Why Did NBC Choose Matt Lauer to Moderate Last Night’s Forum?

NBC billed it as a “Commander-in-Chief Forum” between the two presidential candidates. The issues that will face the person who wins this election in November will be challenging. At the top of the list are things like defeating ISIS and what to do about the civil war in Syria. The latter is especially complicated because it involves this country’s relationships with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Turkey. Understanding the real options available to our next Commander-in-Chief on those issues requires a pretty deep knowledge of what is at stake for the major players and how they tend to approach global affairs.

And yet, NBC chose Matt Lauer to moderate the forum. He’s not a bad guy. And he certainly isn’t the kind of fool played on TV by folks like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. But lets’ be honest, his day job is in a field that is best described as “infotainment.” As such, he is required to be at least as informed about the latest Hollywood gossip as he is about global affairs. In other words, his knowledge of the kinds of challenges that will face our next Commander-in-Chief probably runs about an inch deep. It showed last night.

Because of that, I find myself pretty much in agreement with what Jonathan Chait wrote – minus the shock.

Lauer’s performance was not merely a failure, it was horrifying and shocking. The shock, for me, was the realization that most Americans inhabit a very different news environment than professional journalists. I not only consume a lot of news, since it’s my job, I also tend to focus on elite print news sources. Most voters, and all the more so undecided voters, subsist on a news diet supplied by the likes of Matt Lauer. And the reality transmitted to them from Lauer matches the reality of the polls, which is a world in which Clinton and Trump are equivalently flawed.

I assume that is precisely why NBC chose Lauer for the job last night. He has a huge audience on the Today Show that they wanted to capture for a presidential forum. That’s the job of television – to capture eyeballs. And some obscure journalist who has dedicated their professional lives to understanding foreign policy just wouldn’t cut it. And so we got the Today Show version of a forum that appeals to a Today Show audience. It was tailor-made for a candidate like Donald Trump.

The one thing I would caution is that the NBC forum won’t be a good indicator of how the actual debates will go – at least the first two. Lester Holt will moderate the first one and the second will feature both Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper. Based on her performance in the 2012 Vice Presidential debate, I am especially intrigued to watch Raddatz moderate the town hall forum on October 9th. As a reminder, she is a Chief Global Affairs Correspondent for ABC News who knows these issues well and has demonstrated that she can push back.

None of this is to dismiss the awful decision that NBC News made in choosing a moderator for last night’s forum. Matt Lauer is very good at his day job – it just happens to be one that doesn’t have much to do with the skills and understanding that are required to effectively question the candidates who are running to be our next Commander-in-Chief.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.