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NBC News Chief Defends Matt Lauer Performance at Candidate Forum

Everyone from “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff has offered unkind words for the way NBC NewsMatt Lauer moderated a candidate forum this week that involved both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. But the veteran “Today” anchor has at least one person in his corner: His boss.

In a staff memo made widely available Friday afternoon, Andrew Lack, chairman of both NBC News and MSNBC, said Lauer did a “tremendous job” in interviewing both Clinton and Trump under time constraints at a televised event organized by a non-profit devoted to veterans’ interests and the NBCUniversal unit.

“Against all odds we were able to bring the two presidential nominees together for the first time and presented an important examination of what each would bring to the role of Commander-in-Chief. Because of our event, national security has dominated the news cycle for days. Every major paper and news broadcast around the world has led with headlines about Putin, Iraq, ISIS, and intelligence briefings,” Lack said to staffers. “Matt did a tremendous job – driving one of the most serious discussions to date on these topics.”  The telecast drew 14.7 million viewers across NBC and MSNBC, according to Nielsen.

Lauer was criticized in social-media circles for, among other things, interrupting the Democratic candidate and emphasizing questions about the way she handled important emails while she was Secretary of State. He was also lambasted for not following up with the Republican contender when Trump insisted he had been opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, thought it has been documented that the candidate has stated previously he favored the action.

NBC has reason to come to Lauer’s aid. The anchor is the linchpin of its “Today” program, which brings in millions of dollars each year in advertising revenue and is currently enmeshed in a scorched-earth battle with ABC rival “Good Morning America” for the lead among morning-news programs. Lauer has established a reputation for landing big interviews with people in the news, though a portion of those tend to be with celebrities or average people caught up in unique circumstances. Some of Lauer’s more prominent “gets” in recent months have included Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte;  Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP chapter president accused of trying to be black; or Pippa Middleton, the socialite and younger sister of the Duchess of Cambridge.

By traditional TV standards, the event was a success. It drew an outsize audience and established a new means of getting political candidates to take part in a televised event. The current election cycles has been jam-packed with “town halls,” phone interviews with politicians broadcast in place of an actual TV appearance, and primetime introductions to political contenders surrounded by their spouses and children. Use of the new formats rises as TV networks try to latch on to the frenzied public interest in a presidential race featuring a candidate with a celebrity background.

At first blush, NBC News had secured what looked to be another of these intriguing opportunities. To be sure, Trump and Clinton never faced each other during this week’s event, which was organized by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a non-profit that works with veterans of wars fought over the last two decades or so. Each candidate was interviewed for about half an hour, but Clinton and Trump did not face each other at any time. Dubbed a “Commander-in-Chief Forum,” the broadcast focused heavily on questions of national security, veterans’ issues and military affairs.  NBC News landed exclusive access to the candidates in advance of the more traditional debates organized by The Commission on Presidential Debates. Three debates involving Trump and Clinton and one involving candidates for Vice President are open to all media and it is expected that all major  news networks will broadcast them, along with C-SPAN, the public-affairs cable outlet.

At the same time, the broadcast has drawn extreme criticism, raising questions of whether anchors are responsible for fact-checking candidates on the fly, or letting their responses stand subject to later scrutiny. The 30-minute time limit may have NBC News juggling too many elements at once: a need to let candidates be heard on substantial questions, and allowing veterans present at the broadcast to speak and ask Clinton and Trump questions directly. Scrutiny of Lauer is sure to raise the bar for anchors like NBC’s Lester Holt, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz, all of whom are slated to moderate the coming presidential debates.

If the brickbats are affecting Lauer, he isn’t showing it on air. During a broadcast of NBC’s “Today” show on Friday morning  just after 8 a.m., the host took part in a regular segment after the 8:00  in which the hosts discuss trending pop-culture tidbits. As co-anchor Savannah Guthrie and other “Today” personnel like Hoda Kotb, Carson Daly and meteorologist Dylan Dreyer chatted, Lauer cracked wise, telling his cohorts that he was “having a long week.”

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