Harsher still were CalBuzz’s Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine, who wrote an excellent piece on eMeg’s mishandling of the situation:

First decrying the negative ads that both sides have run - which, Lauer emoted, have created a “bloodbath” (puh-leeze) - he asked:

“Would either of you, or both of you, be willing to make a pledge that you would end the negativity? [Big cheer] Would you pull your negative ads and replace them with positive ads and talk to the surrogate groups as well [which would be ILLEGAL, you jackass, which is why they’re called independent expenditures] and express that to them, that you want only positive message out there to give the people of California a break and let them decide what really matters. Would either of you accept that?”

It was a totally inappropriate question and actually unfair to Whitman, who is behind in all the public polls and has no choice in a tough campaign in which she’s invested $140 million of her own money, but to try to pull voters away from Brown. In any event, that’s her decision. And Lauer had no business sticking his scrawny ass into the campaign and trying to broker some deal because he thinks that’s how the game should be played. If he knew anything about politics in general and California politics in particular he could not have asked such a dimwit question.

And later:

Lauer broke in and got up on his high New York know-nothing horse: “There’s been enough slurs and housekeepers. We know you are both flawed people. Everybody in this room is flawed…But what is going to accomplish what Gov. Schwarzenegger is talking about - taking California to the next step, financially in particular, is going to be your strengths not your weaknesses. And I’m asking again, will you both pledge? I’ll give you 24 hours because I know the wheels of a campaign don’t stop overnight,” he said, as if he actually knew anything about how campaigns operate.

In fairness to Lauer, he is Matt Lauer, co-host of the Today show, and Whitman might have been wise to see this kind of campfire sing-a-long coming. But the defense rests there.

While we lament the explosion of slapdash misleading negative campaign ads, negativity in general can serve a purpose, particularly for Whitman, whose opponent has a long history in office from which to draw, and whose last hopes rest on a negativity blitz. That’s the game; you can’t disqualify her from playing. Lauer’s was a cheap trick question; a stunt that belied an ignorance of politics on his part and demonstrated for all of us the tricky territory national journalists face when diving into a race they’ve only glanced from afar—particularly when the journalist is prone to hokey-ness at the outset.

And frankly, if you are going to ask the question, you might want to follow up a little more pointedly than the “think of the children” riff. Brown got off easy here. As he was jumping on Lauer’s white unicorn to Togethernessville, the journalist might have asked this: Do you think it’s easy, Candidate Brown, for you to decry negative campaigning now, after embracing it so readily when Whitman’s undocumented employee came out of the woodwork?

That would have been a cheap trick question, true, but one worth asking.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.