US Election 2016

US election 2016: Forum moderator Lauer suffers media backlash

Matt Lauer at the New York event Image copyright AP
Image caption Who'd be a moderator? Matt Lauer (unwittingly) takes centre stage

There's an old adage in sport that the best referees are the ones that go largely unseen.

Judging by US media reaction, NBC moderator Matt Lauer stomped around Wednesday's Trump-Clinton forum with a foghorn for a whistle.

It certainly takes some performance to find yourself in as many headlines as Donald Trump:

"Matt Lauer Failed The Moderator Test" blared the Huffington Post.

"Matt Lauer's Pathetic Interview of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Is the Scariest Thing I've Seen in This Campaign" said New York magazine.

And, in the New York Times: "Matt Lauer Fields Storm of Criticism Over Clinton-Trump Forum".

'Yeah, I guess so'

Vox focused on the main point of contention: "Matt Lauer totally blew it on Trump's blatant lying about Iraq and Libya."

In her section of the event - Hillary Clinton went first in New York - the Democratic candidate admitted her 2002 Senate vote in favour of the Iraq War was "a mistake".

But she pointed out that Mr Trump had once supported the invasion.

When it was his turn, he told Lauer: "I heard Hillary Clinton say I was not against the war in Iraq. I was totally against the war in Iraq. You can look at Esquire magazine from 2004. You can look at before that."

Some have looked before that. A timeline of his Iraq War quotes by the Washington Post concludes that the "evidence isn't there" to support Mr Trump's claim he was totally against the war by the time it started in 2003.

Then there is the interview with radio host Howard Stern in 2002. It goes:

Stern: "Are you for invading Iraq?"

Trump: "Yeah, I guess so. I wish the first time it was done correctly."

Only Lauer let it go, sparking a storm of social media invective.

Ditto Libya. Mr Trump said Ms Clinton had "made a terrible mistake on Libya".

It was pointed out by fact checkers such as the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler that the Republican candidate had supported the action he now regards as erroneous.

Jonathan Chait of New York magazine was aghast that Lauer had not pressed Mr Trump when the candidate accused President Barack Obama of doing "equivalently brutish things" as Russia's Vladimir Putin - a man Chait says is a "dictator who imprisons and kills political critics and journalists".

And if you think only the Clinton camp was angry, think again.

Try the conservative news and opinion website, Breitbart, seething at "Clinton Foundation 'notable member'" Lauer for soft-pedalling the Democratic candidate.

"Matt Lauer failed to ask the White House hopeful a single question about the myriad allegations that she used her position as secretary of state to sell access to major Clinton Foundation donors," it raged.

Breitbart executive Steve Bannon is now Mr Trump's campaign chief.

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Media captionDonald Trump again praises the Russian president's leadership
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Media captionHillary Clinton admitted mistakes over her email account

Part of the focus on Lauer may have stemmed from a lack of interest in what the candidates themselves had to say. "Unilluminating blather" was Time's verdict.

Or perhaps the lack of drama from the format. We will have to wait until 26 September for the first head-to-head debate.

Lauer also did not have long with each candidate - 30 minutes - and probably felt Hillary Clinton's "emailgate" warranted a lengthy exchange.

But he boxed himself into a corner, on several occasions having to remind her of the time, prompting some accusations of sexism.

Interrupting her with "as briefly as you can" as she was asked to explain her plan to defeat so-called Islamic State certainly caught the eye of Michael Grynbaum in the New York Times.

The Huffington Post concluded Lauer had "flunked in primetime. And his failure was even more remarkable because he had the very information he needed to succeed".

And in its most coruscating verdict, it simply said the New York event would "be remembered largely for the shortcomings of the man who was tasked with moderating".

"Don't shoot the messenger", Lauer might say, as he observes his body's bloody wounds.