NBC didn't exactly cover itself in valor during one of the first major campaign events to feature both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. Matt Lauer was viciously criticized for his work hosting the prime time forum at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York, frequently interrupting Hillary Clinton while failing to challenge Donald Trump's false statements about his record on Iraq and Libya.
Social media was quick to attack Lauer's performance, but it was actually one of his fellow NBC hosts who most succinctly diagnosed why he was doomed from the start when it came to confronting Trump. During an appearance on Lawrence O'Donnell's MSNBC show, Chris Matthews summed up the problem with so much of the way mainstream TV news handles politicians.
LAWRENCE O'DONNELL: Chris Matthews, how do you debate a presidential candidate who took the opinion that we should absolutely go in to Libya, go in hard, and now says he never did? No one's really had to deal with that in a presidential debate before.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Well you have to call the guy a liar when you do that. That's the problem. That's the difficult thing for Matt Lauer to do because it sounds like an opinion. And you're not supposed to have an opinion in this business.
For a lot of veteran journalists at legacy media companies, the idea of expressing an opinion in public, let alone on air, is a scary one. But what's worse is the idea that calling a lie a lie is, in and of itself, an act of biased journalism. It's not. It's the definition of the job.
This is hardly the first time the media has grappled on whether it's okay for a journalist to say that people who lie are liars. In a 2012 column addressing the subject, then New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane questioned whether pointing out when candidates state falsehoods might make reporters "truth vigilantes" (which sounds a lot cooler than I think Brisbane intended) and whether or not this should be a job reserved for the opinion section.
One of the hosts for the upcoming presidential debate seems to feel similarly. Fox News' Chris Wallace, who will moderate the final Trump-Clinton debate, said in an interview with Howard Kurtz that he didn't think he had a responsibility to call out lies.
“That’s not my job. I do not believe that it’s my job to be a truth squad. It’s up to the other person to catch them on that. I certainly am going to try to maintain some reasonable semblance of equal time. If one of them is filibustering, I’m going to try to break in respectfully and give the other person a chance to talk.”
If someone from the Trump campaign listened to this interview, likely all they'd hear is the repeated sound of a cash register opening.