The Media Today

The Plexiglas ceiling

October 7, 2020

In the hours after President Trump torpedoed the first presidential debate with a disgraceful display of lying and hectoring, the internet rang with calls to cancel future installments. “Networks could fill the time with fact-checked primers on the issues, or crucial information on how to exercise our voting rights, or reruns of Scandal,” Time’s Judy Berman suggested, representatively. “Just about anything would be more helpful in preserving our democracy than what we just witnessed.” Now, one impossibly long week on, calls to cancel the debates have redoubled—not for the sake of democracy, but on health grounds, after Trump and a growing list of his aides tested positive for COVID-19. After the first debate, “it looked as if the big question looming over the next one would be whether anyone could do anything to keep Trump from constantly interrupting Biden,” James Poniewozik, TV critic at the New York Times, wrote yesterday. Now “we’re wondering if it’s possible to hold a debate without creating a biohazard.”

This grim reality doesn’t just apply to Trump’s second and third debates with Biden (which are scheduled for October 15, in Miami, and 22, in Nashville), but to the sole vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, which—as of this morning, at least—was slated to take place tonight, in Salt Lake City. After Trump’s diagnosis became public knowledge early Friday, extra safety precautions were put in place for the v-p debate: Pence and Harris will be seated twelve feet apart, rather than seven, and the Commission on Presidential Debates agreed to expel maskless audience members and to allow for the erection of Plexiglas screens between the candidates. The latter measure irked Pence’s camp, which indicated that Pence did not want a screen on his side of the stage. “If Sen. Harris wants to use a fortress around herself,” Katie Miller, an aide who has been with Pence in Salt Lake City, said, “have at it.”

Related: The logical endpoint of debates in America

Yesterday, Miller’s husband, the Trump adviser Stephen Miller, tested positive for COVID-19. Katie Miller already had COVID earlier in the year; still, she left Pence’s camp after she learned of her husband’s diagnosis. Pence has reportedly now dropped his Plexiglas objection; according to his physician, Pence is being tested daily, and has so far returned only negative results. The physician has also repeatedly said that Pence is not considered to have been in “close contact” with Trump, an assessment that Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has personally endorsed.

Still, as I wrote recently, the CDC’s word is not as trusted as it once was—and if recent days have taught us anything, it’s that we should treat the claims of administration officials—and their physicians—with due skepticism. According to the Washington Post, Pence sat directly in front of Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who since tested positive, at an event eleven days ago, and was, at the same time, in close-ish proximity to Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, and Sen. Thom Tillis, both of whom have also since been confirmed as COVID carriers. In light of all this, holding an in-person v-p debate tonight hardly seems COVID-safe—a verdict underscored by the fact that we don’t yet know what “COVID-safe” actually entails. We do know that the virus can get around Plexiglas; we also know that the ventilation system in the debate hall could be important, and yet we haven’t heard much about that in the buildup. As many other observers have argued, the risks just don’t seem worth it.

As both Poniewozik and the Times editorial board wrote yesterday, making the remaining debates safe needn’t involve canceling them outright (sorry, Judy Berman)—they could be held remotely instead. Members of the debate commission are reportedly open to a virtual format for the second Trump-Biden debate next week. Given Trump’s behavior at the first debate, they would be wise to follow through. Trump—who may very well have been exposed to COVID already—turned up too late to be tested, violating what the moderator, Chris Wallace, described as an “honor system” between the campaigns. It’s not clear if Trump was tested prior to the debate at all, since the White House has declined to make his testing history public; during the debate, meanwhile, aides and members of his family sat maskless in the audience, another violation of debate protocols. Trump has said that he plans to attend next week’s debate, and Biden says that he’ll be there, too, as long as Trump is better—but it seems likely, at this point, that any determination on Trump’s condition will be made by Trump himself. The debate commission shouldn’t put Biden in the politically-fraught position of having to pull out—it should insist the second debate takes place remotely or not at all. And it should do likewise for tonight’s v-p debate. Pence isn’t as chaotic a figure as Trump, but he is reliably complicit in Trumpian recklessness. He doesn’t merit the benefit of the doubt.

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If, as seems likely, the v-p debate does go ahead as an in-person affair, the media will have to grapple with how best to handle an event that shouldn’t be happening at all. The networks could, of course, boycott it on a point of principle; given that they won’t, they, and other outlets, will at the very least need to cover it in a way that puts public health front and center, and doesn’t frame it as a matter of partisan dispute. Some of the initial coverage of the v-p debate has not been promising. Pundits have asked whether Harris will/should pull punches tonight given Trump’s ill health, which is entirely the wrong question to ask. It channels the same misplaced concern as when NBC’s Lester Holt asked Biden, at a town hall Monday, whether he regretted calling Trump “a clown” during the first debate. (Biden said he ought instead to have called the first debate “a clownish undertaking”; in reality, calling Trump a clown is offensive only to clowns.) When it comes to Harris, the stakes are even higher. Given familiar tropes around women candidates and candidates of color, we should be doubly careful not to police her tone.

Other advance coverage, meanwhile, has cast Pence’s unilateral Plexiglas objection in “both sides” terms; the Post referred to it as part of both a “long day of posturing between the Trump and Biden campaigns” and a “larger clash of messages.” This sort of phrasing muddies accountability, and plays into the perennial problem of the press casting debates as fights. If Pence tries to use the presence of the Plexiglas as a prop tonight—to paint Harris as weak or scared, for instance—the press should slap him down, rather than relishing “the brawl.”

I and others at CJR have argued repeatedly that debate moderators should fact check candidates in real time in the name of fighting the spread of misinformation. Whether that should be a moderator’s job is at least a matter of legitimate contention; stating that debate organizers should protect candidates, staffers, and guests from the spread of a deadly virus should not be. The two imperatives are not entirely distinct: projecting sound public-health principles is a good thing to do informationally, as well as epidemiologically; taking the debates virtual, meanwhile, could minimize distracting theatrics, and make it easier to cut bullying candidates’ mics off. Not that any of this is paramount. Helping to contain the virus is simply the humane thing to do.

Below more on tonight’s debate and the virus:

  • The moderator: Tonight’s debate will be moderated by Susan Page, of USA Today, who will also be protected by Plexiglas. Last month, many observers criticized Page after it was reported that she hosted a “girls’ night” in honor of Seema Verma, Trump’s Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator. USA Today said that the event was compliant with its “ethical standards”—but Margaret Sullivan, a media critic at the Post, argued that it’s past time to stop the schmoozing.
  • Yet more positive tests: In addition to Stephen Miller’s diagnosis, we learned yesterday that four White House press aides have now tested positive for COVID-19. Reporters covering the administration, several of whom have themselves tested positive, believe that officials have endangered their health. Concerns aren’t confined to the White House press corps; yesterday, the chairs of Congressional press galleries wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi requesting better protections for journalists covering the Capitol, including better access to testing and that lawmakers wear masks during interviews.
  • Tweetstorm: We heard yesterday afternoon that Trump was considering addressing the nation on TV; that didn’t end up happening, but we did hear (a lot) from the president via Twitter. At one point, he appeared to explode negotiations with Congressional Democrats over further stimulus spending, though he later pledged to sign limited stimulus measures. (A lot of people very much need assistance.) Trump also posted on both Facebook and Twitter comparing COVID to the flu. Facebook removed the post, which it said violated its rules on COVID misinformation. Twitter (eventually) slapped a warning label on the tweeted version of the post.
  • Dept. of What If?: For Vanity Fair, Tom Kludt assessed how the media might adapt if Trump loses in November and leaves office. “In conversations with reporters, editors, and on-air talent just before Trump’s hospital stay, more than a few expressed hope that beats and stories that have gone dormant over the last four years could be resuscitated,” Kludt writes. “And most were sanguine about the possibility of a post-Trump environment, even while acknowledging that they may have a less rapt audience.”

Other notable stories:

  • Michael D. Shear, Katie Benner, and Michael S. Schmidt, of the Times, reviewed a draft inspector general’s report assessing the role of Justice Department officials in executing Trump’s policy of separating migrant families at the border. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s first attorney general, publicly distanced himself from the policy but was, according to the draft report, deeply complicit in it; in May 2018, he told prosecutors, “We need to take away children.” Rod Rosenstein, Sessions’s deputy, was also complicit, telling prosecutors they should have pushed ahead with cases involving very young children.
  • Yesterday, the Democrat-led House Judiciary Committee published the results of its investigation into big tech: its report labeled Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple as monopolies akin to “oil barons and railroad tycoons,” and recommended that action be taken to break the companies up. Despite bipartisan censure of big tech, Republicans on the committee declined to endorse bold regulation; they also accused Democrats of ignoring their (empty) complaint that social-media platforms censor conservative voices.
  • In other big-tech news, Sara Fischer notes, for Axios, that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which has vociferously criticized big tech and advocated stronger regulation, has started to make nice with the platforms since they began steering cash to news outlets. News Corp. now has “significant paid licensing partnerships with Facebook and Apple News, as well as working partnerships with Amazon, Spotify, Snapchat, and Twitter.”
  • According to Lukas I. Alpert and Benjamin Mullin, of the Wall Street Journal, Quartz is up for sale again just two years after it was acquired by Uzabase, a Japanese financial intelligence and media firm. Uzabase saw Quartz as a means of expanding its footprint in the US, but the site has since seen revenue fall amid a bumpy transition to a subscription model and, this year, the pandemic. In May, Quartz cut roughly eighty jobs.
  • Stella Bugbee is stepping down as editor in chief of The Cut after nine years in post; she’ll stay on at New York magazine, The Cut’s parent, as an editor-at-large, and as executive producer of The Cut’s podcast. David Haskell, New York’s top editor, credited her with growing The Cut into “something gorgeous, playful, inexhaustible, significant.”
  • This morning, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Fundamedios will raise US law enforcement’s treatment of journalists covering recent protests before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, an organ of the Organization of American States. The hearing starts at 9am ET and is open to the public; you can register here.
  • Two ISIS terrorists accused of complicity in the kidnappings and murders of the journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, among others, are likely to be transferred to the US later this month to face trial, NBC’s Anna Schecter and Courtney Kube report. The two men have admitted to beating Foley, but denied involvement in executions.
  • And Saturday Night Live was able to reopen with a live audience—but only because it paid attendees as if they were SNL employees. The payments brought the show into compliance with New York state coronavirus guidelines barring TV productions from populating audiences with anyone other than their staffers. Julia Jacobs and Dave Itzkoff have more for the Times.

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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.