator to say, "I don't care who started it, both of you just shut up."
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Wouldn't the voting public be better served with a set of simplified rules like this:
1. If a candidate goes over the allotted time, his or her microphone is cut off immediately.
2. If a candidate doesn't answer the question, his or her microphone is cut off immediately.
3. If a candidate attacks his or her opponent rather than presenting his/her strategy, the microphone is cut off.
4. If a microphone is cut off more than twice, it's not turned back on for the remainder of the debate and the candidate must stand there and listen.
5. If a candidate lies, a trap door opens and he/she disappears from the debate stage.
It might not be a realistic set of rules, but it would certainly help clarify a few things for voters.
Amy Roberts is a freelance writer, longtime Park City resident, and the proud owner of two rescued Dalmatians, Stanley and Willis. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. Follow her on Twitter @amycroberts.