On Sept. 7, both U.S. presidential candidates, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump, participated in back-to-back interviews during NBC’s presidential forum. The event was meant to highlight each candidate’s specific policy proposals and views on national security and foreign affairs. Yet by its end, the forum became a primary example of why journalists and other members of the media must hold elected officials to the same level of truth, scrutiny and factual accuracy.
The moderator for the evening was NBC’s own Matt Lauer, who first pressed both Clinton and Trump on ways they would each confront issues ranging from troop deployment to immigration reform. Yet when comparing the way Lauer specifically pressed Clinton and Trump over the evening, it is apparent that the same levels of accountability did not apply.
During Trump’s phase of the forum, the candidate attacked Clinton for her role in supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq as well as the 2011 U.S. and United Nations intervention in Libya. However, Trump supported both actions in past statements. During an interview with Howard Stern in 2002, when asked if he supported invading Iraq, Trump responded, “Yeah, I guess so.” During a 2011 video, Trump claimed that if the United States did not intervene in Libya it would be a “major, major black eye for this country.”
Throughout this campaign, Trump has not been a stranger to distorting the facts and even outright lying over the historical record, and Clinton has also been accused of misrepresentations of the truth. Yet NBC’s Lauer failed in his journalistic duty to hold Trump to the factual and historical record. It would have been easy for him to press Trump on his previous support for military interventions, yet the anchor did not question further.
On the other end, Clinton, when confronted with how to resolve the Veterans Affairs Department and support returning service members, received a starkly different treatment from Lauer. She demonstrated support for revitalizing the ineffective bureau, yet was not pressed to raise concrete policy details. Instead, Lauer spent a greater amount of time questioning her email controversy during her term as secretary of state as well as her past judgment.
The issue is not with Lauer’s questions, but in his apparent inability, or unwillingness, to hold the candidates to the same level of accountability. Moderators have an obligation to be transparent in their moderation methodology, while the public deserves to understand the semantics and details of a candidate’s views and policy. Moderators must push the next leaders of the nation to answer questions in clear and honest ways.
An example of moderation executed well occurred during a 2012 presidential debate with President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.). Former CNN anchor Candy Crowley moderated one of these debates and fact-checked a claim made by Romney about a past statement made from Obama. What must be noted here is how Crowley was right to publicly come down on the side of truth, as Obama and Romney explicitly expressed contradicting claims on the matter of a recorded statement. There was an objective truth for Crowley to state for the public’s reference and historical record.
The first presidential debate of this election is scheduled for Sept. 26, and it is troubling that one of the moderators, Chris Wallace, said in reference to the upcoming debates, “I do not believe it’s my job to be a truth squad.” Yet when it comes to Americans voting for a leader into one of the most powerful offices in the world, journalists holding each potential candidate to the same level of accountability is essential for all of us to understand who is the more apt candidate. With last Wednesday’s forum, it appears Lauer does not understand the significance of such a responsibility.
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