Nearly 15 million viewers tuned in for NBC's "Commander-in-Chief" Forum last Wednesday. The forum consisted of back-to-back 30-minute interviews with both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton (albeit not onstage together), where each candidate discussed foreign policy, national security, and a host of other issues. If there is one lesson we can take away from this event, it's that fact-checking is crucial in political journalism.
Matt Lauer moderated the proceedings, which took place at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in Manhattan. The "Today Show" stalwart has since come under fire for his line of questioning and his demeanor with the candidates.
With the presidential debate just a couple of weeks away, Lauer's performance serves as a teachable moment for the moderators as they prepare for the mammoth event. First, though, let's examine why Lauer was so roundly criticized.
The most apparent critique of Lauer was that he appeared to hold Hillary Clinton to a higher standard than Donald Trump. For example, he devoted about a third of his time with Clinton to questions about her use of a private email server, and repeatedly interrupted her when she attempted to clarify the issue. He then seemed to rush through other topics like terrorism.
However, with Trump, Lauer asked more open-ended questions, such as what books he has read to prepare himself for office. Most notably, he failed to fact check Trump's claim that he was against the Iraq War before it started. To his credit, Lauer did manage to press Trump on his controversial comments on sexual assault in the military. He referenced a tweet from 2013 in which Trump said the issue was simply a result of men and women serving together. Yet, that was the most contentious moment of Lauer's interview with the GOP nominee. He appeared much more confrontational and impatient with Clinton.
For an event which Lauer had a week to prepare, he seemed woefully ill equipped to handle the most basic duty of political journalism: fact-checking. New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik equated Lauer's performance to "a solder sent on a mission without ammunition." By Thursday, the hashtag "Lauering the Bar" became a trending topic on Twitter.
Now, I don't mean to demean Lauer's career accomplishments as a journalist. It seems, though, given his performance last week, that a political journalist would've been better suited to handle such discussions.
The 2016 election has presented countless conundrums for the press. CNN Senior Media Correspondent, Brian Stelter, called covering this race (and Trump specifically) "the journalistic challenge of this decade."
However, the debate moderators can make their coverage much less cumbersome by sticking to tough questions for both candidates and utilizing some kind of real-time fact checking method. It could be as simple as a quick aside after a commercial break, during which the moderators succinctly go over the previous segment's discussion and the major false claims made. Sure, it would take up time, but for the sake of truth telling, that shouldn't matter. If those methods aren't feasible, at least have newspaper clippings of past interviews, excerpts from speeches, etc. on hand for quick verification.
At the very least, simple follow-up questions are essential, as are challenges on universally known falsities. If Clinton tries to skirt around the email issue, challenge her. If Trump tries to claim he never flip-flopped on immigration (or nearly every other policy), call him out.
Unfortunately, Fox News' Chris Wallace, the moderator for the final debate, infamously stated his intention NOT to fact-check the candidates, saying "I don't believe it's my job to be a truth squad."
I'm sorry, Mr. Wallace, but that is exactly what your job, and that of every journalist, is in this election.
We have seen, as was the case in Jake Tapper's interview with Trump last summer, that when pressed, the GOP nominee backs down a bit. Employing this strategy for both candidates would do wonders to help the voters see where the two truly stand. To simply dance around false statements, as Lauer did, is not fair to journalism, nor is it fair to the general public.
On the debate stage, with millions of viewers tuned in and no place for the candidates to hide, this becomes exponentially more important. It is the duty of the press to keep Trump and Clinton honest, especially in an election where trustworthiness is such a bugaboo for both candidates.
Asking tough questions and verifying every answer is not simply in the interest of journalistic integrity nationwide. It is in the interest of a well-informed citizenry, poised to cast its most consequential vote in recent memory.