NBC did a terrible disservice to the public by ceding to Donald Trump’s demand to counterprogram Joe Biden’s town hall on ABC on Thursday night – but the net effect on political journalism turned out to be quite positive.
The dueling town halls actually forced several top journalists to directly address the extraordinary imbalance between the two candidates and what they represent, rather than get distracted by the spectacle.
Just as I was despairing over how so many campaign stories understate the cataclysmic consequences of a second Trump term – normalizing the election, treating it like a game, framing the coverage as if there were a rational choice each way – a small step forward: Our top political reporters were faced on deadline with the obvious, extreme contrast between a deranged, blustery, power-hungry liar with no sense of decency and no plans, on the one hand, and a relatively normal human being with relatively mainstream goals, on the other.
And to a greater extent than I expected, that came across in the coverage.
In fact, I consider the main news story in the New York Times, by Alexander Burns and Katie Glueck, a signal moment for the Times, which has traditionally been way too stenographic in its spot-news coverage, leaving crucial context to euphemism-filled sidebar “news analyses” and fact-checks.
The Times’ main story made it clear that Trump and Biden are operating in different worlds, only one of which is real. Right from the top:
President Trump spoke positively about an extremist conspiracy-theory group, expressed skepticism about mask-wearing, rebuked his own F.B.I. director and attacked the legitimacy of the 2020 election in a televised town hall forum on Thursday, veering far away from a focused campaign appeal. Instead, he further stoked the country’s political rifts as his Democratic opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., pushed a deliberate message anchored in concerns over public health and promises to restore political norms.
Burns and Glueck explained:
On the central issue of the election, the coronavirus pandemic, the two candidates appeared to inhabit not just different television sets but different universes. Mr. Biden has made the full embrace of strict public health guidelines the centerpiece of his candidacy, while Mr. Trump has continued to defy even the recommendations of his own government on matters as basic as the use of masks — a pattern that persisted in their opposing events on Thursday.
And they had evidence:
At the moment that Mr. Trump was effectively defending a fringe corner of the internet, Mr. Biden, the former vice president, was speaking about corporate tax rates and citing the business-analysis service Moody’s, underscoring the extraordinary gulf separating the two candidates in their worldviews, policies and connections to factual reality.
It may not be a complete coincidence that these reporters and their editors felt emboldened to be so straight with readers around the same time that the folks on the Times’ opinion side were dropping their amazing (if horribly over-designed) closing argument in the 2020 election, with the says-it-all URL: “donald-trump-worst-president.html.”
The editorial board wrote that “Donald Trump’s re-election campaign poses the greatest threat to American democracy since World War II.”
The editorial included this very poignant and appropriate appeal:
The enormity and variety of Mr. Trump’s misdeeds can feel overwhelming. Repetition has dulled the sense of outrage, and the accumulation of new outrages leaves little time to dwell on the particulars. This is the moment when Americans must recover that sense of outrage.
Times reporters were not alone in directly addressing the gaping contrast between the two candidates evidenced on Thursday night.
Evan Halper, Eli Stokols, Melanie Mason and Brittny Mejia led off their story in the Los Angeles Times with admirable boldness:
As President Trump angrily refused to disavow the QAnon conspiracy theory or accept responsibility for the surge of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., Joe Biden laid out his policy plans in a more muted style on a separate stage.
Trump was defiant and loose with the facts; Biden, deep in the policy weeds and soft-spoken. Biden emphasized that he would try to unify the nation and work to build consensus with Republicans. Trump focused on attacking Democrats in Congress and blaming liberal mayors and governors for urban unrest and the spread of the coronavirus.
At the Dallas Morning News, Todd J. Gillman and Gromer Jeffers Jr. wrote:
In tone and content, these were less competing events than parallel universes.
As Biden sedately clarified his views on fracking and expounded on the wisdom of green infrastructure investment, Trump was defending QAnon, the shadowy conspiracy cult that holds that he will save the nation from a secret cabal of child molesters.
It was not exactly a debate, but if you took the time to watch both, or at least the highlights, it did the job in some ways — perhaps even better, since they couldn’t bicker or drown each other out, and the incentive to rehearse zingers was lacking.
Jonathan Tamari and Sean Collins Walsh wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer that Trump “had a combative exchange with NBC anchor Savannah Guthrie, refused to denounce the QAnon conspiracy theory, misrepresented a study about the effectiveness of face masks, and wouldn’t say if he had been tested for the coronavirus before his debate with Biden in late September.”
Biden, in the event hosted by ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos, answered policy questions the way a typical candidate does: answering some directly, skirting others, citing data that backed up his point while steering away from details that might hurt it.
The Associated Press story by Jonathan Lemire, Will Weissert and Darlene Superville backed into it a bit, but eventually described “crystalizing contrasts“ in “dueling televised town halls that showcased striking differences in temperament, views on racial justice and approaches to a pandemic that has reshaped the nation.”
And they noted what I thought was perhaps Biden’s most defining moment:
He turned introspective when asked what it would say if he lost.
“It could say that I’m a lousy candidate, that I didn’t do a good job,” Biden said. “But I think, I hope that it doesn’t say that we’re as racially, ethnically and religiously at odds as it appears the president wants us to be.”
The Washington Post blew it, unfortunately. Michael Scherer, Jenna Johnson and Josh Dawsey offered up a much less informative take on the night’s events – maintaining a safe moral distance rather than confidently showing readers the truth.
They described “a jarring contrast of… opposing political styles and approaches to major issues like the coronavirus pandemic” and noted that the events “appeared to be broadcast from entirely different dimensions.” But their focus was on the optics, not the difference in the candidates’ approach to governing or relationship to reality:
The soft-spoken Biden leaned back in a white chair, relaxed and conversational as he hit upon notes of optimism and uplift. Trump’s appearance was heated and at times abrasive, with the candidate leaning forward as he defended his record and challenged the motivations of moderator Savannah Guthrie.
And the article was full of stenography lacking in sufficient pushback:
In one of the most notable exchanges, he said he did not know about QAnon, a loose-knit online community that was recently banned from Facebook. Supporters of the group, which shares false stories, including ones about Democrats abusing children, regularly appear with signs and apparel at Trump’s rallies.
“They are very strongly against pedophilia, and I agree with that,” he said about the group before attempting to pivot the conversation to talk about left-wing radicals like self-described anti-fascist protesters.
In a Washington Post fact-checking sidebar that should have been reflected in the mainbar, Salvador Rizzo, Glenn Kessler and Meg Kelly reported that “Trump spun a web of falsehoods like a whirling dervish, while Biden talked in depth and at length on a range of policy issues, leaving us with a handful of claims to check.”
Their first fact-check was a particularly crucial one, that Guthrie failed to sufficiently address. Trump outrageously lied — for the third time that day — that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that “85 percent of people who wear masks catch” Covid. The report from the CDC of course said no such thing.
There were, not surprisingly, some very bad takes as well.
In a limp USA Today article, Jeanine Santucci Rebecca Morin reported that the town halls “had plenty of tense moments,” then launched into an insipid rehash.
The Reuters headline – “In split-screen town halls, Trump and Biden squabble over coronavirus response” — should encourage everyone associated with it to look for another line of work. Steve Holland and Michael Martina contributed a truly subpar lede avoiding any kind of useful information:
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Thursday criticized what he called President Donald Trump’s “panicked” response to the coronavirus pandemic, while Trump defended his handling of a crisis that has killed more than 216,000 Americans.
It was all process over substance for Reuters:
The split-screen showdown offered a stark reminder of the many ways the campaign season has been changed by a pandemic that has prompted more than 18 million people to cast ballots more than two weeks before Election Day on Nov. 3.
And it wasn’t all roses at the New York Times, I should note.
Media writers Michael M. Grynbaum and John Koblin concluded way too glibly that “The election may hinge on which type of programming Americans want to spend the next four years watching.”
(More people, it turned out, watched Biden.)
World-weary Times veteran Adam Nagourney wrote that the clash of town halls “was not much of an improvement” over the insane mockery Trump made of the Cleveland debate. And Nagourney focused almost exclusively on the optics, declaring it “an open question whether Mr. Trump’s gambit of trying to push Mr. Biden off the stage worked to his advantage.”
To Nagourney, Trump’s outrageous elevation of QAnon was a problem because he “stomped on his own message.” Trump’s calumny about masks was an issue because he “clung to an unpopular posture on masks and the pandemic.” And so on.
(I noticed that Shane Goldmacher’s co-byline vanished sometime Friday morning. I’m going to venture that he didn’t want to be associated with such garbage takes.)
Finally, however, the worst take came – not surprisingly – from the Washington Post’s washed-up elder statesman Dan Balz, who wrote, pretty much like he always does, that Trump missed a golden opportunity to turn everything around:
President Trump had an opportunity at a town hall forum Thursday night in Miami to begin to turn around his struggling candidacy. Instead, under pointed questioning from the moderator, he reverted to the confrontational style that delights his most loyal supporters but that has left him in a deficit position in his campaign against former vice president Joe Biden.
Balz wrote, wistfully, that “It was not the kind of performance likely to attract support from the voters Trump needs to win.”
None of the news articles achieved what the American people need and deserve the most from campaign coverage: constant, clear and unambiguous context about the urgent need to stop the extraordinary damage Trump has done to the country.
But NBC brass’s shameful decision to give in to Trump may have, ironically, emboldened the press corps to draw the contrasts a bit more vividly. These two men are not comparable.