Who scored at last night’s debates, plus an ESPN departure and a juicy spy story

June 27, 2019
Category: Newsletters

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June 27, 2019

One down, one to go. The two-night Democratic presidential debates kicked off Wednesday night and the first half of today’s newsletter looks back at how NBC and television handled day one.

The scores after Round 1

Our take on the media winners and losers in a highly anticipated first-round debate of Democratic presidential hopefuls.

The winner

This won’t be a popular opinion, but the biggest winner in Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential primary debate was …

Chuck Todd.

The host of “Meet the Press” and the co-moderator during the second hour of Wednesday’s two-hour, 10-candidate debate is a punching bag for media watchers and critics alike. But when it comes to critiquing the performance of NBC’s coverage of the debate, Todd was the MVP of what was, except for a brief technical glitch, a solid night for the network. Todd was masterful in keeping candidates focused and on-point, while asking questions that elicited the night’s most thoughtful, intelligent and emotional answers.

What made him so good? Credit the skills honed while hosting “Meet the Press,” where he is tasked with controlling guests who often try to pivot past his questions by filibustering with their pre-arranged talking points. Todd, and to some extent his co-moderator Rachel Maddow, was able to corral the 10 candidates from turning Wednesday night in an out-of-control,  no-holds-barred, battle royale. That was no easy task with a bunch of eager candidates trying to elbow their way into relevance.

All of NBC’s moderators were strong. Savannah Guthrie, who led off the night, called out several candidates, most notably Beto O’Rourke, for not directly answering her questions. It’s what every good moderator should do, but something that not every moderator does. Lester Holt brought his usual professionalism and to-the-point sparseness. And Jose Diaz-Balart showed passion and emotion when asking about immigration.

There was one hiccup — when hot microphones caused confusion and forced NBC to take an unexpected break just as the second hour was starting — but the debate picked up energy when Todd and Maddow took over. It was Todd’s pointed questions (specifically about guns) and candidate wrangling that kept the energy going. And while I once had my doubts about Maddow being chosen as a moderator, she also made sure the debate didn’t turn into a free-for-all.

Near the end, Todd asked each candidate to name, in one word, what was America’s biggest threat. Not everyone was a fan of that question, but it was a bite-sized way to see what was a top priority of every candidate.

The sheer numbers — five moderators, 10 candidates, two hours — could have made for bedlam, but the moderators, led by Todd, made sure that didn’t happen. All in all, a good night for NBC.

Chuck Todd, NBC News political director, and Rachel Maddow, MSNBC host, during the Democratic primary debate. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The topics

NBC moderators played it right, asking the pertinent questions with topics including the economy, climate, gun control, immigration, Iran and health care. One topic not brought up by the moderators was President Donald Trump — and that’s wise. If the candidates wanted to take swings at Trump, that was their choice. But it’s not NBC’s job to offer up softballs to help them do it. Actually, the candidates didn’t mention Trump as much as many predicted. They also didn’t take any shots at Democratic poll leader Joe Biden, who debates tonight.

During MSNBC’s post-debate show, host Brian Williams said, “It makes 80 percent of the advance press coverage wrong. All of us, on our various broadcasts, had guessed for days … ‘You don’t want to be Joe Biden. He’s going to be the invisible pinata.’ It didn’t happen and that’s notable.”

The questions

Early on, NBC directed a lot of questions at Elizabeth Warren. In fact, Tulsi Gabbard’s sister, tweeting on Gabbard’s official account, accused the network of wanting Warren to win.

But when the night was over, according to CNN, it was actually Cory Booker who spoke the most, followed by Beto O’Rourke and then Warren. No candidate should complain that they didn’t get their chance to speak, not even Jay Inslee, who spoke the least.

The numbers

There were 10 presidential candidates during Wednesday’s debate. CNN had eight analysts on the set following the debate. It’s admirable that the network wants to get diverse voices with many viewpoints, but it’s just too many at one time. Oddly enough, the post-debate show had more moments of people talking over each other than the debate itself. MSNBC’s post-debate show was better, with three analysts joining host Brian Williams and co-host Nicolle Wallace, where there was almost no interrupting.

Democratic presidential candidate New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio gestures during a Democratic primary debate. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) 

The cringe-worthy

The post-debate shows on MSNBC and CNN offered more confusion than clarity. It just goes to show that there is no consensus when it comes to the spin zone. A perfect example was how MSNBC talked about Bill de Blasio.

Nicolle Wallace said, “He was like an obnoxious guy at a restaurant or a bar talking really loudly on his cell phone.”

But Chris Matthews told de Blasio, “I think you punched above your weight tonight.”

In fact, Matthews’ effusive praise of de Blasio while interviewing him became uncomfortable and, frankly, inappropriate.

“I thought you were in this fight for real, not just one of the guys at the end of the row,” Matthews said. “Are you going to get to the center? When are you going to get to the center of this fight? … I believe in you tonight. I think you got in the fight. Stay with it.”

Stay with it? Oy!

And now for other media stories catching my attention today …

The debates trump presidential news — whew!

In a really thoughtful piece in Variety, Brian Steinberg writes that the Democratic debates (and the news programs surrounding the debates) are giving viewers something other than Trump — you could even call it a welcome respite.

Frank Senso, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University (and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board), told Steinberg, “There’s a strong hunger for a new chapter. There’s a lot of fatigue right now. There’s outrage fatigue. There’s politics fatigue. There’s Trump fatigue.”

Perhaps sensing Democrats getting much of the spotlight, Trump has made himself available to outlets other than Fox News in recent weeks. He has done one-on-one interviews with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, NBC’s Chuck Todd, CNBC’s Joe Kernan and Time magazine. And, of course, he continues to turn to his base by talking to Fox News.

But if you are a news junkie looking to take a break from Trump talk, the Democratic debates (for the most part) are a welcome breather.


Long-serving ESPN anchor is out

Bob Ley. (Photo courtesy of Scott Clarke/ESPN Images)

After 40 years at ESPN, Bob Ley — one of sports journalism’s most respected voices because of his thoughtful commentary and attention to intelligent stories — announced his retirement on Twitter on Wednesday. Tributes from the sports world immediately poured in.

Ley tweeted, “To be clear, this is entirely my decision. I enjoy the best of health, and the many blessings of friends and family, and it is in that context that I’m making this change.”

It’s a big loss. Ley served as our sports conscience — gracefully, fully and respectfully addressing issues at the crossroads of sports, politics, race, gender, sexuality and social relevance. With Bob Costas recently taking a step back in his career and with Ley retiring, who now becomes the voice to navigate our path through the social issues surrounding sports? I’m not sure there is anyone at the moment. While ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro praised Ley’s work, you can’t help but wonder if ESPN, per Pitaro’s direction, purposefully moving away from politics and taking a “stick-to-sports” attitude had anything to do with Ley stepping down while he seems to be bringing his A-game.

Ley, 64, joined ESPN two days after the network launched in 1979. He was a longtime anchor on “SportsCenter” and then host of the “Outside the Lines,” a sports news show featuring investigations, trends and current events. During his time as host, “OTL” won 11 Emmys. Ley won eight Emmys during his career, including 2018 for outstanding studio host.

In October, Ley announced he was taking a six-month sabbatical and then he extended that leave in May. It was thought he would eventually return, but Wednesday’s announcement put an end to that.


Post to launch options en Español

The Washington Post will launch a Spanish-language podcast and a Spanish-language Opinions online destination this fall.

The twice-weekly podcast will be hosted by Juan Carlos Iragorri, a Colombian journalist with more than 30 years of experience and an Emmy award on his resume. He will be joined by Dori Toribio, a correspondent for Spain’s Mediaset, and Jorge Espinosa, a radio journalist and podcast director at Colombia’s Caracol Radio. Other Post reporters will join the podcast from time to time.

The Spanish-language Opinions section will have original columns focusing on news of interest to Spanish-speaking readers from around the world. Writers will provide analysis and commentary from Latin America, Spain and the United States with editors based in Mexico City.


I spy another masterpiece in The Atlantic

Deniss Metsavas, an Estonian military officer convicted of spying for the Russian military. (Photo courtesy of The Atlantic)

Somebody is going to make a movie out of Michael Weiss’s latest in The Atlantic called “The Making of a Russian Spy.” It’s the story of Deniss Metsavas, an Estonian military officer who was recently convicted of spying for the GRU — the Russian military intelligence service that hacked Democratic National Committee emails before the 2016 presidential election.

This was the first time someone in the Western media was able to interview a captured GRU operative. The piece also includes a 14-minute documentary with new interviews with Metsavas and Estonian intelligence officials.


Hot type

Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, being interviewed by “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King. (Photo courtesy of CBS News)

  • In his first U.S. TV interview since taking over last October, Instagram boss Adam Mosseri talked with “CBS This Morning”’s Gayle King and said the company is “rethinking the whole experience” of Instagram.
  • A Mississippi man spent 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. What happened next was even more tragic.
  • Many continue to criticize the reporters who had farewell drinks with outgoing White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. Here’s a good takedown by New York Magazine’s Sarah Jones.
  • Politico has the details of a California congressman whom prosecutors say used campaign funds for things a little more salacious than campaigning.
  • The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Cartwright with a story of New York Times star reporter David Barstow going “rogue” to try and secure a book deal.

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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