November 21, 2019

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Best debate yet, thanks to the moderators

Know how we all want Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to host every Golden Globes? Well, maybe we can get Rachel Maddow, Andrea Mitchell, Ashley Parker and Kristen Welker to moderate every Democratic presidential debate.

That was my biggest takeaway from Wednesday night’s debate, especially since going in, watching two hours of a debate was the last thing many of us wanted to do.

By the time 9 p.m. came along, we had already had a long day — more than 12 hours of intense impeachment testimony and furious analysis of it. At that point, it felt like time for a cold beverage and a couple of hours of “Seinfeld” reruns just to unwind.

Then something happened. The debate started and time flew by. Even when the debate ran longer than the scheduled two hours, it was not only interesting, but entertaining. The moderators get credit for that. As a result, we had the most stimulating and substantive Democratic debate so far in this election cycle.

The questions were smart and varied, touching on a wide range of topics: child care, paid family leave, farming, health care, abortion, housing prices, climate change, war, terrorism, race, political experience. And, of course, President Donald Trump and the impeachment hearings, although the moderators didn’t harp on impeachment. Only guns and immigration (among the commonly debated topics) weren’t discussed in any significant way.

Because of the questions — and the way they were posed — the debate was void of the constant interruptions and chaos that often wrecks a debate. The moderators showed superb judgment and prudence when letting candidates make their full points without allowing them to run amok. They challenged the candidates, but didn’t pit them against one another the way previous moderators have.

The moderators moved quickly and kept the candidates on their toes, jumping from topic to topic and not sticking with one subject for too long. They allowed candidates to respond to one another’s attacks and challenges, but never lost control. Parker, the White House reporter for The Washington Post, was the star of the night, constantly proving the theory that the shorter the question, the better the answer.

All and all, just a terrific performance by Maddow, Mitchell, Parker and Welker. Their work delivered the debate we all wanted to see even if we didn’t want to watch it.

In defense of Rachel Maddow as a moderator

Rachel Maddow. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

This was the second time Rachel Maddow was a moderator in a debate this year. I’m still not crazy about the idea of an opinion host moderating a debate. It simply leaves that host and the host network open to allegations of playing favorites. I said that before the first time she moderated and felt that way heading into Wednesday night.

Early in the debate, Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi tweeted: “There was a time when having an opinion host like @maddow as a debate host was unthinkable. That time is obviously long gone.”

There are certainly enough people capable of moderating that networks can avoid opinion hosts, but to be fair, it’s hard (if not impossible) to poke any holes in Maddow’s conduct during the debates. Her performance was not only fair, but well done.

Elsewhere in pundit analysis …

Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, speaks during a Democratic presidential primary debate Wednesday. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

MSNBC’s post-debate coverage moderated by Brian Williams was first-rate. Chris Matthews interviewed many of the candidates, recapping some of their debate moments and addressing new topics. Steve Kornacki’s post-debate polling is always a highlight.

But the most compelling moment was analyst Steve Schmidt (always a must-see) absolutely crushing candidate Tulsi Gabbard.

“Tulsi Gabbard was just awful, spectacularly bad,” Schmidt said. “In fact, in a week between Prince Andrew, Jim Jordan and Devin Nunes, she made a legitimate run for the medal podium. Just dishonest at a pretty large level.”

And give Matthews credit. When he interviewed Gabbard later, he asked Schmidt to repeat what he said about her. Schmidt didn’t mention the Prince Andrew part, but did call her out on what he felt was her dishonesty. Gabbard didn’t take the bait, but did defend her debate performance.

One more thought on the debate …

During every debate, a candidate will say something untrue or misleading that isn’t called out by the moderators. Some would argue that it’s up to the other candidates to point that out. I would argue that the moderators’ main responsibility is to call out candidates when they don’t answer their question or to clarify something that is vague. But asking the moderators to catch every possible misleading statement while they are spinning so many plates in the air is a little unfair.

If you’re looking for fact-checks for last night’s debate, PolitiFact is the place to go.

Meaningful moments, historic days

Today’s front page of The Washington Post. (Courtesy The Washington Post)

One of the more difficult things about covering impeachment is sifting through all the noise and spin to determine what moments are truly meaningful. But it sure felt like that moment was Wednesday, and the testimony of EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland was a historic day. That’s how both the Washington Post and New York Times played it on their front pages.

The Post headline: “Diplomat acknowledges ‘quid pro quo.’” The Times‘ was a quote from Sondland: “We followed the president’s orders.”

But will it be a historic day after all?

On Fox News, whose afternoon coverage actually has been mostly balanced except for the on-screen graphics, anchor Bret Baier said Sondland’s testimony was “very damaging” to the Republican party’s arguments. Anchor Chris Wallace said Sondland sounded like he was trying to protect himself and added, “To a certain degree, he took out the bus and ran over President Trump, Vice President Pence, (Secretary of State) Mike Pompeo, (former national security adviser) John Bolton, (Trump’s personal attorney) Rudy Giuliani, (acting White House chief of staff) Mick Mulvaney. … He implicates all of them.”

But in a column for The Washington Post, Max Boot doubts even Sondland’s testimony will have a lasting effect.

The impeachment hearings continue today.

Now on to other media news …

Coffee: The most important meal of the day

This is actually one of my favorite things today: Emma Dumain, who covers Congress for McClatchy’s Washington bureau, became a big deal on Tuesday … for drinking coffee. During impeachment testimony, Dumain could be seen in the background getting her last few drops. Kudos to Slate’s Heather Schwedel for reaching out to Dumain about it. And kudos to Dumain for having fun with her viral moment.

“It’s hilarious,” Dumain said. “It looks ridiculous.”

Dumain explained that the coffee was good and that she needed it — her 19-month-old daughter had woken up before 6 a.m. and Dumain needed every bit of caffeine should could get.

Dumain said, “Of all of the embarrassing things that could happen on live TV that I may have done, this was definitely far from the worst thing that I can imagine. Luckily, I didn’t make a mess or miss my mouth or spill all over myself, which is certainly within the realm of possibility given how clumsy and sloppy I can be.”

Commissioners vote down NYT subscription

Here’s an update on a story about where Florida county commissioners decided to not pay about $2,700 for New York Times digital subscriptions for the 70,000 library card holders there. The decision was in part because some on the commission just don’t like Times and call it “fake news.” There was such a backlash that the commissioners held another meeting and an official vote.

That public meeting turned contentious and the vote was close, but the original decision stands. The Citrus County commission voted 3-2 to not buy a New York Times digital subscription.

Sounds like it was a wild meeting, according to the Tampa Bay Times’ Zach Sampson. His story shows what is the perfect example of the type of divide in this country right now.

Day 1 at ‘new’ Gannett; A.H. Belo errs

For this item, I turn it over to Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds:

Day One at new Gannett was relatively uneventful. Though New Media Investment’s GateHouse chain was the acquirer in this week’s merger (retaining the Gannett name), old Gannett continues to be well-represented in the top executive ranks of the new company. Maribel Wadsworth, publisher of USA Today, will direct news operations. Kevin Gentzel, old Gannett’s top advertising executive, will be chief revenue officer of the new company.

In a season of bad financial results for publicly traded newspaper companies, the Dallas Morning News’ parent, A.H. Belo, had an embarrassing report Wednesday. It will miss the deadline for filing its third quarter financial report and is working with its auditor to restate 2018 results. The issue involves valuing assets, not a mistake in numbers for operations.

Miami Herald votes to unionize

The editorial employees of the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald and voted Wednesday in favor of creating a union, 66-24. One Herald Guild reported that journalists broke into loud cheers and hugged one another when the vote was announced.

“The effort to unionize has already made the El Nuevo Herald and Miami Herald stronger by bringing reporters, copy editors and producers together in support of journalism and each other,” said David Smiley, senior political reporter for the Miami Herald, in a statement.

The 1619 Project will become a book series

Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York Times Magazine staff writer and originator of The 1619 Project. (Photo courtesy of The New York Times)

The New York Times Magazine’s remarkable 1619 Project is being turned into a series of books published by Random House. The project will include new essays, fiction and poetry.

In addition, Random House Children’s Books will publish four 1619 Project books for young readers—one young adult, one middle-grade, and two picture books.

The project recognized the 400th anniversary of the moment enslaved Africans were first brought to what would become the United States and how it forever changed the country. The books will be edited by the same Times team that put together the original project.

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Next week’s Poynter Report

Editor’s note: Next week, Tom will be out of the office, and the Poynter Report will take a break after Tuesday for the Thanksgiving holiday. But we want to hear from you — what journalism or journalists are you thankful for this holiday season? Reply to this newsletter, send an email to or tag us on Twitter. We’ll publish some of your responses next week. Thanks for reading!

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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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