NBC’s moderators with a knockout, plus Twitter’s new rules for pols and the power of journalism

June 28, 2019
Category: Newsletters

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June 28, 2019

Good morning, and now we lean back and digest what we witnessed over the past two nights of the Democratic debates. We also remind you that we still have 16 months before the 2020 election. But clearly, this was a big week and Thursday produced the first big moment of the race for president.

Round 2 winner: NBC with a knock-out

The moderators’ handling of key moments will be overlooked and forgotten, which means they did a great job.

Democratic presidential candidate former vice president Joe Biden, left, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., during the Democratic primary debate Thursday night. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

That magic moment

Maybe Joe Biden didn’t see it coming, but NBC did.

The signature moment of Thursday night’s Democratic debate — as well as the must-see TV of the entire four hours over two nights of debates — was the exchange on race between Biden and Kamala Harris. As it developed, you realized immediately that we might be watching a pivotal moment in history. How did it happen? Debate moderators Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow ignored the rules on time and simply let this hold-your-breath conversation play out for three minutes. It was actually Biden who stopped the tense exchange by saying his time was up.

On MSNBC’s post-debate show, Maddow said, “That was one of those things when you felt the weather shift. … That was a moment that, any time you’re preparing for a debate, that’s the moment that you want. But in this case, it had nothing to do with us. That was the candidates bringing that themselves. And it was magic in the moment.”

Now for the rest of the story: NBC fully anticipated the magic. NBC News chairman Andy Lack told Politico’s Michael Calderone after the debate that NBC was waiting for a Harris-Biden showdown because of Harris’ past comments.

Lack told Calderone that NBC “didn’t know how, when, precisely what the character of it would be. … It was a mystery to us what (Biden) was going to say.”

Lack added, “I’m in a (production) truck with 15 screens, and I’m looking at the two of them, and we’re directing shows, and the important piece for us (was) just to give them a chance to speak to each other in the way that they did. And it was quite compelling.”

That kind of anticipation and patient direction was not only the signature moment of the debates, but the shining moment for NBC, which gets high marks for its two-night coverage. Thursday’s debate was more interesting than Wednesday’s, and maybe that’s because Thursday featured more of the leading candidates. But NBC’s work stood out Thursday night when it didn’t get in the way.

When a debate is over and all the special moments involve the candidates, that’s usually a sign of a job well done by the moderators. Typically, the less you remember about the moderators after a debate, the more likely it is that they did a good job. You could make that argument Thursday night.

Yes, there were times when they struggled to keep the candidates under control. As veteran newsman Dan Rather tweeted, “I don’t envy the moderators. It’s like herding cats while conducting a symphony orchestra riding a unicycle.”

The moderators did OK on that front. It was actually Harris who did the best job corralling her fellow candidates when she (I’m guessing) used her talking-points cheat sheet for this line: “Hey, guys, you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight. They want us to know how we’re going to put food on their table.”

Some candidates (Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang and John Hickenlooper, for example) might complain that they didn’t get enough time to talk and there might be a little to that. NBC did seem to concentrate on the candidates who were polling the best. Yet it did feel as if America heard from the most relevant candidates on the most relevant topics.

When asked about moderating, Maddow said, “This was absolutely freaking terrifying. … When we’re setting these things up, obviously, we’re studiously neutral between the candidates. We’re trying not to give anybody a particularly hard time or particularly easy time, trying to make sure that everybody gets on stage and the most important stuff gets litigated.”

If that was the goal, NBC succeeded.

The after party

Maybe it was because they used Wednesday as a dress rehearsal or maybe it was because they had more to talk about, but the post-debate shows on CNN and MSNBC were stronger Thursday night than Wednesday. The CNN cast-of-thousands (OK, more like eight) were laser focused, especially when dissecting the Harris-Biden exchange. Van Jones had the strongest commentary, saying all Biden had to do to diffuse Harris’ attack was to simply say he was sorry. When he didn’t, Jones said the moment was “heartbreaking.”

Over on MSNBC, hosts Brian Williams and Nicolle Wallace smoothly handled analysis with Wallace providing some much needed context by reminding viewers that not everyone was tuned into the debates to witness Biden’s rough exchange with Harris.

“He’s at 38 percent,” Wallace said right after the debate. “He was the front-runner three hours ago; he will be the front-runner three hours from now. We all get lost in these moments. We all fall down the rabbit hole.”

Biggest nitpick

If there was a scratch-your-head moment, it was MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and CNN’s Anderson Cooper’s separate interviews with Kamala Harris after the debate. Matthews asked Harris if she thought Joe Biden was now finished as a candidate because of their exchange. Cooper asked Harris if Biden should have just apologized and where did she expect him to go from here?

What, Harris is supposed to do damage control for Biden? The questions put Harris in an awkward spot, but she managed to deflect her answers without insulting Biden — or Cooper and Matthews.


Who watched the debates?

People hold a cutout head of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., as they watch a Democratic presidential debate during a watch party hosted by the former Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Wednesday’s first night of the debates attracted 15.3 million viewers across NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo. That’s about the same number of people who watched the Democrats’ first debate before the 2016 election. It also made it the most-watched TV show Wednesday. In addition, about 9 million live-streamed the debate.

Those are all good numbers considering most of the marquee names — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg — didn’t debate until Thursday night. Expect Thursday night’s viewership to be higher than Wednesday when those numbers come out later today.

The high court meets the power of journalism

Attorney Sheri Johnson leaves the Supreme Court after challenging a Mississippi prosecutor’s decision to keep African Americans off the jury in the trial of Curtis Flowers. The Supreme Court is throwing out the murder conviction and death sentence for Flowers because of a prosecutor’s efforts to keep African Americans off the jury. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

A man was sentenced to death row. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that the district attorney in the case racially discriminated during the jury selection. The decision overturned the death sentence.

The critical facts in the case were discovered by a podcast.

That’s what good journalism can do.

American Public Media’s investigative group, APM Reports, looked at the case of Curtis Flowers, a man who has faced trial six times for the 1996 murder of four people in Mississippi. The result was a podcast “In The Dark,” which was downloaded more than 24 million times and won a George Polk Award for outstanding investigative journalism. In addition, key findings regarding jury selection were included in the case presented to the Supreme Court.

APM is taking out a full-page ad in this Sunday’s New York Times to “highlight the important work of the free press and thank those who support journalism locally and worldwide.”

Twitter’s new politician rule

This April 3, 2017, file photo shows U.S. President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)

Is Twitter going after President Donald Trump? The social media giant has come up with a new rule to crack down on politicians who tweet what Twitter considers to be “abusive behavior.” It’s officially aimed at any politician with a verification badge or any government official worldwide with more than 100,000 followers, but many assume it is aimed at a president who often takes to Twitter with inflammatory tweets. An unnamed White House official told The Daily Beast, “(Trump) is not going to like this.”

But here’s the odd part: The tweets won’t be purged. They merely will be hidden behind a label that reads:

“The Twitter rules about abusive behavior apply to this Tweet. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain available.”

There is some thought that the warnings might actually raise the interest in hostile tweets. However, the flagged tweets will be deprioritized by Twitter’s feed, meaning fewer people might see them. Twitter said the label will be used on “rare” occasions when it feels a tweet bullies, harasses or makes a threat of violence or terrorism.

Paying for that big party

This Sunday’s episode of The New York Times’ TV show “The Weekly” will look at Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, the most expensive in U.S. history at $107 million. The Times asks: Where did the money come from? Where did it all go? And why should we care now?

The show follows reporters Mark Mazzetti, Matthew Rosenberg, Maggie Haberman, Sharon LaFraniere and Ken Vogel as they piece together this story, which includes interviews with Steve Bannon and Anthony Scaramucci.

On Poynter.org:


Hot type

Zach Galifianakis in Los Angeles in 2017. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Warner Bros./AP Images)

  • Actor Zach Galifianakis said he is haunted over missing a degree from North Carolina State by one credit. So the Raleigh News & Observer stepped in to see if it could help Galifianakis become an official part of the Wolfpack.
  • The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi looks back at what happened with the audio problems that delayed Wednesday night’s debate for a few minutes, but notes that was nothing compared to what happened in the first presidential debate in 1976 between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
  • A prison couldn’t hire enough guards, so you’ll be shocked to learn who was put in charge. A disturbing story published in partnership with The Marshall Project, the Clarion Ledger and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.

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

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