If Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales is in the business of holding people to unfair standards, then business is good. In his piece this morning about Matt Lauer’s interview on NBC last night with Senator Larry “wide stance” Craig and his wife (Craig was arrested in June for alleged homosexual solicitation of an undercover cop in a Minneapolis airport men’s room), Shales sets the bar impossibly high for the Today show host, then knocks him around for not reaching it.
The interview, which was painful to watch (given the humiliating spectacle that surrounds the senator), was nevertheless standard TV news fare: the reporter pushes his guest, but not too much; asks the questions we expect him to ask, but not too many; confronts his guest with evidence, but none that can’t be spun another way. It was also standard public-figure-in crisis-mode television, of the kind we’ve seen again and again from Bill Clinton to Britney.
But I’ve come here not to bury predictable television interviews, but to dissect Mr. Shales. He kicks off his piece by saying that the interview made “painfully clear” the fact that Lauer “is no Mike Wallace.” Well, no kidding. To the best of my knowledge, Lauer has never been marketed as, or claimed to be, the kind of reporter Wallace is (or was). It’s like saying, Tom Shales, you are not the interviewer Oriana Fallaci was.
Shales goes on to say that, “For Lauer, self-important co-host of NBC’s “Today” show, the interview was obviously seen as a potential career- and credibility-builder…” High on the list of things a critic (or any reporter) should never do is pretend to read the mind of his subject. What evidence can he provide that shows that the interview was some kind of marquee moment for him? If Lauer were interviewing Vladmir Putin or some other notable, I might agree, but if Lauer is pinning his career aspirations on an interview with a previously unknown senator who got caught tapping his foot in an airport restroom, then I hope he’s real comfortable on that Today couch—especially considering the reception Lauer’s predecessor, Ms. Couric, has received since crossing the great infotainment divide.
Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.
Lauer’s performance didn’t stand out one way or the other in the great, gray blur of TV Moments. It was what it was, as they say. For Shales to single it out for derision makes me think it was a rather slow day at the office.