Lauer’s ‘Intrepid’ Performance Comes Up Short

Surely those who question a morning TV star’s hard-news chops are having some fun at Matt Lauer’s expense following his moderation of the Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump Commander-in-ChiefForum in New York Sept. 7. Lauer was hit with charges of unfairness, lack of preparedness and sexism in his handling of the forum.

“It was a high-stakes political moment, far from the chummier confines of the Today show and, for Matt Lauer, NBC’s stalwart of the morning, a chance to prove his broadcasting mettle on the presidential stage,” wrote the New York Times.

“The consensus afterward was not kind.”

Lauer had 30 minutes with each candidate at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, situated upon a vintage aircraft carrier on Manhattan’s far west side. He spent about a third of his time with Clinton on her use of a private email server, with hefty topics such as terrorism getting short shrift.

Said Huffington Post:

“Clinton’s use of a private email account is perhaps the most litigated subject of the presidential campaign. That doesn’t make it unworthy of resurfacing. But the amount of time Lauer lingered on the topic drew befuddlement from Clinton’s backers and some second-guessing from other media members, who wondered why other weightier topics weren’t given the same attention.”

Trump, for his part, steamrolled over several Lauer questions, which debate moderators in the coming weeks, such as NBC News anchor Lester Holt, will have to figure out a counterattack for. Lauer also came up short on fact-checking Trump on the fly, alleged several critics, particularly when Trump said he’d always been against the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

"I hate media-on-media violence, but Trump's support for the invasion of Iraq has been… rather well documented. No Lauer follow-up?” wrote Yahoo News’ Olivier Knox.

Critics also noted that Lauer cut off Clinton in mid-sentence numerous times, but did not appear to do so for Trump. Said James Poniewozik of the NY Times:

“There’s a difference between an interviewer who has questions and one who has knowledge, and Mr. Lauer illustrated it. He seemed to be plowing through a checklist, not listening in the moment in a way that led to productive follow-ups.”

Lauer’s performance sparked an unfortunate Twitter hashtag in #LaueringtheBar. “Were Kathi Lee and Hoda not available?” tweeted Harold Itzkowitz, ad sales director at National Memo, alongside the hashtag at @HaroldItz.  

To be fair, the number of journalists that can successfully moderate a debate (or a forum, for that matter), is exceedingly small. And the presidential candidates are so deeply disliked by their detractors that many naturally feel the moderator was too easy on the candidate they despise. While critical, The Huffington Post was somewhat sympathetic to Lauer’s plight. “Some of Lauer’s problems on Wednesday night were not of his own making. With only a half-hour with each candidate, he was pressed for time and forced to rush through topics while bringing in audience questions and timely follow-ups,” it said.

But longtime TV critic Joanne Ostrow tells B&C that Lauer came up short in a setting that’s easier to manage than a debate. He had one-on-ones with both candidates and did not have to partake in the traffic-cop work that debate moderators spend so much energy and brain bandwidth on. “Lauer was forceful where he didn't need to be (interrupting Clinton) and absent where he should have followed up (Trump rewriting his stand on war in Iraq). If the Today host couldn't steer separate interviews, imagine if he had been moderating a real debate with both candidates,” says Ostrow, formerly of the Denver Post.

Some 14.7 million viewers watched the forum on NBC and MSNBC, according to Nielsen. Several were unimpressed media critics. The Washington Post’s “Daily 202” snarked, “The reviews are in, and last night’s biggest loser was Matt Lauer. No one is happy with the host of NBC’s Today show…”

Added Poniewozik of the NY Times, “Seemingly unprepared on military and foreign policy specifics, he performed like a soldier sent on a mission without ammunition, beginning with a disorganized offensive, ending in a humiliating retreat.”

Holt, anchor of NBC Nightly News, will moderate the first presidential debate in Hempstead, N.Y., Sept. 26, and Martha Raddatz of ABC News and CNN’s Anderson Cooper moderate a town hall debate in St. Louis Oct. 9. Chris Wallace of Fox News moderates the final Trump-Clinton debate Oct. 19 in Las Vegas.

All are first-time presidential debate moderators, and will take lessons away from Lauer’s performance.

“Luckily, this was just a rehearsal,” says Ostrow, “like the kids' table debates before the primaries."

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.