NEW YORK — Traffic cop or truth detector? The rough reception given Matt Lauer for his back-to-back interviews with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump laid bare a disagreement over whether journalists who moderate presidential debates should call candidates out for telling lies.
Online critics hit Lauer for spending too much time on Clinton's email server and trying to cut her answers short during Wednesday's NBC forum on national security issues. The bulk of the attacks, however, centered on Lauer's failure to challenge Trump on the Republican's assertion that he opposed the war in Iraq from its beginning, despite evidence of him supporting the war in a 2002 interview.
"Everyone, and I mean everyone, knew this would happen," tweeted Paul Krugman, columnist for the New York Times. "And Matt Lauer didn't have a followup planned?"
The NBC Today show host wasn't talking Thursday, laying low on a day the hashtag "Lauering the Bar" trended on Twitter. He made one knowing reference while interviewing Dana Carvey on Today. The comic, impersonating Russian leader Vladimir Putin, commended Lauer for his work at the forum. "You have a fan," he said.
"One," replied Lauer, holding up his index finger.
The response illustrated the pressure that moderators will face during the three upcoming presidential debates, starting with Lauer's NBC colleague Lester Holt on Sept. 26. Even before Wednesday's forum, which was watched by 14.7 million people, the role of moderators as fact-checkers was being talked about after Fox News' Chris Wallace, who will be in charge of the third presidential debate on Oct. 19, said in an interview that "I don't believe my job is to be a truth squad."
Others consider that a dereliction of duty.
"By not adjudicating, the moderator leaves the viewing public with a 'he said, she said' situation when the journalist picked to be onstage could say, decisively, who is right," wrote Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post.
Experts point out the difficulties of doing that in real time, particularly in a hyper-partisan atmosphere. CNN's Candy Crowley infuriated Republicans during a 2012 presidential debate for contradicting a Mitt Romney statement — precisely what Lauer was criticized for not doing.
"I don't think fact-checking is the function of the moderator," said Jim Lehrer, who moderated every first presidential debate of the general election campaign between 1988 and 2012.
"It is the moderator's job to make sure the candidate has the opportunity to do the fact-checking. It's a subtle difference. If the moderator fact-checked all the time, you'd never get through it."
Debate schedule: The three presidential debates will be Sept. 26, Oct. 9 and Oct. 19. They will be moderated by NBC Nightly News anchor Holt, ABC's Martha Raddatz and Fox News' Wallace, respectively.