By:
October 8, 2020

The most interesting living thing on the stage for Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate?

It might have been a fly.

During Wednesday night’s debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris, a fly landed on Pence’s head and hung out for about two minutes. By night’s end, it was trending on Twitter and had become a part of Joe Biden’s campaign. The New York Times even wrote about it.

OK, so the fly really wasn’t the most important thing that happened during a 90-minute debate that discussed plenty of meaningful topics. But the fact that we were talking about it at all was a sign that this really was a more normal political debate — certainly much more normal than the free-for-all fiasco we saw in last week’s Donald Trump-Joe Biden debate.

As NBC’s Savannah Guthrie said, “We had a debate, not a debacle.”

Civil was the word of the night.

As soon as it was over, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said, “There you have it, two candidates largely refraining from the fireworks, certainly a contrast to President Trump’s performance last week in the first presidential debate. Tonight, it was much more civil.”

PBS’s Judy Woodruff said the same, calling it “much more civil.”

NBC’s Lester Holt said, “Fair to say a lot of people (were) holding their breath after last week wondering what the tone would be in this debate. Largely civil.”

Civil, yes. A tad predictable, too. But not boring. There was substance. There was meaning. Both candidates landed their share of blows, especially when attacking their opponents, but less so when defending their own running mate’s record.

What really stood out, however, was how both candidates dodged the questions from moderator Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief for USA Today. Oh, the candidates talked a lot. And said a lot of interesting things. Just not a lot about what Page asked. It was as if her questions were about apples and the answers were about oranges. Harris, most notably, would not answer a question about packing the Supreme Court and Pence would not answer, well, a lot of questions. CNN’s David Axelrod called Pence a “serial evader.”

John Dickerson of CBS News said, “As they teach you in debate school, you answer the question you want to, not the one that’s asked.”

And Pence did plenty of that, often circling back to the last question while avoiding the question asked by Page. As The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart said on PBS, “He has mastered the breathy earnestness of saying nothing.”

Blitzer noted, “Both candidates clearly did their best to dodge important serious tough questions from Susan Page, questions that they didn’t want to answer. She asked very good questions.”

And that brings us to Susan Page …

Page’s so-so night

Vice presidential debate moderator Susan Page. (Justin Sullivan/Pool via AP)

Blitzer is right. Page did ask a lot of great questions — about everything from the coronavirus to climate change to racial tensions to the economy. Too bad the candidates, especially Pence, didn’t actually answer a lot of them. But don’t just blame the candidates. Blame the moderator, too. Instead of going back and telling the candidates, “Great. Now would you like to answer the questions I just asked you?” Page simply moved on.

As Angie Drobnic Holan — my Poynter colleague and editor-in-chief of PolitiFact — tweeted, “Moderators force candidates to answer questions by refusing to move on to the next question. This tactic is not an unknown secret in the world of journalism.”

That’s where Page dropped the ball. As a veteran journalist, Page should have done better.

ABC’s Martha Raddatz said, “I think one of the things is you really do have to listen to what they are saying, and then follow up. And we seem to move pretty quickly on to the next question. There were very few answers to questions that Susan Page asked and they were well-crafted questions. But you really didn’t get a lot of answers.”

Page also, far too often, let Pence in particular go well beyond his allotted time to speak. Instead of forcefully shutting Pence down, she politely just kept repeating “thank you, Mr. Vice President” over and over again while Pence ignored her and kept talking. Dickerson called it a “slow jazz kind of interruption.”

CNN’s Van Jones called Pence the “mansplainer-in-chief.” Pence might have kept talking over Page because he knew she wasn’t going to effectively stop him. It was during these moments when I wish moderators were given an airhorn to simply blast away or drown out whoever is ignoring the rules.

On Fox Business, anchor Neil Cavuto said, “I lost count how many times (Page) had to interrupt to say ‘thank you,’ but it seems she did interrupt the vice president a lot more than she did Kamala Harris. It could have been that Kamala Harris was keeping better time.”

That appeared to be the case. Either way, it was something Page could never get a handle on.

CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy wrote, “Frankly, it was inexcusable that Page did not come better prepared to enforce the agreed upon rules — especially given how last week’s debate went off the rails.”

But at least this week we had entertainment in the form of The Fly.

“I do want to say it is the first debate I have seen with a bug crawling around on one of the candidates’ head for two to three minutes,” Fox News’ Chris Wallace said, “and I don’t think we can let this evening go without mentioning that.”

In the end, at least the debate was, well, normal. And we needed normal after the presidential debate.

As Washington Post opinion columnist Alyssa Rosenberg wrote, “By comparison, the vice-presidential debate was the political equivalent of a dose of Ambien. Sure, the candidates interrupted each other and talked over moderator Susan Page. Yes, there was passive-aggressive head-shaking and the candidates taking swipes at their opponent’s past votes and positions. But even the aspects of politics that generally feel off-putting had an oddly soothing quality.”

Three quick last thoughts about Thursday night’s debate and coverage

  • If you flipped back and forth between Fox News and MSNBC, you would have found two very different reactions as to how Wednesday’s debate went. Then again, is anyone surprised by that?
  • I get that CNN likes having Rick Santorum, the former Republican senator from Pennsylvania, on its coverage to bring a GOP perspective to its panel. But, because of all the contentious back and forth between him and the rest of the panel, it’s neither good nor informative TV. In fact, it’s uncomfortable TV.
  • Did Wednesday’s debate change many votes? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t important. It was 90 minutes of two candidates talking to millions upon millions of Amerians about the future of our country. Let’s not dismiss these debates as something that doesn’t matter.

Oh, one more thing

For more coverage of Wednesday’s debate, be sure to check out PolitiFact and FactChat, led by the International Fact-Checking Network.

SPONSORED POST:

A Trint Webinar: Join Trint’s CEO & Founder Jeff Kofman (Emmy award-winning reporter and correspondent) and a panel of experts to learn how tech can enable journalists during the 2020 election. Join us at noon (EST) on October 13.

Is that it for debates?

Was Wednesday night’s debate between Pence and Harris the last of the debates this election cycle? There are two more presidential debates scheduled — next Thursday in Miami and Oct. 22 in Nashville.

But will those actually happen given the unknown of President Trump’s health? It’s hard to imagine next week’s debate happening when you consider that it would be within two weeks of when Trump said he first tested positive for COVID-19.

Washington Post opinion columnist Greg Sargent wrote, “The unsettling fact of the matter is that we don’t know when Trump last tested negative. And, with the White House refusing to answer this question, it’s reasonable to wonder whether we can trust anything more they say on the state of his health going forward.”

Sargent is correct. We have no idea when Trump last tested negative, and the White House could be staying quiet on purpose if Trump actually knew he was positive and still traveled to meet supporters, as well as being around White House staffers. CNN’s Jim Acosta reported Wednesday evening that the White House confirmed Trump was not being tested daily before he tested positive late last week. And, as The New York Times wrote, we can’t be certain how long a COVID-19 patient is infectious. Biden has said there should be no debate if Trump “still has COVID.”

The problem is: Can anyone trust the word of the White House when it comes to Trump’s COVID-19 after the lack of transparency so far?

Avoid the White House if you can

A member of the cleaning staff sprays the James Brady Briefing Room of the White House on Monday. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The White House Correspondents’ Association put out an update Wednesday, telling members, “In the immediate days ahead, we continue to insist that journalists who are not in the pool and do not have an enclosed workspace refrain from entering the indoor press areas of the White House. We would also strongly encourage all journalists to avoid working from the White House grounds entirely if it can be avoided.”

The gist of the letter is that the journalists better take extra care to stay safe because the White House is not. The letter said:

“We have communicated to the White House that, as a press corps, we would like more information to evaluate our own potential exposure. We have pressed for them to provide updates on known and suspected infections so that reporters can as soon as possible know if they and their families have been put at risk. The administration, citing privacy concerns, has not provided additional details.”

The WHCA said that, as of Wednesday, three journalists who cover the White House have tested positive for COVID-19. It added that “dozens and dozens” of tests have been conducted on other White House media members.

After the update, The New York Times’ Katie Robertson reported that BuzzFeed News pulled political correspondent Kadia Goba from her Wednesday shift out of concern for her safety.

Goba told the Times, “Anyone that knows me understands I’d rather be at the White House working today, but at the same time, there are obvious concerns about working indoors during an outbreak. … I don’t want to be knocked out for the rest of the election because I’m sick.”

The latest polls on the coronavirus

A new study from Pew Research shows that “before Trump tested positive for (the) coronavirus, Republicans’ attention to (the) pandemic had sharply declined.” In addition, the study shows that about six in 10 Americans say the country has not controlled the coronavirus as much as it could have, while four in 10 believe the outbreak has been overblown.

As expected, there are differences in opinions based on political parties. About 68% of Republicans say the outbreak has been controlled as much as it could have in the U.S., but 88% of Democrats disagree. Overall, 61% say the U.S. has not controlled COVID-19 as well as it could have, while 37% say it has.

The New York Times endorses …

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in Wilmington, Delaware, on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The New York Times editorial board is endorsing Joe Biden for president.

Interestingly, the editorial never mentions Donald Trump by name, but clearly criticizes Trump in how it compliments what it feels are Biden’s strengths: experience and temperament. The board writes, “Mr. Biden has also vowed to ‘restore the soul of America.’ It is a painful reminder that the country is weaker, angrier, less hopeful and more divided than it was four years ago.”

The endorsement closes with, “Mr. Biden isn’t a perfect candidate and he wouldn’t be a perfect president. But politics is not about perfection. It is about the art of the possible and about encouraging America to embrace its better angels.”

In a separate piece, acting editorial page editor Kathleen Kingsbury explained the choice, writing, “Readers might notice that the board’s endorsement of Mr. Biden makes no mention of Donald Trump. The case for the former vice president needs no foil to make it stronger.”

The Boston Globe editorial board also has endorsed Biden for president.

Media tidbits

  • For 16 years, the Modern Love column in The New York Times has shown “the complicated love lives of real people.” Now the Times is relaunching its “Modern Love” podcast hosted by Daniel Jones, the editor and creator of Modern Love, and Miya Lee, the editor of Tiny Love Stories and Modern Love projects. The first episode of the new 10-episode season will debut on Oct. 14 and a new episode will come out each Wednesday.
  • The National Post’s Tyler Dawson reports that the CBC is looking to cut more than 60 jobs across multiple divisions, including news.
  • President Trump is expected to call in to Maria Bartiromo’s show on Fox Business this morning at 8 a.m. It will be his first interview since his COVID-19 diagnosis.

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

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