Moderators Challenging Candidates' Lies Isn't 'Opinion.' It's Journalism.

MSNBC's Chris Matthews suggests Matt Lauer would have appeared too opinionated if he'd pressed Donald Trump on Libya.
Matt Lauer came under fire Wednesday for not challenging Donald Trump's false claims on Libya and Iraq.
Matt Lauer came under fire Wednesday for not challenging Donald Trump's false claims on Libya and Iraq.

As MSNBC’s Matt Lauer came under heavy criticism Wednesday night for his performance as moderator during the network’s Commander-in-Chief forum, his colleague Chris Matthews came to his defense.

During that forum, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump trashed his Democratic opponent for supporting the 2011 U.S. intervention in Libya. Critics were incensed at Lauer for failing to point out that Trump himself had supported the intervention as well.

This was Matthews’ argument: Had Lauer called out Trump on the inconsistency, it would have sounded like Lauer was expressing an opinion.

Actually, no. He would have simply been practicing journalism. 

Trump has repeatedly claimed he was a staunch opponent of the Iraq War, which is not true. Lauer failed to challenge Trump on this lie as well ― even after Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, mentioned during the first half of the forum that the real estate developer had supported the invasion. 

Clinton also told Lauer prior to Trump’s appearance that “there’s no difference between my opponent and myself” on Libya and that “he’s on record extensively supporting intervention.” Which, indeed, he is.

But when Trump criticized Clinton later at the forum for making a “terrible mistake” in Libya while secretary of state, and touted his own “great management talents” by comparison, Lauer failed to push back. Instead of pressing Trump on his actual position, Lauer switched to the more open-ended question, “Are you prepared?”

During a panel discussion after the Wednesday night forum, MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell played a 2011 clip in which Trump said the U.S. “should go in” to Libya and suggested the military expedition would be “very easy and very quick.” (Go to 12:44 in the video below.) 

“How do you debate a presidential candidate who took the position we absolutely should go into Libya, go in hard, and now says he never did?” O’Donnell then asked Matthews. “No one’s really had to deal with that in a presidential debate before.”

“Well, you have to call the guy a liar when you do that,” Matthews responded. “That’s the problem. That’s the difficult thing for Matt Lauer to do, because it sounds like an opinion. And you’re not supposed to have opinions in this business.”

Journalists at establishment, non-partisan news organizations understandably want to avoid the perception that they’re biased, or that they’re injecting personal views in a context where they’re expected to be impartial. But in straining for some idealized notion of neutrality, they risk failing at their journalistic obligation to call out candidates when they’re being dishonest.

Lauer’s reluctance to challenge Trump on Iraq and Libya does a disservice to viewers ― and voters. It also sets a troubling precedent ahead of the presidential and vice presidential debates, where one moderator has already said he won’t fact-check the candidates. Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, who’ll moderate the third debate, said he expects Trump and Clinton to challenge one another’s claims, and that he doesn’t view the moderator’s role as being a “truth squad.”

“NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt, who will moderate the first presidential debate on Sept. 26 at Hofstra University, has not commented on his plans. Neither have ABC News’ chief global affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz, CNN host Anderson Cooper or CBS News correspondent Elaine Quijano.

The moderator certainly shouldn’t take an outsize role as a third debater on stage when the two nominees meet in the coming weeks. But given Trump’s demonstrated willingness to state things that are not true (something Clinton does too, though nowhere near as often), the debates will be no more useful to voters than a “he said, she said” argument unless the candidates are held accountable somehow.

For instance, if Clinton accurately observes that Trump is on the record supporting both Iraq and Libya  ― which she did Wednesday ― a moderator could adjudicate by pointing out Trump’s past positions regardless of what he now claims.

It’s unclear whether the moderators of the upcoming debates would actually do that in real time. 

News organizations will surely fact-check the candidates after the debates, as NBC News did with Trump’s Iraq claims on Wednesday night and Thursday morning. But the millions of viewers tuning in to the debates won’t necessarily catch these follow-up assessments.

Politico chief political correspondent Glenn Thrush highlighted this problem after Wednesday’s forum:

There’s another way to challenge the candidates on their positions without necessarily serving as a fact-checker responding to each misleading assertion or outright lie. 

Washington Post “Fact Checker” columnist Glenn Kessler agreed that Trump and Clinton should primarily challenge one another’s claims in the upcoming debates. But he suggested to The Huffington Post that the moderators try to frame questions that use fact-checks “as a way to get into questions of substance.”

One example that Kessler offered Monday might have been useful to Lauer just two days later. 

“Mr. Trump, you have criticized Clinton for voting to authorize the war in Iraq. While you claim you opposed it, fact checkers have found no evidence of any public statements against it ― and in fact they have found evidence you also supported it,” Kessler said. “Clinton has apologized for her vote, saying it was a mistake. Will you apologize for trying to mislead the American public about your stance on the war?”

Oh well. Maybe next time.

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.