Matt Lauer’s NBC presidential forum was a spectacular display of the worst habits in American journalism

“It is a correct tweet.”
“It is a correct tweet.”
Image: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
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There was a trainwreck on American TV last night, in the form of NBC’s “Commander-In-Chief Forum,” hosted by The Today Show‘s Matt Lauer. In front of an audience of military veterans, Lauer asked presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, in separate 30-minute segments, about matters of US foreign policy and national security.

It was tough to watch.

Lauer devoted nearly half of Clinton’s allotted time to re-litigating the questions over the candidate’s private email server while she was secretary of state—time that would have been better spent discussing more substantive issues, such as how the US will deal with the ongoing crisis in Syria. When Lauer did eventually ask Clinton more pressing questions, he repeatedly interrupted her, at one point telling her to respond to an audience member’s question about deploying US troops—the most grave and consequential decision an American president can make—”as briefly as you can.”

Then it was Trump’s turn. Lauer kicked things off by asking the businessman what in his life has prepared him to be the commander-in-chief of the American military. Trump’s response was that he “built a great company,” and has “dealt with foreign countries.”

When Trump repeated a widely known and proven lie that he opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, Lauer did not call him out on it. Nor did Lauer mention that Trump had actually supported military action in Libya, even as the candidate admonished his opponent for supporting military action in Libya.

Lauer did not ask Trump about his criticism of the Muslim parents of a fallen US solider, despite the forum’s focus on veterans’ issues. Lauer did not ask Trump about his statement that US senator John McCain was not a war hero because he was captured, even as actual combat veterans looked on from the audience.

Lauer did, however, ask Trump if he had “learned new things” in the intelligence briefings he’s received since becoming the Republican party’s nominee for president. (Trump responded that he could tell by the briefers’ body language that they were not happy with president Barack Obama.)

The internet’s condemnation of Lauer’s performance was swift:

This awkward display is the result of the American media’s obsessive, sometimes desperate, need to appear “balanced.” Perhaps out of fear that he’d be accused of bias, or out of a hope that the forum would exhibit a close, well-fought battle between two equal candidates, Lauer bungled his responsibilities as a journalist. (NBC did not respond to a request for comment.)

Young reporters are taught to report the truth and be fair. If someone or something is being criticized, they should be given the chance to respond. While “both sides” of an issue do not need to be referenced exactly equally, the “other” side should, at least, be represented fairly and accurately.

But, increasingly, journalists have twisted that ethos—especially during presidential elections—into false balance, or an attempt to normalize what is not normal. They present both sides of an issue, or, in this case, both candidates, as two sides of the same coin, equal, and perfectly balanced. Often (as in early coverage of the overwhelming evidence of climate change) that comes at the expense of the truth, not in support of it.

Lauer’s performance has many Clinton supporters worried about the upcoming presidential debates. Will the moderators actually hold candidates responsible for lies? Will they ask candidates to elaborate on muddled, incoherent answers? Will they demand candidates answer the questions asked of them, instead of allowing them to go completely off topic?

Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor who will moderate the final debate in Las Vegas on Oct. 19, said last week, ”I do not believe that it’s my job to be a truth squad.”

Except it is. That is, arguably, his only job. To knowingly allow false information to spread via your airwaves to millions of people is to fail the first and most important obligation of journalism. Anyone who does so should not be moderating presidential debates or forums, and the news networks that enable these failures should not get to broadcast them.