Matt Lauer was a TV host and journalist for the better part of 40 years before he hosted a presidential forum, asked Hillary Clinton some appropriately tough questions, and was promptly labeled a sexist, a misogynist and a closet Republican. No one had a problem with Lauer until he dared ask Clinton about the scandals that have dogged her during her campaign, and suddenly he went from television host in good standing to outcast.
Lester Holt is an equally experienced journalist with a career that goes all the way back to 1981, when he started his career as a reporter for CBS' flagship affiliate in New York City. Holt's career trajectory wasn't much different than Lauer's until he pivoted to more serious political fare, hosting shows like "NBC Nightly News" and "Dateline NBC."
Only Holt knows what he was thinking heading into the first of three planned presidential debates in the 2016 election cycle, but it's probably not a stretch to say he saw Lauer get chewed up by news media colleagues and decided to fall in line.
And fall in line he did, judging by his performance and the approving headlines the morning after the debate:
- "On Donald Trump and Iraq, Lester Holt avenges Matt Lauer," Washington Post
- "Lester Holt learned the ‘Matt Lauer Lesson,’" Hot Air
- "NBC's Lester Holt Redeems Matt Lauer's Poor Presidential Forum Performance at First Debate," TheStreet
- "Lester Holt gets out of the way as moderator, and the spin room approves," Los Angeles Times
In the warped contest that is the 2016 presidential election, a newsman redeems himself by ignoring the defining elements of the 2016 race and steering well clear of issues that might force Clinton to make herself accountable to the American people. Email scandal? What scandal? Benghazi? What's that? Those 30,000 emails Clinton's team destroyed, the unending stream of lies she told, the pay-for-play at the State Department, those donations she happily accepted from human rights abusing foreign governments, the transcripts of her speeches to Wall Street? Who has time for that?
The narrative on Sept. 27 is that Clinton won the debate, and win she did, abetted by Holt and a media that would have declared her the winner even if she walked on stage and waved a middle finger at the crowd. The breathless declarations of Clinton's win aren't surprising, considering media outlets like The New York Times and CNN were already saying Clinton won the debate before the debate actually happened.
In fact, it's easy to get the sense that those after-debate stories were already written beforehand, filed in the publishing queue and ready to hit the homepages with just a bit of tweaking and a flattering quote inserted here and there to underscore Clinton's dominance.
Let's not get it twisted -- Holt did hold Trump accountable for the things he's said, which is what he's supposed to do. But it's not a job well done when one candidate is pressed on his lies and the other gets a free pass despite a history of making convicted fraudster Bernie Madoff look like a paragon of honesty.
Perhaps nothing is a better example of the debate's one-sidedness than the way Holt treated the candidates' respective positions on the Iraq War. Trump was presented as the dishonest one and grilled for his past statements on the war, while Clinton was given a pass.
Yet Trump was a civilian at the time with no more say in the war than any other American citizen, while Clinton was a sitting U.S. senator, a member of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, a member of the Committee on Armed Services, and one of a select number of people who was privy to the classified intelligence reports that were doctored and massaged to make a better case for the disastrous invasion.
What kind of lunacy inspires a debate moderator to hold a civilian accountable for supporting a disastrous war while giving a complete pass to a career politician who was a U.S. senator at the time, and one of the chief agitators for the invasion?
Here's what Hillary Clinton told Americans and her fellow lawmakers at the time to convince them that war was the right move:
Intelligence reports show that [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort and sanctuary to terrorists, including al-Qaida members. It is clear, however, that if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Every single one of those statements has been subsequently proven false, and Clinton made those statements knowing full well that the intelligence had been doctored to make the case for war.
And lest anyone, moderator, media figure or otherwise, claim that Clinton wasn't one of the war's biggest cheerleaders, here's how she ended her Iraq war speech: "This is a very difficult vote. This is probably the hardest decision I have had to make. Any vote that might lead to war should be hard. But I cast it with conviction."
So yes, Clinton won the first debate in the 2016 presidential election with the blatant help of Holt, who kept the conversation firmly grounded in the fantasy land where Clinton is never wrong and has never told lies.
Let's hope Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz, the next debate moderators, can steer the conversation back to reality.