Back in April, The Conversation asked me to write this article on how the media should cover lies. It was based on a paper I have floating around applying game theory to situations where voters can't directly observe who is guilty of what, so they must rely on weak signals from journalists with competing incentives
The gist was this: partisan media enable their opponents by muddying the waters between legitimate criticism and reflexive, knee-jerk partisanship. So, if I am a politician, I can lie and brush off any legitimate criticism as knee-jerk partisanship, and weakly-informed voters are actually rational to believe me because the media landscape actually has so many partisan media outlets. Real journalists, knowing this, must pretend that everybody is equally honest, even when they aren't. The result is that the only people who claim that one side is more dishonest than the other are the partisans, which just reinforces the cycle.
The question I posed in my article at The Conversation was whether or not Donald Trump, simply by lying on such an unprecedented scale, would break my model.
The Matt Lauer incident almost looks like he did. For comparison's sake, here's Candy Crowley losing the right to ever moderate a debate again:
To be fair to Romney, he probably never watched the tape of Obama talking about Benghazi, so he probably never heard what Obama actually said. He wasn't lying, he just didn't know. But, Crowley broke from the standard role of the moderator in a dramatic way. Notice that she ain't on the list of debate moderators this time.
But now let's talk about Matt Lauer. Trump repeated one of his favorite lies-- that he always opposed the Iraq war. Well, except that when he went on Howard Stern, and Stern asked if he wanted to invade Iraq, he said, "yeah, I guess so."
This is pretty widely known by now. Even Matt Lauer probably knew it, and he's a fuckin' moron. He was just too much of a coward to pull a Candy Crowley. Of course, we saw what Crowley lost...
But Lauer got ripped for it. He lost something too...
Is that the sound of my neat, little game-theoretic model being broken by Donald Trump? It wouldn't be the first model broken by him. [Cough, cough, The Party Decides...]
Journalists are treating Trump differently. What the Lauer incident brings to mind, though, is clearly the Crowley incident. I wonder, then, not what the moderators will do in the debates, but the following:
1) Will Trump repeat the Iraq claim in the debates? If he does, Clinton will be ready with the Stern line. She can force every broadcast to run the tape of the Stern interview. Whether or not it matters at this point is another issue.
2) Will interviewers have to be more aggressive with Trump to avoid being ostracized by their colleagues? Lauer's not having such a good week.
2, though, may not matter, and that brings me back to a reference I've been making with Trump for a while. Tony Clifton. The problem with trying to interview Trump the way that Tim Russert used to interview normal politicians is that Trump is a performer who doesn't break character. Normal interview tactics won't work on such a performer. So, if other journalists respond to the Matt Lauer incident by trying to be Tim Russert, then they will be caught in a trap. This one: