Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016 | 2 a.m.
As criticism rained down on Matt Lauer, the NBC anchor whose handling of a prime-time presidential forum on Wednesday received an onslaught of poor reviews, there was one select group of television journalists whose reaction ran along simpler lines:
For the anchors chosen to preside over this fall’s presidential debates, the excoriation of Lauer was a wake-up call signaling what modern viewers now expect from a moderator — and a stark example of how media figures can become partisan flashpoints in a hyper-polarized election.
On Friday, for the second straight day, aides to Hillary Clinton accused Lauer of being unfair to their candidate, blasting out a fundraising email saying he “let Donald Trump walk all over him.” Borrowing a page from Trump’s media-bashing playbook, Clinton’s campaign asked supporters to donate because “we have to do what the press won’t.”
Conservative websites like Breitbart News portrayed the attacks on Lauer as a left-wing pressure tactic, saying the criticism could encourage future moderators to go easier on Clinton — and be tougher on her opponent. Trump, for his part, declared at a rally, “I thought Matt Lauer did a very good job.”
All this foreshadows more scrutiny, and anxiety, for the debate moderators — Anderson Cooper of CNN, Lester Holt of NBC, Martha Raddatz of ABC and Chris Wallace of Fox News — whose encounters with the candidates could draw record audiences.
Wallace, asked on Fox News this week if he was excited or nervous about his debate gig, flashed a sly smile. “The answer is yes,” he replied dryly.
His fellow moderators have not discussed their preparations. But Bob Schieffer, the veteran CBS anchor who moderated presidential debates in 2004, 2008 and 2012, said in an interview that several had reached out to him for counsel. Citing professional decorum, he declined to name names, but said they had expressed variations on the same joke: What have I gotten myself into here?
“It’s different from the kind of scrutiny that I’ve gotten,” Schieffer said, referring to the glaring spotlight on this year’s moderators. “It’s just exponentially more.”
Wallace raised eyebrows after saying he did not consider fact-checking — or “truth-squading,” in his words — to be a central component of his moderating role. His comments circulated again in the days after what was arguably Lauer’s most memorable misstep, when he failed to challenge Trump’s false claim that he had opposed the Iraq War.
The notion of a moderator as a fact-checker “is too simplistic,” said the Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame and board member of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan group that oversees the events. “What a good journalist does is ask follow-up questions that challenge the candidate to explain.”
“The moderator can’t do it all; the onus falls on us a little bit, as the body politic,” to determine if a candidate is plausible, he added. “The moderator can make a mistake by being the voice of God, saying, ‘Here’s the way it is.'”
He said he did not watch the NBC forum. But he added that the commission had sought out moderators who would facilitate a civil and sober discussion — “It sounds a little moralizing, but I’m a priest, so indulge me,” he said — in contrast with what he considered flashier, less substantive debates during the primaries.
Real-time fact-checking is an increasingly visible tool of the modern political press, particularly in a so-called post-truth campaign where candidates frequently bend facts and audiences often rely on partisan news outlets to interpret them.
There is also the presence of Trump, a candidate who freely dissembles in a manner rarely seen in a presidential campaign.
Still, Schieffer, of CBS, said he believed that “the chief fact-checkers should be the candidates.”
“If one of them says something wrong, or inconsistent with what they have said previously, the other candidate should have the first opportunity to call them on it,” Schieffer said. Failing that, he added, “it’s the moderator’s responsibility to set the record straight.”
Lauer spoke with Clinton and Trump one-on-one, so he could not rely on the candidate’s opponent to jump in to contradict a dubious claim. Asked about Lauer’s performance, Schieffer demurred, saying, “I’m not in the habit of piling on.”
Others were less shy in the wake of the broadcast. Rep. Charles Rangel of New York and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, speaking at the Capitol, expressed annoyance at what they saw as Lauer’s lackluster attempt to hold Trump accountable for some of his more unusual comments.
“He missed the whole boat,” Rangel said, referring to Lauer.
Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s communications director, contacted NBC News executives to discuss Wednesday’s forum, according to two people familiar with the discussion.
Internally, the Clinton campaign believed the backlash against NBC could ultimately be beneficial, if the moderators of the coming debates are on eggshells about ensuring equal treatment and holding Trump to account.
Clinton, for her part, was already in a motorcade to her home in Chappaqua, New York, when Trump appeared with Lauer. While the Democratic nominee did not consider Lauer’s questions out of bounds, she did relish the subsequent coverage of the event that suggested Trump had gotten off easy, said a person familiar with her thinking.
On Friday, the chairman of NBC News, Andrew Lack, sent an upbeat memo to his staff that declared the forum a success, noting that the event had generated days of headlines about Trump’s praise of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and criticism of the U.S. military leadership.
“Matt did a tremendous job — driving one of the most serious discussions to date on these topics,” wrote Lack, who is close with Lauer.
The pressure on NBC News, however, is not likely to relent: The network’s evening news anchor, Holt, is set to oversee the first presidential debate, set for Sept. 26 at Hofstra University on Long Island.
Schieffer, who at 79 has watched more than a half-century’s worth of debates, said he had faith that this year’s moderators would be prepared.
But, Schieffer added: “There won’t be a perfect debate. There hasn’t been one yet.”