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25 September 1998

Smile-a-while II: Lauer restored

Synopsis: Friday morning, Matt Lauer was still lambasting those mixed-up American people. Would you believe it--Bob Dole cheered him up!

Commentary by Matt Lauer, Bob Dole
The Today Show, NBC, 9/25/98


Poor troubled Matt Lauer was still blasting the public this Friday morning on The Today Show. And who provided the tonic to lighten Matt’s spirit? We couldn’t believe it, but--Bob Dole did!

The once-dour Dole had been booked on the show to promote his new text on political humor. But Lauer continued his belly-aching remarks about the public’s piss-poor judgment:

LAUER: You mentioned the American people. How does it make you feel, and what take do you get on the American people, when you hear a poll that says more than 70% of those people feel the president, this president, has low moral values, but over 60% of the people think he has what it takes to be president?

You’ll have to trust us--it was abundantly clear, from Lauer’s aggrieved tone of voice, that he thought he was reporting a strange thing indeed.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Lauer is correctly paraphrasing data from some poll or other. We’re left again with the problem we saw in his Tuesday talk with Tim Russert (see “Our current howler,” 9/25/98). If 70% think Clinton has low moral values; and 60% think Clinton still should be president; then as few as 30% of the people polled may actually hold boththese views. The contradiction Lauer perceives here is not held by “the American people,” as Lauer implies; it is held by a fairly small minority.

Bob Dole, once the reigning grand duke of doom, now tried to cheer poor Matt up:

DOLE: ...I think the American people have great faith in the office, they respect the office, the White House is sort of a shrine, and I think Clinton hasdone a pretty good job. So you add all that up, the economy’s good, we’re at peace around the world, so I can see why you’d have this high mark here and low marks there...[Dole’s emphasis]

Can you believe it? The dark soul once parodied as old Dr. Doom was trying to cheer up Matt Lauer! But, like Achilles mourning the loss of beloved Patroclus, Lauer would not be consoled:

LAUER: But why should people separate morals from a quality that’s needed to lead the country?

DOLE: I think that it’s a fine distinction. And I wouldn’t rely too much on polls...

We’ll be less polite than Sen. Dole--and yes, we know you hate it when we get like this--but Lauer’s question to Dole represented a sand-box level of political “analysis” that has no place at the top of our news chain. As we have said, we are talking here about a minorityof people who hold the two views that Lauer finds incongruous. Nowhere in his discussion with Dole, or in his discussion with Russert on Tuesday, did Lauer show any sign of understanding that fact. But beyond this, it is absurd to say that the data he cites means that even those people have “separated morals from a quality that’s needed to lead the country.” As Dole indicated in his sensible remarks, there are other things that people reasonably consider in deciding who should, on balance, be president. It is not at all clear that the people Lauer criticizes have decided that morals somehow don’t count at all. Nothing in Lauer’s data says that; it’s a leap Lauer makes on his own. We’d guess that many of these people disapprove of Clinton’s sexual conduct, but feel that, on balance, other things count more. It is hard to believe that a fully grown man in Lauer’s position doesn’t understand that people make decisions in which they weigh various factors. But there he was, at the head of the news chain, offering this simplistic account--an account in which he attributed views to “the American people” that have been demonstrated by no current polls.

We ask again what we’ve asked before--is this remarkably unsophisticated level of analysis really the best we can expect at the top of the news chain? No data that Lauer cited--none at all-- supported the conclusion he drew with Dole. Yet, he continued to present a view of what “the American people” are thinking that we often see presented, by various pundits. It’s a view that is completely unfounded; and it keeps us from trying to draw more accurate conclusions about what various segments of the public may reallythink.

Can we tell you something? When we turn on The Today Showearly each morning, we’re always amazed by the crew’s preparation. They’re chipper, and the clothes they wear always look great. There’s seldom a hair out of place.

We know you that hate it when we say things like this, but is it even possible that similar attention might be paid to more significant factors in the crew’s preparation? Todayviewers were treated this week to a riot of illogic and faulty deduction--a steady succession of faulty conclusions, drawn from very limited data. It happened all week, and we’re sure it will continue. Is this really the best we can do?


Postscript: Please don’t make us go back and research this matter. But the “overlap” problem Russert and Lauer fell into this week was widely discussed in the course of the past year. That is: if 60% think that Clinton’s a bad guy; and 60% think Clinton should still be the president; it almost surely isn’t the same60% that are holding these (potentially) divergent views. This factor has been discussed again and again, but there’s no sign that they’ve heard it around The Today Show.This is one of the simplest elements of analysis that a poll-watcher should master. So why is this absurdly simple element of analysis so foreign around 30 Rock?