By:
February 26, 2020

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Assigning blame for last night’s crazy train

Moderating a debate is not easy. We know that because we’ve seen more examples of it done poorly than done well.

While it’s a difficult job, unfortunately the CBS moderators in Tuesday’s Democratic debate had a lousy night.

Chaos was the theme. There was yelling, there were insults, talking over one another and constant interruptions. In short, it was a mess. The candidates, certainly, played a big role in the disorder, but the moderators did little to stop it. At times, they enabled it.

At one point, candidate Joe Biden said, “I guess the only way you do this is to jump in and talk twice as long as you’re supposed to.”

Moderators didn’t cut off candidates when they should have and cut them off when they shouldn’t have. The result was a free-for-all that produced a debate that was short on substance and long on disarray.

Last week’s debate, hosted by NBC/MSNBC, featured plenty of yelling and attacks, yet it never felt like it had flown off the rails. That’s because the moderators managed to maintain some control. The NBC/MSNBC moderators walked the fine line of letting the candidates go after one another and keeping the debate moving forward. They weren’t perfect and it was far from the best debate of this election cycle, but it was solid.

An argument could be made that Tuesday night’s debate was the worst so far. CBS’s moderators — “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell, “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King, “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan, chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett and “60 Minutes” correspondent Bill Whitaker — have to take a bulk of the blame for that.

There was no natural flow to the questions, which seemed to jump wildly from topic to topic. The first health question was about sugary drinks in New York City and NOT coronavirus, which incredibly didn’t come up until 83 minutes into the debate. The hop-scotching of questions allowed candidates to run wild and the moderators seemed ill-prepared or unwilling to stop it.

It’s rare for news organizations to criticize one another, but CBS’s performance was so shaky that it was widely panned by other media during and after the debate. CNN’s chief media correspondent Brian Stelter tweeted, “Debates are hard. TV news rivalries are hardcore. That said, debate pros at other TV networks are exchanging messages calling this a ‘disaster,’ a ‘nightmare’ and worse.”

“There were points when, unfortunately, the moderators seemed to lose control of the debate,” CNN commentator Gloria Borger said in the post-debate coverage. “And any sort of moments that could have had for a decent statement and somebody responding to a statement that was made about them just kind of erupted into free-for-alls. … Of course, every candidate there was thinking, ‘Uh oh, I’ve got to do well here because this could be it for me.’ … So it’s difficult to be a moderator in this case, but you needed to control it. And it was out of control.”

Part of moderating is about feel — a feel for when to allow candidates to go beyond the time limit, a feel for when to allow candidates to go after each other, a feel for when to keep the candidates from taking over control of the debate. And there were too many instances when the moderators just didn’t have that feel.

The result was a disorganized debate that likely left voters more confused than ever.

On CNN after the debate, candidate Amy Klobuchar said, “Well, it was another slugfest and I don’t necessarily think that serves the people who were watching.”

Know who didn’t serve the people who were watching? CBS’s poor moderators.

Trump and Acosta spar; everyone loses


President Donald Trump during a news conference Tuesday in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

President Donald Trump and CNN’s Jim Acosta had another disrespectful exchange during a news conference Tuesday in New Delhi. Acosta was asking Trump about possible Russian interference in the election and Trump took the opportunity to go after CNN.

During his answer, Trump said, “And if you see what CNN, your wonderful network, said, I guess they apologized in a way for — didn’t they apologize for the fact that they said certain things that weren’t true? Tell me, what was their apology yesterday? What did they say?”

Acosta shot back, “Mr. President, I think our record on delivering the truth is a lot better than yours sometimes.”

Trump responded with, “Let me tell you about your record, your record is so bad you ought to be ashamed of yourself. You have the worst record in the history of broadcasting.”

“I’m not ashamed of anything and our organization is not ashamed,” Acosta replied.

These two have a history of sparring at news conferences. On Tuesday, Trump drew Acosta into the conversation by asking Acosta a direct question about CNN’s credibility. And while Trump’s behavior was less than presidential, these exchanges make Acosta look worse than Trump. The story ends up being about Acosta and, ultimately, brings Acosta’s professionalism and objectivity into question. Bottom line: it’s just a bad look for Acosta.

The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr, who was attending a Common Ground International event featuring Fox News’ Chris Wallace and The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman at Columbia University on Tuesday, tweeted out that Wallace said he was “horrified” with Acosta’s back-and-forth with Trump.

Wallace said, “It’s not our job to get in fights with presidents, it’s not our job to one-up the president.” Barr tweeted that Haberman agreed that reporters should not be fighting with Trump.

Fox stays handily on top


Fox News’ primetime hosts, from left to right, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. (Photo courtesy of Fox News)

Fox News had a big February. How big? Its best ever in primetime.

During February, Fox News averaged 3.5 million total viewers in primetime — best among the three major cable news networks and the best in the 24-year history of the network. (MSNBC had 1.78 million and CNN had 1.05 million.)

The Fox News primetime lineup of Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham certainly have had a lot to talk about with impeachment, the State of the Union, Democratic debates, and Democratic caucuses and primaries. All three had their best months ever with Hannity drawing 4.3 million total viewers, followed by Carlson (4.115 million) and Ingraham (3.6 million).

Fox News’ ratings were up 35% compared to February of 2019.

Speaking of ratings …

ABC’s “World News Tonight” is the most-watched network evening news program at the moment. Last week, “World News Tonight” with anchor David Muir drew 9.03 million viewers. “NBC Nightly News” with Lester Holt was next with 7.79 million viewers. In third was “CBS Evening News” with Norah O’Donnell at 5.57 million viewers.

Newspaper union keeps picking up steam

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

The NewsGuild, with a long run of successful organizing over the past several years, has racked up three new drives to form chapters in just the last week. All are at substantial Florida papers — the Palm Beach Post, acquired by GateHouse/Gannett from Cox in March 2018; the Fort Myers News Press/Naples Daily News, Gannett titles in the southwest part of the state; and the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing property.

Another Guild unit is in formation at the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in Cheyenne.

Other additions over the last six months have included the Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald, the Arizona Republic and the South Bend (Indiana) Tribune. Before that, there was the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.

While the union cannot stop layoffs and buyouts, it can seek raises and defend benefit programs for its members. Nationally the union has campaigned to raise awareness of hedge fund acquisitions and how damaging a shrinking local news effort is to communities.

No comments list expands

Add Cleveland.com and Syracuse.com to the list of websites killing the comments sections under their stories.

Cleveland.com editor Chris Quinn pointed to incivility as the biggest reason why. He wrote, “Let’s face it: The comments on our site do not reflect you. The people of Northeast Ohio are warm-hearted, generous and caring. When we are going about our days, we greet each other with smiles and hugs and good cheer. But anyone getting their impression of our region from comments on our site would think we are the grumpiest, meanest people in America.”

In a letter to readers, Tim Kennedy, the president of Advance Media New York, which owns Syracuse.com, said, “Despite a significant investment of resources devoted to monitoring and moderating the comments, the conversations too often devolve into off-topic and hateful discourse.”

In addition, like other outlets that have killed the comments section, Syracuse.com found that a small percentage of its users actually comment. Kennedy said Syracuse.com averages 4 million unique visitors each month and only 3,500 participate in the comments.

Quinn and Kennedy said readers can use social media and direct emails to reporters and editors to share their comments.

Dancing on a grave


(AP Photo/David Kohl, File)

Not long after ESPN announced Monday that it was canceling its afternoon show “High Noon” with Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre, Fox Sports Radio’s Clay Travis tweeted this:

“New ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro is systemically wiping out pretty much every vestige of woke sports on the network. It’s a smart move because woke sports doesn’t rate and never has. Two latest casualties.”

That didn’t sit well with ESPN’s Dan Le Batard, who told a story about how Travis once posted an out-of-context photo of Le Batard with former ESPN president John Skipper. So on his show Tuesday, Le Batard commented about that photo and Travis:

“It’s totally unfair but it’s what this dude traffics in. He’s a lawyer. He’s an otherwise smart person. Maybe he’s smart for just doing this for profit but I really do question the sincerity. He’s carved his own lane, but it’s a hateful lane. It’s a divisive lane. It’s a profitable lane for him, but he’s the one who’s got to wake up in the morning and look in the mirror.”

Tuesday’s big media business news


Bob Iger. (Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX)

There were two huge media business stories on Tuesday.

Bob Iger, abruptly and unexpectedly, stepped down as CEO of the Walt Disney Company effectively immediately. In a statement, Iger said, “With the successful launch of Disney’s direct-to-consumer businesses and the integration of Twenty-First Century Fox well underway, I believe this is the optimal time to transition to a new CEO.”

Iger will remain executive chairman through the end of his contract on Dec. 31, 2021. Still, industry insiders are trying to wrap their brains around the suddenness of his departure as CEO and what this all means. And does this mean anything for Disney+, ABC and ESPN or will it be business as usual?

Bob Chapek — who most recently served as chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products — will be the new CEO.

Meanwhile, an investor group led by former Viacom executive Wade Davis has agreed to acquire a 64% majority stake in Univision Communications for an unknown amount. Mexican TV’s Televisia will retain its stake of about 36%.

Davis will become the chief executive. He told the Los Angeles Times, “I am no stranger to the headwinds in the domestic television business. But I really look at Univision as the single most attractive asset in media today. Univision has a powerful and unique relationship with its audience.”

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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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