By:
October 21, 2020

You would think that being named moderator for this week’s presidential debate will certainly be among the career highlights for NBC News’ Kristen Welker.

But such an honor also comes with plenty of baggage. The debate is still a day away and already President Donald Trump is complaining about Welker being unfair. And regardless of how she performs Thursday night, there’s a good chance that at least half the audience is going to be upset with her, depending on how the candidates perform.

See, that’s often how it works: If a candidate does well, it’s the candidate’s doing. If the candidate doesn’t do well, it’s the moderator’s fault.

So knowing that half the audience, if not more, is already predisposed to criticizing a moderator before the start of the debate, a moderator needs to plow forward worried only about what he/she needs to do, not how it’s going to be perceived by those who they are never going to make happy anyway.

A moderator needs to worry, mostly, about two things: asking really good questions and keeping the candidates in check. And keeping them in check means making sure they don’t speak when they’re not supposed to and getting them to answer the questions they are asked.

Good luck with that.

The debate commission is trying to help. After two debates (one presidential and one vice presidential) full of interruptions and candidates ignoring time limits, the debate commission announced microphones will be muted for portions of this debate, allowing the other candidate to speak without interruption.

But Welker, too, will need to be on her best game. Just because microphones will be muted doesn’t mean the candidates won’t be able to talk. If Trump decides to talk while Biden is speaking, the audience might not be able to hear Trump, but Biden will hear him, and that could cause issues that Welker will need to address. And there’s even a chance that Trump’s voice will be picked up by other microphones on the stage.

Trump is already griping about the microphones being muted, calling it “crazy” and saying “there’s nothing fair about this debate.”

However it plays out, it could quickly devolve into a repeat of what we saw in the first debate. And if that happens, Welker will take some of the blame. Perhaps, unfairly so.

I say unfairly because what is she to do? If the candidates — and, let’s be honest, I’m talking about Trump — refuse to listen to Welker’s requests/demands/pleas to stop talking, there’s really nothing she can do. Trump knows this and there have been reports that it’s his strategy to constantly interrupt Biden in order to throw Biden off.

Welker can try her best, and perhaps she can take some lessons from her NBC colleague Savannah Guthrie, who just kept talking during the Trump town hall last week until Trump was forced to listen to her.

Either way, Welker’s work is cut out for her on what could be the best and worst night of her career.

Is there a problem?

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Pennsylvania on Tuesday night. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

“60 Minutes” has an interview scheduled to air this Sunday with President Trump. And it could turn out to be something. On Tuesday afternoon, CNN White House reporter Kaitlan Collins tweeted, “Apparently there was some drama while President Trump was taping his 60 Minutes interview today. He abruptly ended his solo interview after around 45 minutes & did not return for a scheduled walk & talk he was supposed to tape with Pence, @abdallahcnn and I are told by sources.”

Collins also tweeted, “Biden and Harris were also interviewed by 60 Minutes & all are scheduled to appear in the same program. While Biden and Harris taped their interviews separately, Trump and Pence were scheduled to appear on camera together. They ultimately did not and Pence taped his separately.”

Not long after, Trump started tweeting about “60 Minutes.” He first tweeted a clip of correspondent Leslie Stahl not wearing a mask. Then he tweeted that he was considering posting the interview before “60 Minutes” aired it, adding that it was “FAKE and BIASED.”

The New York Times’ Michael M. Grynbaum and Maggie Haberman reported that Trump sat for the interview for 45 minutes and it did not end when his aides expected it to. He then cut off the interview and refused to do a “walk and talk” with Stahl and Vice President Pence. As far as the mask thing, the Times reported that Stahl was wearing a mask before the interview and took it off for the interview. The clip tweeted by Trump was taken immediately after the interview before Stahl could put her mask back on.

During a rally Tuesday night, Trump said, “You have to watch what we do to ‘60 Minutes’. You’ll get a kick out of it! Leslie Stahl is not going to be happy!”

Rush Limbaugh’s grim news

Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh said on his show this week that his battle against stage 4 lung cancer is going in the “wrong direction.” Limbaugh first announced his diagnosis in February, and this is the first time since then that he has gone into details about his illness. He said a recent scan showed that the cancer has progressed.

“Stage 4 is, as they say, terminal,” Limbaugh said. “I never thought I would see Oct. 1. I never thought I would. When Oct. 1 hit on the calendar this year, I reminded myself of that — of that thought.”

Limbaugh said he is suffering from fatigue, as well as other effects from the cancer, but that he will continue to do the show as long as he is able.

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SciLine’s next media briefing, Covering Election Night: Uncertainty, Early Results, and Lessons from the Past, will occur on Thursday Oct. 22 at 2:30 p.m. Eastern. Experts will discuss tips for reporting on election night, including how to navigate ballot-counting uncertainty, declining public confidence in election systems, exit polls, and misinformation.

Google it

(STRF/STAR MAX/IPx )

Big news in tech on Tuesday: The Justice Department sued Google over claims that its search and advertising violated federal antitrust laws. As The Washington Post’s Tony Romm wrote, this could launch “what is likely to be a lengthy, bruising legal war between Washington and Silicon Valley that could have vast implications for the entire tech industry.”

In the complaint, the DOJ contends Google used exclusive business contracts and other special agreements to keep out the competition. For example, Romm wrote, “Google gained its ‘grip on distribution,’ the Justice Department found, by paying billions of dollars to become the default search application in Web browsers, on smartphones and across a wide array of other devices and services, including those offered by some of its competitors, such as Apple. This vast, unparalleled reach allowed Google to enrich itself through lucrative ads, maintain its online foothold and render it impossible for other search engines to compete, the federal lawsuit alleges.”

Google said the lawsuit is “deeply flawed.”

Pack a lunch because this one is likely to drag out a while.

What was he thinking?

There are still aftershocks from the news that Jeffrey Toobin, a reporter for The New Yorker and chief legal analyst for CNN, exposed himself (and more, reportedly) during a Zoom with colleagues. He called it an accident, but what a spectacle this has turned out to be. Everyone from those in the media to even O.J. Simpson is weighing in.

When you get through all the creepiness, mockery and, unfortunately, the jokes about what allegedly happened, you’re left to ask: Does this do serious damage to the credibility of the news organizations involved — in this case, both The New Yorker and CNN? It’s hard to see how it doesn’t. And it’s another reminder of some of the other sex-related scandals that have brought down the likes of journalists such as Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley.

Obviously, the damage done to the news outlets pales in comparison to the damage inflicted on colleagues who were forced to experience such behavior.

On the surface, this seems like an unforgivable act and that the only punishment is dismissal. However, there’s no statute of limitations on coming to a decision and it’s such a bizarre story that it seems prudent to get all the facts before calling for someone’s job. That’s not meant to defend someone for doing something that seems indefensible. It’s just, as I mentioned, such an off-the-wall story and there’s so much that those of us on the outside still don’t know.

Carton’s comeback

Radio host Craig Carton, after receiving a three-and-a-half-year sentence for defrauding investors in a ticket reselling business in 2019 (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Craig Carton’s comeback is nearly complete. Once the co-host of one of the most successful morning sports talk shows in the country on New York’s WFAN, Carton was arrested in 2017 and convicted for a Ponzi-like ticket brokering scheme that landed him in federal prison. After serving 13 months of a three-and-a-half-year sentence, Carton was released on good behavior earlier this year.

And now he’s headed back to WFAN. There have been rumors floating for weeks that a return was coming, but now several New York media columnists are reporting that Carton is finalizing a deal to return to afternoon drive on WFAN. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has more of the details of what’s next.

Carton is the subject of an insightful documentary currently airing on HBO called, “Wild Card: The Downfall of a Radio Loudmouth.” Carton was involved and cooperated for the project, and so viewers were bound to be more empathetic toward Carton and his story. But even knowing that, Carton’s story is compelling and he seemed sincere in explaining how he landed in prison and where his life is now.

Flyover takedown

Fox Sports NFL announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman took a shot — appropriately so, if you ask me — at what seems like a waste during these times. The NFL is big on military stuff, including flyovers of military jets before games. There was a flyover right before Sunday’s game in Tampa between the Bucs and Packers, even though there were only about 15,000 fans at the game because of COVID-19.

Thinking their microphones weren’t live, Aikman said, “That’s a lot of jet fuel just to do a little flyover.”

Buck said, “That’s your hard-earned money and tax dollars at work!”

Then Aikman said, “That stuff ain’t happening with a Kamala-Biden ticket. I’ll tell you that right now, partner.”

Of course, it’s that last line that had many on social media fired up, but many also were upset because they saw a criticism of the flyover as being, somehow, anti-military — which then was taken a step further to being called anti-American. And that, of course, is ridiculous.

There have been defenses for why flyovers, even in these times, are worth it. For example, ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio wrote that it gives pilots practice time and that flyovers are still a good recruiting tool. Well, maybe. But it’s not like Buck and Aikman’s comments are outlandish. As Defector’s Samer Kalaf wrote, “Even Troy Aikman, with his stilted jokes, can grasp how pointless a flyover is. All the more reason to banish them for good and reduce the NFL’s military cosplay by just a little bit.”

By Tuesday evening, Aikman took to Twitter to say, “I love a flyover but It was odd to see one over a mostly empty stadium but I am an unwavering patriot that loves this country, has always respected our flag, supported the men and women in the armed forces as well as those in uniform who serve & protect and for anyone to suggest.”

Media tidbits

  • Fox News has signed chief White House correspondent John Roberts to a new multiyear deal. Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott said, “John is one of the best journalists in all of news. His extensive reporting, featuring decades of experience and exceptional journalism skills at the White House and on the campaign trail during an unprecedented year, have contributed to the network’s unrivaled political coverage at a key moment in time. We look forward to his continued contributions for many years to come.”
  • A new VICE News/Ipsos Youth Voter Poll shows that younger Americans (18-30) could have a heavy voter turnout this election. The poll showed that 84% of the respondents say they are going to vote. Most say they will vote for Joe Biden. At the same time, respondents are not feeling good about the country at the moment: 73% say our democracy is broken. The poll also looks at other issues, such as voter suppression, the COVID-19 response and representation.

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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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