Matt Lauer Shows What TV Does Wrong in Questioning Trump and Clinton

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·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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In a notable departure during this political season, NBC actually gave over an hour of primetime, forsaking a precious edition of America’s Got Talent, to let the country hear from presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The setting was what was billed a “Commander-in-Chief Forum,” hosted by Matt Lauer and airing on both NBC and MSNBC. Clinton and Trump appeared in separate half-hours.

Clinton lost the coin toss, so she went first. Lauer asked her to tell us what qualities she possessed to lead the country “without attacking” her opponent; Lauer promised to ask Trump “the same question.” Clinton played by that rule. Yet when Trump’s half-hour began, Lauer rephrased that question, asking Trump to “keep attacks to a minimum.” Which of course opened the door for Trump to criticize Clinton, which he did repeatedly, egregiously, throughout his time. Lauer allowed this to happen.

Lauer’s second question was about Clinton’s old email server. Think about it: In the context of was supposed to be an exploration of each candidate’s ability to become commander in chief, the second question out of Lauer’s mouth was about emails, not about military strategy or leadership goals or policy positions. It was an appalling example of the way the TV media persists in following cable-news ratings-teases, asking about controversy for controversy’s sake.

During Trump’s half of the show, no such questions were asked about any extraneous controversy Trump has been involved in, and of course, he’s been involved in many. Instead, Lauer asked questions like, “What in your life [has] prepared you” to be commander in chief?” (Trump managed to work in a Clinton criticism there.) And a softball such as “Will you be prepared on Day One?” (Trump worked in multiple criticisms of Clinton there as well.) Trump’s responses were marked by meaningless phrases (“she has a happy trigger” Huh?), and sentences begun but never finished. (One response, in its entirety: “The vets are waiting six days, seven days, eight days.” Uh-huh; for what?)

Lauer is by no means the only TV news person who falls into an apparent coma in the face of Trump’s repetitive patter, while fixating to an obsessive degree on Clinton’s email server. But his lapse this evening was especially notable, given how rare it is for network television to spend any amount of primetime with the candidates.