April 10, 2024

What’s the point?

That’s the question many might ask when discussing whether or not presumptive presidential candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump should participate in debates this year ahead of the 2024 election.

You probably figure that there is this side and there is that side and never the twain shall meet. Are two or three debates going to change anyone’s mind? Are there truly those still undecided? Will a debate get someone to switch what are clearly established sides?

Debates are a time-honored tradition in American politics. But these are hardly traditional times. The country is as divided as ever and candidates — well, one candidate — have the propensity to turn respectable political conversations into disrespectful, trash-talking, truth-bending and outright lying spectacles that only further widen the chasm.

So is there a point?

Well, the news networks seem to think so. The New York Times’ Michael M. Grynbaum reports that the big five — ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News and NBC — have drafted a letter urging Biden and Trump to debate.

The letter has not been sent, and the networks, which are not commenting, are apparently seeking other news outlets, such as newspapers, to join in their appeal to the candidates.

But Grynbaum obtained a copy of the letter, which said, “We, the undersigned national news organizations, urge the presumptive presidential nominees to publicly commit to participating in general election debates before November’s election.”

The letter also said, “General election debates have a rich tradition in our American democracy, having played a vital role in every presidential election of the past 50 years dating to 1976. In each of those elections, tens of millions have tuned in to watch the candidates debating side by side, in a competition of ideas, for the votes of American citizens.”

First, let’s start by saying the network’s plea isn’t all about preserving democracy by continuing the rich tradition of debates. As it reportedly stated in the letter, “tens of millions have tuned in to watch.” In other words, millions of viewers could turn on their TVs on a Tuesday night in September. That’s good business for TV networks. Outside of sporting events, few broadcasts can rival the millions that tune in to watch a debate.

But let’s also give the networks a little credit. Debates do matter. Of course, they do. The draft of the letter states, “If there is one thing Americans can agree on, during this polarized time, it is that the stakes of this election are exceptionally high. There is simply no substitute for the candidates debating with each other, and before the American people, their visions for the future of the nation.”

That’s right. There is no substitute for debates. Certainly not rallies, where candidates can say whatever they want to adoring fans with no pushback. Debates offer a chance for Americans to see the candidates answer tough questions, with journalistically sound pushback, about topics that do greatly impact this country: the economy, abortion, guns, immigration and wars in Ukraine and between Israel and Hamas, just to name a few.

Grynbaum smartly writes, “The debates are by far the most-watched moments of a presidential campaign, and in an increasingly partisan media environment, they offer a rare chance for the candidates to spar face to face outside the presence of spin doctors or sycophantic pundits. They are also simulcast on every major cable and broadcast network, a throwback to a more quaint media age when Americans absorbed information from the same group of news sources.

Biden has yet to commit to a debate, although he has not ruled it out. Trump said he wants to debate Biden. But, remember, Trump did not participate in the Republican debates last year and pulled out of one of the presidential debates against Biden in 2019.

In the end, there is a risk that Trump won’t play by the rules and any debate will skid off the rails. There’s a risk moderators won’t be able to keep either candidate from turning any debate into a shouting match.

Those are legitimate concerns.

But viewers (i.e. citizens) should embrace debates. Good for the networks for urging the candidates to embrace the debates, as well.

Sports Emmys

Nominations for this year’s Sports Emmys came out Tuesday. Here are a few quick thoughts on the big categories.

  • Football shows dominated the Best Weekly Studio Show, with ESPN’s “College GameDay,” Fox’s “Big Noon Kickoff,” “Fox NFL Sunday” and CBS’s “The NFL Today” all getting nods. The only nonfootball show nominated is actually the best of the bunch: “Inside the NBA” on TNT. That’s still the best sports studio show on TV right now … and of all time.
  • For Best Studio Show Daily, ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” is still an elite show after all these years. It debuted in 2001 and is a perennial nominee. It would be my pick again over the other nominees: “MLB Tonight” (MLB Network); NBA Countdown (ESPN); NFL Live (ESPN); and SportsCenter (ESPN).
  • For Best Studio Host, ESPN’s Malika Andrews picked up a pleasantly surprising nomination. She’s still relatively young (29), but is outstanding on ESPN’s NBA programming. It’s a tough category with Kevin Burkhardt (Fox), Rece Davis (ESPN) and the gold standards of Ernie Johnson (TNT) and Scott Van Pelt (ESPN).
  • Best Studio Analyst has a mix of newer and veteran broadcasters: TNT’s Charles Barkley, CBS’s Nate Burleson, ESPN’s Ryan Clark, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit and ESPN’s Mina Kimes, who would be my selection this year.
  • Best Play-by-Play Announcers are the usual suspects: ABC’s Mike Breen, ESPN’s Joe Buck, CBS/TNT’s Ian Eagle, CBS/TNT’s Kevin Harlan and NBC’s Mike Tirico. I wouldn’t mind seeing Eagle, who just did an outstanding job calling his first men’s Final Four, take this one.
  • The Best Game Analyst nominees: ESPN’s Troy Aikman, NBC’s Cris Collinsworth, Fox’s Greg Olsen, CBS’s Bill Raftery, Fox’s John Smoltz and Fox’s Tom Verducci. In this category, only Verducci was not a player and/or coach. He has a journalism background, so yeah, this newsletter supports that.

Click here for the complete list of nominations. The winners will be announced May 21 in New York City. CBS’s James Brown will be honored with a lifetime achievement award.

A big deal

Speaking of big sports awards, Los Angeles Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke was named the 2024 winner of the Red Smith Award, the highest honor in sports journalism. It is awarded by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

In a statement, Plaschke said, “It was a surprise. I felt humbled, honored and numb to be mentioned in the same breath as the greats that came before me. And to now be on the same list as Jim Murray and Bill Dwyre, my L.A. Times family, I am overwhelmed.”

There have been more than 40 previous winners of the award — which include such giants in the industry such as Murray, Shirley Povich, Bud Collins, Dick Schaap, Frank Deford, Dan Jenkins and Sally Jenkins.

NPR drama

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

There was a little internal drama at NPR on Wednesday.

Uri Berliner, a senior business editor at NPR, blasted the news organization in a piece for The Free Press: “I’ve Been at NPR for 25 Years. Here’s How We Lost America’s Trust.” (The Free Press is a digital outlet founded by Bari Weiss, formerly of The New York Times.)

In a stunning essay (stunning because he still works at NPR), Berliner criticized NPR for a variety of things, including the suggestion that NPR has become an activist organization and sacrificed journalistic integrity in the process.

He wrote, “An open-minded spirit no longer exists within NPR, and now, predictably, we don’t have an audience that reflects America. That wouldn’t be a problem for an openly polemical news outlet serving a niche audience. But for NPR, which purports to consider all things, it’s devastating both for its journalism and its business model.”

He made the case that the biggest change came when Donald Trump became president.

Berliner wrote, “Like many unfortunate things, the rise of advocacy took off with Donald Trump. As in many newsrooms, his election in 2016 was greeted at NPR with a mixture of disbelief, anger, and despair. (Just to note, I eagerly voted against Trump twice but felt we were obliged to cover him fairly.) But what began as tough, straightforward coverage of a belligerent, truth-impaired president veered toward efforts to damage or topple Trump’s presidency.”

That was just a sliver of what Berliner wrote.

NPR editor-in-chief Edith Chapin responded in a memo to staff that was obtained by The New York Times’ Benjamin Mullin. Chapin wrote, “I and my colleagues on the leadership team strongly disagree with Uri’s assessment of the quality of our journalism and the integrity of our newsroom processes. We’re proud to stand behind the exceptional work that our desks and shows do to cover a wide range of challenging stories. We believe that inclusion — among our staff, with our sourcing, and in our overall coverage — is critical to telling the nuanced stories of this country and our world.”

There’s more to this drama, so go to the links above to read Berliner and Chapin in detail.

Whether or not Berliner’s piece is true, not true, half-true (I have no idea), what really stands out is that he would go to another website and publicly blast his employer the way he did.

Mocking Fox

Funny clip from “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart that includes the ridiculous Fox News angle that Monday’s eclipse over the southern border was, to use the words of Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer, “a real opportunity for smugglers and cartels and migrants to come right in.”

Stewart said, “Or they could just wait until nighttime.”

Stewart then added, “I gotta say though, is there nothing Fox can’t tie to immigration?”

More insight about Norby

Puck’s John Ourand had a little more insight on Norby Williamson’s abrupt departure from ESPN after nearly 40 years there. Williamson was one of the most powerful people in sports media, but ultimately, his relationship with Burke Magnus, ESPN’s president of content and Williamson’s now-former boss, just wasn’t working.

Ourand wrote, “And at the end of the day, modern ESPN was only big enough for one of them.”

Ourand continued, “… the two executives simply deployed different management styles and eventually found it impossible to work together. Magnus, known for his collaborative approach, became Williamson’s boss about a year ago, when he was named ESPN’s president of content. No one would accuse him of being a micromanager, but the guy likes to be involved. Meanwhile, Williamson always operated like a field general: Over the past several decades, he’s been one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes executives in Bristol, and was used to making his own decisions and dealing with the fallout.”

Ourand also notes that this move shows Magnus is the “one executive firmly in charge of the content division, and ESPN’s clear number two behind” chair Jimmy Pitaro. And that’s significant because Pitaro could eventually replace Bob Iger as Disney CEO.

Richard Deitsch’s latest sports media podcast talks about ESPN and Williamson with James Andrew Miller, who literally wrote the book on ESPN.

Women beat the men

The early numbers for Monday night’s NCAA men’s championship basketball game, according to Sports TV Ratings, show the men couldn’t compete with the women. UConn won its second consecutive title with a victory over Purdue. The game drew an average of 14.8 million viewers across TBS, TNT and truTV. That’s about 4 million fewer than South Carolina’s win against Iowa and superstar Caitlin Clark in the women’s final on Sunday.

Just for context: The men’s game started after 9 p.m. on the East Coast and was exclusively on cable television. The women played Sunday afternoon on a major network (ABC). Still, no matter when the games were played and regardless of the network, the women drew more viewers because the product this year was more compelling than the men.

ESPN’s Flora Kelly pointed out this impressive stat. The one-hour pregame show for Sunday’s women’s national championship game had 2.9 million viewers. Kelly tweeted, “Only one WCBB game drew more viewers than 2.9M viewers just three years ago.”

Here’s a graphic from ESPN that shows the popularity of the women’s game over the past several years:

(Courtesy: ESPN)

The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch tweeted, “The reality is next year’s NCAA Tournament will not draw this number in the title game (and likely not the 2023 number). The viewership interest in Caitlin Clark was a unicorn. But this sports is a (rocket emoji) — and they will retain people who sampled it for the first time.”

And speaking of the women, uh, eclipsing the men this week, check out this awesome editorial cartoon for The Philadelphia Inquirer from Signe Wilkinson.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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