The Media Today

Guthrie grills Trump, but NBC still has to answer for itself

October 16, 2020

Last night, President Trump and Joe Biden held simultaneous town hall events that every journalist in America described as “dueling.” Trump and Biden had been scheduled to debate face-to-face, but following Trump’s diagnosis with COVID-19, the commission on presidential debates insisted on a virtual format, and Trump bailed.

ABC quickly secured a Biden town hall to fill the time slot, then NBC booked Trump as counter-programming. Journalists, producers, and at least one executive inside the NBCUniversal News Group were reportedly furious about the decision: MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow criticized her bosses on air; celebrities involved with NBC Entertainment, including Ava DuVernay and Alec Baldwin, signed a letter of protest. Cesar Conde, who chairs the NBC News Group, defended the choice, but only half heartedly; he spoke of his “frustration” that the scheduling meant a candidate-clash, but said that the time slot was dictated by “fairness,” since it matched that of a recent NBC town hall with Biden. (According to the Wall Street Journal, NBC executives reportedly asked their counterparts at ABC to delay the Biden town hall; ABC said no.) Online, media critics ridiculed the “fairness” logic. As Ben Smith, of the Times, put it, there was suddenly “enormous pressure on NBC to make this thing a nightmare for Trump.”

Related: We Won’t Know What Will Happen on November 3 Until November 3

And so it was. Watching the town hall, viewers lavished praise on Savannah Guthrie, the moderator, for pressing Trump to answer questions about his health; his handling of the pandemic; his failure to disavow QAnon, the conspiracy campaign; and more. Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, called the town hall “one of the finest moments of Guthrie’s career”; Brian Steinberg, the senior TV editor at Variety, agreed, adding that Guthrie may have rescued NBC from “one of the company’s biggest messes in years.” Slate’s Molly Olmstead wrote that Guthrie gave Trump “one of the most intense grillings” since he took office, and Vox’s Emily Stewart hailed “the Trump interview we’ve been wanting for years.” It was a dizzying change of narrative. “Two days of How Dare You, NBC! takes conclude with an avalanche of applause tweets for Savannah Guthrie,” Peter Hamby, of Snapchat and Vanity Fair, tweeted. “News cycles can be really dumb these days.”

No disagreement there. Guthrie did do well, pushing back effectively on many of Trump’s lies. That, though, should really be a minimum standard for a Trump interview; the fact that it isn’t—and that Guthrie and, before her, the likes of Chris Wallace, of Fox, and Jonathan Swan, of Axios, have earned breathlessly-rave reviews simply for challenging the president’s falsehoods—does not reflect well on either the media’s handling of Trump or American interview culture generally. Guthrie’s questions about QAnon and a related conspiracy that Trump recently shared—that Osama bin Laden may not actually have been killed—were sharp. (“You’re the president,” she told Trump. “You’re not someone’s crazy uncle who can retweet whatever.”) But is it really a victory that we’re all now talking about this nonsense? Giving disinformation such a big platform—even with the intention of debunking it (and the president did not do that)—helps spread it. And the discussion dilutes our focus on other pressing matters at hand, not least a surge of coronavirus cases across the country.

Nor does Guthrie’s generally good performance let NBC off the hook for its original, craven decision to counter-program Biden. The bulk of the advance criticism wasn’t premised on the assumption that Guthrie would give Trump an easy ride, but rather on the notion that viewers would be forced to choose which candidate to watch on live TV. By allowing Trump to rip up the rulebook, then rewarding him, NBC handed Trump a victory. Guthrie’s interview doesn’t change that. We continue, five years in, to eat out of his hand.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

After the town halls wrapped up, lots of coverage took the physical separation of Trump and Biden as a metaphor for their vastly different political styles; many commentators emphasized the contrast between Trump’s QAnon rambling and Biden’s policy-oriented ABC event, which was described as charmingly sedate at best, boring at worst. For the most part, the comparisons weren’t intended to denigrate Biden; still, that substantive policy talk is often considered quaint and out-of-the norm for debates and town halls is an indictment of media priorities. For all its talk of “fairness,” NBC’s timetabling decision cut Biden—and substance—out of the picture. Trump v. the media is the duel we seem to care about most. And we haven’t even seen the ratings yet.

Below, more on the election:

  • Positive tests: Yesterday, the Biden campaign announced that Liz Allen, the communications director to Kamala Harris, and an unnamed member of Harris’s flight crew had tested positive for COVID-19. Harris canceled her campaign travel through the weekend as a precaution. Later, we learned that an aviation staffer who traveled on Biden’s plane also tested positive; Biden had no contact with the person, and so was cleared to continue campaigning. Before making the tests public, the Biden campaign informed reporters who traveled with Biden and Harris last week—a contrast, NPR’s Scott Detrow noted, to how the White House handled its COVID outbreak.
  • The Scully files: The debate that was initially scheduled for last night was set to have been moderated by Steve Scully, of C-SPAN. Last week, Trump fans piled on Scully after he tagged Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s one-time communications director, in a weird tweet; afterward, Scully claimed that he didn’t write the tweet, and that his account had been hacked. This, Scully now admits, was a lie. Yesterday, C-SPAN suspended him indefinitely, though it doesn’t seem likely that he will be fired. David Bauder has more for the Associated Press.
  • Murdoch, I: The fallout continues from Wednesday’s bizarre New York Post story on Hunter Biden, and decisions by Facebook and Twitter to limit its spread on their platforms. The Trump campaign claimed that Twitter locked its account after the campaign tried to tweet a link to a video associated with the Post story; the account was later reinstated. Twitter also locked the account of Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, after she tweeted the original article. Twitter initially defended its stance, claiming that the Post article violated its policy banning the spread of material that may have been obtained by hacking; then reversed course, after acknowledging that the policy could wind up blocking legitimate journalism. Twitter users are now able to share the Post story.
  • Murdoch, II: According to Lachlan Cartwright, of the Daily Beast, Rupert Murdoch is “disgusted” by Trump’s handling of the pandemic and is telling associates that he thinks Biden will win a landslide victory in November. (Clearly, Murdoch’s opinion hasn’t dented the pro-Trump coverage of the media properties that he owns, including the Post.) In response to a request for comment, Murdoch replied, “No comment except I’ve never called Trump an idiot”—a reference to a claim previously made by Michael Wolff.
  • Waiting for November 3: For CJR, Kyle Paoletta argues that journalists have taken the 2016 election as license to speculate that anything could happen in 2020. “Normal levels of uncertainty have been conflated with a sense of an onrushing cataclysm,” he writes. “It’s time to take a step back and a deep breath. With votes already being cast and election day only a few weeks off, what matters now is to cover the facts on the ground.”

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, The Atlantic launched “Planet,” a new section and newsletter dedicated to the climate crisis. The section will draw in coverage from across the newsroom; its first story, by Vann R. Newkirk, II, explores how an emerging “heat gap” is exacerbating inequality. “There’s a fair amount of climate coverage that is like a commuter leaning on their horn in a traffic jam,” Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic’s lead climate writer, told Nieman Lab, of a problem that he hopes “Planet” will correct. “It’s very loud. It tells everyone around them something they already knew. And, at the end of the day, nobody’s moved anywhere.”
  • This week, Gayle King, of CBS This Morning, sat down with Kenneth Walker—the partner of Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician who was killed by police during a raid on Taylor’s home, in March—and Walker’s attorneys. Walker told King that he’s “a million-percent sure” that officers did not identify themselves before entering (the cops claim that they did), and that one of the officers told Walker it was “unfortunate” that Walker didn’t get shot, too. “To the world she’s just a hashtag, a picture, and all of that,” Walker told King, of Taylor. “But to me it was much more.”
  • The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi reports that Stephanie Ruhle, an anchor on MSNBC and business correspondent for NBC News, appeared in an online video promoting JPMorgan Chase. After Farhi asked MSNBC about Ruhle’s participation, the network asked Chase to remove the video from its social-media channels, and Chase complied. An MSNBC spokesperson said that Ruhle had participated in an unpaid “interview” as an “expert,” and that the only problem was the way Chase framed the video. Mark Feldstein, a University of Maryland journalism professor, said Ruhle’s involvement was “not kosher.”
  • Lorraine Ali, a TV critic at the LA Times, revisits Caliphate, a Times podcast about ISIS, in light of recent doubts as to the credibility of one of its subjects. Ali says that she was always skeptical of Caliphate, but initially suppressed her feelings as “plenty of smart folks” were praising the show. “As a Muslim, Arab, Iraqi American and person who pays way too much attention to the intersection of politics and pop culture,” Ali writes, “I’ve developed a sixth sense when it comes to the media’s exploitation of Islam and the Middle East.”
  • Staff at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, in Texas, are unionizing with the NewsGuild-CWA, and have called on management at McClatchy, the paper’s owner, to voluntarily recognize the effort. Chatham Asset Management, a hedge fund that acquired McClatchy this year, “has said it will stress the importance of local news, but how can we guarantee this?” the Star-Telegram staffers write. “Our best choice is to unionize.”
  • Amid massive pro-democracy protests in Thailand, authorities issued an emergency decree clamping down on demonstrations and restricting news outlets’ ability to cover them; as well as limiting physical access, the decree bans the publication of news that “incites fear” among the public. According to Human Rights Watch, Thailand’s leading cable network already blocked the BBC World Service.
  • Three years ago today, Daphne Caruana Galizia, a journalist in Malta, was murdered. To mark the anniversary of her death, outlets connected to the Daphne Project, a journalistic collaboration dedicated to continuing her work, are drawing attention to her case. While Maltese authorities have made arrests, justice for Caruana Galizia “remains uncertain,” The Guardian reports. “There have been no trials, and no convictions.”
  • And police in New York arrested a man who climbed up the side of the Times’s headquarters in Manhattan. According to WABC TV, the man scaled six storeys, then “got tired and waited for police to come get him.” It’s not clear what motivated his ascent.

ICYMI: Yes, we’re doing it all over again

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.