Matt Lauer Under Fire

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virgil.featuredBy Virgil Scudder, President, Virgil Scudder & Associates

What happened?  Here you have Today Show host Matt Lauer, an experienced, respected, and skilled interviewer and moderator, being blasted by fellow journalists and others for his handling of NBC’s Commander-In-Chief Forum on Wednesday night.

The criticisms from some fellow journalists are withering.  One unidentified NBC executive called Lauer’s performance “a disaster.”   Others said he was unfair, being a lot tougher on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton than on Republican nominee Donald Trump.  It’s true that Trump often seemed to get a free pass on evasive or non-responsive answers where Clinton did not.  Some critics cited an unfair, sexist approach to moderating.

Author and Cornell University Professor Peggy Drexler commented to CNN: “(Lauer) devoted about a third of his time with Clinton to questions about her emails while rushing her through other weightier topics.  He interrupted her, while allowing Trump to talk over him in his usual way and he left unchallenged Trump’s contradictory statement about not supporting the war in Iraq (he did) among other things.”

NBC correspondent Peter Alexander said on the Today Show Thursday that Trump spoke “almost completely in generalities.”  It’s true and wrong.  It’s an interviewer’s job to insist that speakers back up their points.  Lauer fell far short in this regard.  On another program, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass repeatedly said the event was “frustrating.”

(Photo Source: Twitter)

(Photo Source: Twitter)

To me, the problem is clear: Lauer was in over his head.  He was the wrong person for the job.  He was like a 20-game winning pitcher sent up to bat with the bases loaded in the ninth inning.   Political reporters spend hours over many months researching every aspect of key issues and the candidates’ positions on them, something a general reporter like Lauer does not have time to do.  Therefore, he is unqualified to challenge mis-statements and force answers to the really tough questions.

New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik wrote that Lauer seemed “unprepared on specifics of military and foreign policy: He performed like a soldier sent on a mission without ammunition, beginning with a disorganized offensive, ending in a humiliating retreat.”

As Poniewozik wrote, “Lauer’s interviewing skills are second to none.”  I agree.  But, such skill is inadequate when one is not thoroughly grounded in the subject and the issues.

As a former journalist myself (NBC News, ABC News, WINS all-news radio) and regular columnist, I have been very dissatisfied with news media performance in this election year.  In the debates, the “reporters” chosen to fire the questions were too often partisans, not objective journalists.  And, they were too soft or compliant.  There was far too little follow-up on mis-statements or controversial statements, and some speakers, especially Trump, were disgracefully allowed to interrupt and talk over others.  Journalism, and the public, were ill-served by this dereliction of duty.

Another media problem today is the issue of false equivalency.  If someone baselessly says you are a thief, it is not balanced coverage to simply carry your statement that you are not.  But, too often journalists will call that fair and equal coverage.  Responsible journalism requires digging for the facts and making the accuser back up the accusation.  Unfortunately, much of journalism today, especially in this election campaign, is just “he said, she said.”  That’s lazy and unprofessional journalism.

Why aren’t TV interviewers tougher?  When asked this question, the host of one of the Sunday morning talk shows was quoted as saying if he got really tough, the show wouldn’t be able to get any guests.  For truth-seekers, that’s a disturbing statement.  So much for hard-hitting, unintimidated journalism.

Let’s hope the upcoming presidential debates set a new standard.  The American public needs and deserves it.  To NBC’s Lester Holt and the debate moderators who follow, I say “do your job.  Be fair, unbiased, but tough and probing.  And don’t let Trump and Clinton evade and dodge important questions.”

We should expect no less.

About the Author: Often referred to as “The Dean of Media Trainers,” Virgil is considered one of the world’s foremost communication experts.  In a 30-year career that has covered 26 countries on five continents, he has provided coaching and counsel to heads of some of the world’s largest corporations and government leaders. Virgil is a prolific writer and speaker.  His book, World Class Communication: how great CEOs win with the public, shareholders, employees, and the media, written with his son Ken, was named one of the 25 best business books of 2012.  His column, In the C-Suite, appears in every quarterly issue of the Public Relations Strategist and is read by leaders of major public relations agencies and global heads of public relations of large companies. He has written or been featured in articles that have appeared in The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, Reuters, Investors Business Daily, and numerous professional publications.  Two of his speeches have been reprinted in the prestigious Vital Speeches of the Day. Prior to founding Virgil Scudder & Associates in 1990, Virgil headed the media training units of two of the world’s largest public relations firms, Hill & Knowlton and Carl Byoir & Associates.  Earlier, he was an award-winning news broadcaster at major radio and television networks and stations in New York City.  He was a first-night Broadway drama critic for six years during that period, broadcasting reviews on NBC’s all-news radio network and all-news WINS radio.  

 

9 Comments

  1. Peter Engel on at 12:36 AM

    Does anyone think that NBC News, already under fire for protecting Lauer over previous misdeeds, is going to suffer on this one? I’d want Andy Lack’s head if I were running Comcast and this is his handiwork.

  2. Greg Wright on at 9:10 AM

    Great article. Thanks for writing. Personally, I always thought of Lauer as a minor celebrity, not a journalist, thanks to his behind-the-scenes antics on the Today Show. I am a former journalist, now in public relations. I’m appalled by the journalism industry but the decline was starting in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Part of the reason is that media companies went public and it became about making profits and selling ads, not good journalism. So there was a desire not to offend anyone don’t you lose advertisers. Then this false equivalency bull starting happening. It has turned journalism into he-say, she-say and not the facts! No wonder the public doesn’t trust news!

  3. Virgil Scudder on at 10:35 AM

    Excellent comments, Greg. You’re right on target. Where are today’s Ted Koppels, Barbara Walters, and Edward R. Murrows? Alas, almost entirely at a few media outlets that have courage, integrity. and the willingness to risk being vilified or sued. As a result, the public is becoming dangerously ignorant. Trump would never have risen in a tough, “tell-it-like-it-is without fear” media environment where all major claims are called to account and lies are either called such or left out of news stories.

    Another factor is the decline of newspaper readers, especially among the young. The nature of television limits the ability of television news to do in-depth, hard-hitting reporting. With no professional vetting at all, social media make things worse. We live in a headline-only, sound bite age with very little fact-checking. And, too many viewers can’t separate fact from unsupported opinion. I wish I had confidence that things will soon get better.

    • Sivaram Timmaraju on at 12:54 PM

      Virgil: excellent article.

  4. Chaya Timmaraju on at 9:18 PM

    Thanks for an excellent and incisive analysis of the Presidential Forum debacle! Matt Lauer is an anchor for the morning entertainment/ news segment of the NBC ‘s Today Show! Lauer did not seem to know that Trump was not truthful in his answers to the questions he was asked. Lauer kept asking question after question, (with non answers from Trump). And compare that to his prosecutorial questioning of Hillary Clinton and his rude interruptions while she was answering! I hope and pray that NBC’s Lester Holt will do a better job and not display more of the sexism that seems to be inherent in current crop of journalists!

  5. Linda Dunbar on at 9:28 PM

    Excellent article. Asking Matt Lauer to interview presidential candidates is like asking Roseanne to sing the Star Spangled Banner. There should be no surprise regarding the outcome. My question is why would anyone *ask* Matt Lauer to do this job? And is this a real election we are having this year? Seems like a circus on multiple levels.

  6. Gary Selnow on at 6:27 AM

    We see more clearly this year than during previous elections the outcomes of lazy journalism. Scudder points out some of the issues that have brought us to a race that is now alarmingly close. Yes, social media and multiple media outlets have changed the chemistry of political reporting since the days when three giant networks dominated political coverage. That does not issue license, however, for the anemic journalism Scudder comments on here. More than just offensive to an honored tradition of political journalism, the outcome of being unprepared, of false equivalency, of little follow-up to outrageous claims, is that decisions of an entire electorate are forming on weak and unstable information. Scudder’s analyses are correct. Practicing and student journalists should take note.

  7. Betty Pabon on at 12:59 AM

    I truly miss the journalism of Tim Russert and John McLaughlin.

  8. Mark Zimmerman on at 6:34 PM

    Virgil Scudder parrots my feelings about this campaign season. Trump has been given a pass (up to this point) for his loose grasp of the truth. Early in the campaign season the press, and I suppose most of us, viewed Trump as side show. Surely he wouldn’t gain any traction so why bother to question his misstatements and outright lies. The only moderator I witnessed holding Trumps feet to the fire was Chris Mathews. (When confronted with the distasteful pictures of Heidi Cruz that Trump posted, Trump said, “Well, he started it.” To which Mr Mathews responded, “That’s the answer of a five year old.”). I hope that with less than two months until Election Day, the press will finally demand that Mr Trump (and Secretary Clinton) back up assertions with the truth and demonstrate that their policies are responsible and sound.

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