Oppenheim: Moderator

Sep 13, 2016

On September 7th, NBC aired what it called a “Commander-in Chief Forum”.    It wasn’t a debate.  Rather, it was two back-to-back live interviews with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on the USS Intrepid in New York.

The single host was Matt Lauer, and as fast as you tweet, Lauer got slammed.  It wasn’t just on social media.  A range of political observers felt Lauer took too much time with Clinton about her emails, and threw softballs at Trump.  When Trump falsely claimed he hadn’t supported the Iraq War, Lauer didn’t interject that Trump had done exactly that.

Matt Lauer is the host of the Today Show, a morning news program that can range from smart to really insipid.  He’s a talent who, by the nature of his job, has to be able to handle an array of subjects and styles, from politics to pop culture.  And that softer reputation may give critics fodder that he was a poor choice for this assignment.

I don’t agree.  It may be true Lauer blew it, but that’s not because he doesn’t know his stuff.   If he was imbalanced or poor on follow-up, that’s the way it goes in the big leagues… he simply should have been better.

But I can’t help but think the dynamics this year are different.  Never before has the question of who’s moderating – and how they perform - been so intense. 

That’s partly because the Commission on Presidential Debates has been nervous – with Donald Trump threatening to skip at least one of the debates based in part on who the moderators are.

The line-up is Lester Holt, Anderson Cooper, Martha Raddatz and Chris Wallace.  They’re all pros, used to the limelight, but they all must know, the challenge this time especially is not only to do a good job asking questions, but not to become the headline the next day – like last October when a panel of CNBC moderators were put of the defensive by GOP candidates who didn’t like their questions.

And of course, the social media reaction is so fast and furious that its aftermath spurs on reporting from traditional media.  More than ever, the substance isn’t just about the debate answers, it’s about the questions.

Maybe some of this is healthy public engagement, but I think it can go overboard.  It could be stifling if moderators get overly worried about their scorecards. One thing’s for sure:  in this super-charged partisan atmosphere where everything’s atwitter, the pressure on the moderators couldn’t be higher.