Last Thursday morning, Libertarian Presidential candidate Gary Johnson was asked a relatively routine question about how he would deal with the crisis in the Syrian city of Aleppo if elected.
His answer was a gaffe that echoed around the world: “And what is Aleppo?”
“I initially thought he was kidding, then quickly realized he was not,” MSNBC commentator Mike Barnicle, who asked Johnson the question, told MediaFile. The blunder spoke for itself, and many speculate that it may irrevocably damage Johnson’s campaign.
Although Johnson proceeded through the interview, he was not completely off of the hook. Barnicle published a reflection piece later that day in The Daily Beast, saying that he does not blame Johnson for his poor answer, as neither of the other prominent Presidential candidates have been able to truly speak to the issue either. Rather, he challenges the media to start asking simple questions like his that “really matter”.
But not all interviews are conducted equally. The night before the Johnson debacle, NBC aired its “Commander-in-Chief Forum” moderated by network regular Matt Lauer. While Lauer is no novice interviewer, he was blasted by critics for his performance during the forum. Critics claim Lauer not only focused too much on Hillary Clinton’s e-mail scandal instead of her plans for the Islamic State, but that he also fed Donald Trump “easy” questions while failing to challenge a false claim about Trump’s support of the Iraq war. As critics took to Twitter, the hashtag #LaueringTheBar quickly surfaced, highlighting the media’s distaste for his interviews.
This #NBCNewsForum feels like an embarrassment to journalism. It’s about soundbites, not serious discussion of foreign policy.
— Nicholas Kristof (@NickKristof) September 8, 2016
Basically universal condemnation from journalists for Lauer letting Trump get away with Iraq War comments: pic.twitter.com/S0O2BvepDr
— andrew kaczynski (@BuzzFeedAndrew) September 8, 2016
There are, of course, obvious differences between the two cases. While Barnicle questioned Johnson during a brief appearance on a morning show, Lauer’s interviews were in the spotlight as part of a special primetime broadcast event. Johnson, although recently seeing a spike in public interest, is still considered a fringe candidate, while Trump and Clinton are considered the cycle’s prominent presidential contenders. Although Barnicle is a frequent commentator for a variety of outlets including MSNBC, Lauer has become the face of a single network. While Trump made statements that were proven to be false, Johnson simply admitted he did not know how to answer.
Yet, the main divergence point between Barnicle and Lauer’s interviews has greater implications for the role of media when covering political figures: where Barnicle showed careful assessment of a candidate’s answer, Lauer showed none.
Johnson pushed through his blunder leaving little time for on-air correction, even interrupting Barnicle as he began to explain what Aleppo was, but that did not mean the moment was forgotten. “What happened is just another example of how the combination of social media and almost anything uttered or done on a public stage can quickly explode,” Barnicle told MediaFile, referencing the intense online backlash Johnson received. Addressing that criticism, and using it as a reflection moment for the media as Barnicle did, seemed a natural and professional response, even hours after the gaffe.
However, Lauer’s interviews drew just as much criticism – if not more – without producing any response from the NBC anchor, either on air or after the fact. In this case, Lauer’s silence seems to suggest he [or the network] believes the performance was acceptable — or that it’s less of a PR gamble to avoid comment than to face the objection.
The key, though, is Barnicle’s charge to media that is perhaps an unintended cut at more passive interviewers like Lauer. He argues that it is time that “all candidates started getting asked – and forced to answer” simple questions to which they have failed to provide basic responses. “The simplicity of the question [to Johnson] has been ingrained in me for decades,” Barnicle said. Perhaps, in Lauer’s case, asking these simple questions, and holding candidates accountable to answering them truthfully, may have produced a more effective interview.
In writing the piece, Barnicle recognized there was a balance to strike between useful criticism and “coming off as a totally self-absorbed, self-important member of the ‘elite media.’” But Barnicle says there is nothing about the interview, or his reflection of it, that he would do differently.
“[Questions for candidates are] not all that different than questions I’d ask thirty years ago when covering a homicide on a Saturday night. You get to the scene of the crime, get out of the car, grab the detective who caught the case and ask, ‘What happened?'” Barnicle said, “maybe we should try more questions like that with Trump and Clinton.”