Matt Lauer isn’t a journalist but he plays one on TV.
Luckily, he does so very well most of the time – so much so that no one cares.
Last week, though, Lauer got caught with his defenses down and his bare ignorance and awkwardness were caught waggling on camera.
The show that somewhat legendarily did it was NBC’s “Commander in Chief” forum whose setup was that he would interview Hillary Clinton for a half hour followed by a half hour with Donald Trump.
By the time it was over, Lauer would go to the bottom of a foul, festering garbage dump of internet scorn and late night sarcasm. The biggest beefs were that he spent too much time toadying to television’s tyrannical time constraints during the Clinton interview – he kept hurrying her up, cutting her off and harping on what a fed up Bernie Sanders once called her “damn emails.” He then let Trump get away with murder, specifically his claim that he’d opposed the war with Iraq from the beginning. (Look up the 2004 piece in Esquire he said, even though he told Howard Stern in 2002 he “guessed” he was behind the United States going there).
Lauer was not on top of his game. But you’d have to be a fool to think it was his fault. Everything he did badly was the producer’s fault. Lauer was the wrong guy for the gig. Either Chuck Todd or Andrea Mitchell would have been fine and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow would have been perfect but her formidability would probably have given Trump and his supporters the heebie jeebies even more than her conspicuous political engagement.
Failing that, Lauer should have had an earpiece in which a producer told him to challenge Trump’s Iraq War assertion. When its raining BS, you need an umbrella to keep the truth dry.
But that’s the significance of the event. Lauer was caught in the act of being overworked and overexposed by a network exploiting his “Today Show” celebrity rather than using his actual talents.
We tend to get confused about “The Today Show.” No matter who runs it, it’s not really a journalist’s job to host it. Solid TV journalists have done it – most notably Tom Brokaw and John Chancellor – but it’s a job for a “media professional,” not necessarily a journalist. They’re different things and always have been.
But TV news has always deliberately confused them as much as possible. Chet Huntley was always up front about being “an announcer” before NBC tagged him to partner with veteran newsman David Brinkley. Before “Today,” Hugh Downs was Jack Paar’s grownup-in-residence.
Look at Lauer’s early history: “PM Magazine,” “HBO Entertainment News,” a pilot for Vince McMahon’s WWE. Huntley and Downs would recognize the background of an “announcer” when they saw one.
He can be a great TV interviewer if chutzpah and instincts are required – not so much if detailed wonky information is necessary. The “Commander in Chief” forum should have been at least a half hour longer if not a full hour.
But then as Trump would be the first to tell you, he’s not a politician. Which is why he’s turning political journalism upside down.
Not “media” – that other subject. In Media World, they love him. Said CBS’ uber-honcho Les Moonves about Trump’s candidacy, “it may not be good for America but it’s damn good for CBS.”
As it is for every other broadcast and cable network that has used Trump as a ratings draw in a way analogous to the way Stern used to. All the attention, good or bad, to Trump has put him where he is today.
In exchange for the incomparable gift they’ve given him and still do, Trump is merrily running against the media the way any canny right winger does in the modern world. Beginning with Watergate, journalism in America began to get increasingly self-righteous.
A large segment of the population became increasingly turned off. “Low information” voters and TV watchers to begin with, they can opt happily to become “no information” voters if it means avoiding American media narcissism. It’s a pick-your-poison country, which is enough to make anyone doubt democracy itself.
I once stood in a drug store listening to a Trump fan talk to her son on her cellphone. They commiserated about the corrupt news media, their refusal to give their candidate a chance and their contempt for “people like us.”
I wanted to introduce myself and tell her what I did for a living but I wasn’t sure if I did that I’d make it out of the store in one piece.
No election has ever been like this one. Never has it been more necessary for the world of “media” to bring forth those in its ranks whose quantity of information is the maximum and not the minimum amount of information a talk show host can get away with when interviewing a big movie star.
To his credit, this week Lauer is interviewing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on “Today” and I bet he’ll be completely prepared and do it well. It was NBC that should never have put him in the position it did – not while still paying salaries to Todd, Mitchell and Maddow, who would have gotten the “high information” interview viewers need in 2016.