In some ways, we perhaps owe Matt Lauer a debt of gratitude. His ludicrously shallow interviews with presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were as clear an example as you could ask for of the failure of the mainstream media in this election. Lauer seemed to be simply acting as a conduit for a preset script, reifying a pre-existing narrative, and he was not really interested in answers as much as creating moments that can be replayed on the news networks.
For instance, Hillary Clinton is "corrupt" or "crooked," as Trump puts it. Therefore, at a forum ostensibly about the military, foreign policy, and veterans, Lauer abandoned the topic and goaded Clinton for nearly half her time about the played-out, made-up, insignificant e-mail "scandal." There was nothing new to ask about. It was merely an occasion for Lauer to channel whatever fake outrage is in the zeitgeist and press her to re-re-re-apologize and re-re-re-explain. And then, after Lauer had asked about it, the first questioner, who was prescreened, asked about the damn emails. Anyone watching uncritically would have thought that the most important issue facing the United States in the world is not Russia's growing influence, the conflict in Syria, or trade with China. No, it's whether or not Clinton truly understood that she screwed up by having a private email server. Not that she leaked secrets. Not that it was hacked and agents were exposed. No, just that she had one. As with just about everything allegedly scandalous with Clinton, there is nothing there except a narrative that must be sustained, no matter what the FBI, Congressional committees, and multiple investigations say. Clinton isn't corrupt or crooked. But she is not allowed to escape her narrative frame.
When it came to Trump, Lauer also worked to keep the narrative going, that Trump is just saying provocative things that are meaningless, that his ignorance is merely naivete. You could easily make a case that Lauer went easy on his former network colleague (The Apprentice was an NBC show, after all). You could make the case that Trump's chumminess with media outlets over the decades has given him an insider's track with them (or given him information he can threaten them with). Whatever the case, at no moment did Lauer bear down on Trump with the kind of unrelenting focus he gave to Clinton's emails. Many have faulted Lauer for not questioning Trump's continued lie about opposing the Iraq War, which he did after it had started, but not before, as he has claimed. But when Trump said other outrageous things, about how much he admires Vladimir Putin's "leadership" or how he stands by his tweet that blames the presence women in the military for their sexual assaults, Lauer's limited follow-ups amounted to "Really?" And when Trump pretty much just said, "Yeah, really," Lauer moved on. Even when Trump said something bizarre and demonstrably false, like we need to "set up a court system within the military" (which has existed since the 1700s), Lauer gave him a pass instead of repeatedly asking him what the hell he's talking about.
It wasn't journalistic malpractice. That implies actual journalism was occurring. It was eliminating the need for journalists. That seems to be the end game in the shift in what reporting is, especially on TV, from exposing truth and seeking facts to putting competing positions on a screen and having them go at it for a little while. The idea that newspapers and networks have special "fact check" sections, with their fiery pants and multiple Pinocchios, is embarrassing. A newspaper itself, in its articles, should be the fact check. Every story should be able to say that some things are simply unassailable facts. Instead, and especially in this election season, "news" has become another version of the human-free Facebook news feed, telling us what people are talking about whether it's real or not. I'm not saying we once lived in glory days of spin-free media, but it's gotten exponentially worse to where all there is is spin, a top without a table.
So the one good thing that might come out of the pathetic failure of Matt Lauer is that the game was revealed: inflate every foible of Clinton's to earth-shattering importance and shrink every lie and extreme position of Donald Trump to mere fluff. Two editorials today seem to be giving the mainstream media the chance to correct this egregious unfairness in the treatment of the candidates. The Washington Post said, "Enough" to the email story and said that Trump's dangerous ignorance is far more important. The New York Times said that the Lauer interviews set a terrible precedent that, if followed in the debates, will do harm to our democracy. (They might want to start with their front page, which seems to be obsessed with making Clinton seem like a devious criminal.)
Meanwhile, the moderator for the third debate, Chris Wallace of Fox News (motto: "Sexual harassment free for six weeks!"), said that it's not his job to be a "truth squad" if the candidates lie. So I propose that, at that debate, Hillary Clinton say that Trump fucked Wallace's wife. Fucked her every which way. "You know, Chris," Clinton should say, "Your wife told me that you wouldn't fuck her in the ass. Donald fucked her in the ass and then ate out her asshole. And she loved it. Then Roger Ailes joined them and she sucked his dick while Trump fucked her in the ass and she had screaming orgasms. It totally happened. No truth squad, right, Chris?"
If "journalists" refuse to do journalism, then we might as well just fuck with them.