Murrow's Nightmare

Debate moderators need to be much more than an onstage prop to make our democracy work

With the exception of PBS, the media — both broadcast and print — is profit-motivated, thus tied to ratings and circulation. For this reason, the media views the "news" as a commodity. Election year "debate" productions are no exception. They're mostly about production values and optics. The moderator? More than a prop, but less than a prober.

The media sees the need to amplify chaos where there is little, while even staging it where there is none. Hillary Clinton's e-mails are a case in point. (Ironically, at the same time Donald Trump continues to fixate on her e-mail problem, we get word that the FBI's entire system may have been hacked, making her e-mail issues a distracting sideshow.) The press doesn't want to admit it, but they do agree with Trump on one thing: Blustering is great, and smearing is good. But serious discussion and debate? Not so good for ratings.

Regarding national security, the media historically has oscillated between co-optation and cheerleading — those "embedded" reporters in Iraq are Exhibit A. This collusion produces a weird form of reality TV, and boy, does Donald Trump understand the power of reality TV.

The public — frustrated, ill-informed, almost always persuaded by flag-waving and drum-beating — is influenced by all the news and photography that sells, the more sensational the better.

There's nothing completely new here. The media went along with the Sarah Palin travesty that was orchestrated by Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, along with his ideological — and apparently hormonally aroused — sidekick, Bill Kristol. Lowry described Palin as a woman who "sends off little starbursts" through the TV screen; she was always about sex appeal for her most ardent supporters.

The truth of the matter is Sarah Palin was, and is, an uneducated grifter. A competent media could have, and should have, destroyed her within a matter of weeks, casting serious doubts about John McCain's judgment. But Palin was a media sensation, so she got a pass.

Winning the "Most Predictably Crass" award is Fox News, but they aren't alone. Remember "America Held Hostage" on Nightline? And the oft-cited "If it bleeds, it leads" news ethic? Shallow sells. During the Republican primaries, Trump received more than five times the press coverage of everyone else, and it was not by making good arguments or offering sound policy. No he just won the "Most Outrageous" award day after day.

American commercial TV will never program another news show like Edward R. Murrow's See it Now. 60 Minutes comes the closest — notably, it debuted in 1968. Frontline, again on PBS, is another throwback. And unless PBS produces it, forget seeing anything like On the Road with Charles Kuralt.

Speaking of Murrow, who regularly challenged his industry and his profession: The media nightmare he warned against has arrived, personified by Donald Trump. Murrow said in 1958 that "This instrument [TV] can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it's nothing but wires and lights in a box."

All of which brings us back to Matt Lauer's obnoxious performance last week at that live presidential forum. Lauer exposed himself to be an overpaid ignoramus. He wasted almost half of his time badgering Clinton about her e-mails, while failing miserably to expose Trump's many lies, and worse yet, failing to address any of Trump's many incoherencies. And for crying out loud, if Hillary's e-mails are worth more than a mention, one would think that Trump's, four (or was it actually six?) bankruptcies, together with his missing tax returns, would beg for deeper consideration. After all, Trump's bravado rests on his alleged business acumen.

What's worse, Lauer failed to focus on Trump's overriding campaign promises — those slogans that won him the nomination. Call them "trumpets" or "blusters," if you prefer, but there are four: building the wall; rounding up and deporting undocumented Mexican workers; keeping Muslims out of the country; and canceling any international trade deals. That's Trump's plan for "Making America Great Again."

But there was nary a question from Lauer on any of these; he was too busy interrupting Clinton. (If anyone thinks that sexism is over and done with, just replay Lauer's dismal and all-too-revealing performance.) He even let Trump get away with saying that we should just steal Iraq's oil and go home.

I don't care what the debate theme du jour might be, if the moderator fails to prod Trump on his campaign promises, allows him to deflect, then he or she flunks. The truth is that without the wall, deportations and closed borders, along with economic isolationism, Donald Trump would not be the Republican nominee. These campaign promises should be held front and center in every debate.

Lauer, who is, as we have seen over and over again, representative of most media celebrity types, serves as evidence that once again, the media is failing to do its constitutionally protected job. ♦

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.