On the One Hand, the Media’s Coverage of the Trump–Clinton Forum Was a Disaster

On the other—no, never mind, it sucked.

Matt Lauer, co-host of "The Today Show," listens as Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during a veterans forum at the air and space museum aboard the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid on September 7, 2016 in New York, New York.
Matt Lauer and Hillary Clinton during a veterans forum at the air and space museum aboard the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid on Sept. 7, 2016 in New York.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

On Wednesday night, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump sat for back-to-back interviews with NBC’s Matt Lauer at the same place, which allowed the network to bill it as a sort of proto-debate and for news organizations to cover it as such. Much of the criticism of the event has focused on how Lauer was rougher with Clinton than he was with Trump. Well, fine. But if you looked at each segment from a higher vantage point, you would’ve seen what you’ve been seeing every day of this campaign: One candidate, loathsome though you may find her, is qualified to be president; the other, entertaining as he may be, is not. One candidate is aware of and has informed opinions on issues of public policy. The other does not.

One way to handle the asymmetry would be to point it out at every turn. Another way would be to not point it out at all, and in fact to grade the two candidates on different metrics altogether. Like, say, “style” versus “substance.”

But who would be that shallow?

Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin described the affair as a “really discouraging moment for the country” on the Thursday morning edition of chat show Morning Joe. “Neither of them rose to the occasion of what we need in the next president, I don’t think. I hope they do going forward, but they didn’t last night.” OK. What did Trump do wrong? “Substance matters, issues matter, intelligence, knowledge, these matter most of all,” Halperin said, “and his performance on those points should be a real caution for his people.” OK, so Trump didn’t demonstrate any substance, intelligence, or knowledge. That’s suboptimal. But what did Clinton do that was equally discouraging and shameful for the republic? “I thought her stylistic performance—if I were involved in her debate preparation, I’d be terrified if she replicates that in the debates.” Trump had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, because he doesn’t know anything. Clinton, meanwhile, did not … she wasn’t … she seemed kinda … why can’t she just chill out, sometimes, sorta thing, right? Both Trump and Clinton are equal affronts to America, Western Civilization, and God.

This equally weighted, “he doesn’t know anything whatsoever, but she isn’t fun,” substance-versus-style breakdown wasn’t strictly the domain of Halperin. “Donald Trump Uninformed,” his network declared elsewhere, “Hillary Clinton Imperiled.” And neither Clinton nor Trump “appeared ready for the brightest lights of 2016 as they flashed the very liabilities that make their backers uneasy,” Politico wrote. “Clinton wobbled on style. Trump stumbled on substance.”

The ensuing on-the-one-hand-on-the-other here needs a little space to breathe.

Clinton, a former secretary of state, was a master of the material but still looked uncomfortable as she fielded multiple questions about her private email server and struggled to squeeze her vision for American foreign policy into clear and concise terms.

Trump projected confidence even as he avoided specifics and treaded into politically treacherous territory as he belittled American military leaders (“the generals have been reduced to rubble”); said he has a plan to defeat the Islamic State but wants to keep it secret; and seemingly developed new policy on the fly, saying that undocumented immigrants who serve in the military could then stay in the United States legally. He also offered repeated praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin as a superior leader to President Barack Obama (“He does have an 82 percent approval rating”).

Hmm, yeah, sounds like a tossup.

At this pace, here’s what’s going to happen at the debates: this. Exactly this. Hillary Clinton will speak about her record and her policy proposals—things not everyone will agree with, either on the right or the left, but which will at least demonstrate a careerlong engagement with these issues. Donald Trump will say Hillary is a crook and he will do America better by doing better America things, vigorously. Mark Halperin, at worst, will declare this an outright landslide victory for Trump and, at best, will suggest they both be sent to Gitmo.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

There are two and a half weeks to prepare for the first debate. What the moderator can do is press them each about the same public policy issues. In-depth, too: Mention specific government programs or international relationships and postures and what precisely they would want to see changed or not changed about them. Give them more than 30 seconds to answer. Ignore Trump’s funny faces; ignore the apparently persistent temptation to focus on whether Clinton is smiling or not smiling. And then just analyze the quality of their answers to the public policy questions. This is a tall order. But it’s worth a shot.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.