February 20, 2020

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It’s a free for all

The Democrats held a presidential debate in Las Vegas Wednesday night and a no-holds-barred battle royale broke out.

Pete Buttigieg tangled with Amy Klobuchar. Bernie Sanders duked it out with Joe Biden. And everybody jumped off the top rope to pile on the new guy, Mike Bloomberg.

“That was quite a debate,” Klobuchar said in her closing remarks.

It was nasty, bitter and sarcastic. And NBC’s moderators handed the candidates the matches they needed to start a fire.

Was it petty or passionate? Was it productive or destructive? That’s up for voters to decide. But it sure was something to watch. Right out of the gate, moderator Lester Holt teed up the candidates to go after Bloomberg. Those attacks on Bloomberg were expected, but they might have been even more vicious than anyone saw coming, especially Bloomberg. No one went after him more than Elizabeth Warren.

“This was a disaster for Bloomberg,” CNN’s Van Jones said during the post-debate coverage. “Titanic meet Iceberg — Elizabeth Warren.”

The candidates were in a fighting mood, and NBC moderators, perhaps sensing the simmering tensions, got out of the way and let the candidates have at it. Was that the right call? It may have made for a questionable debate, but it certainly made for good television.

Moderators Jon Ralston of The Nevada Independent and Noticias Telemundo’s Vanessa Hauc had little air time, as Holt, Chuck Todd and Hallie Jackson asked most of the questions. But it’s almost as if the candidates didn’t even need moderators. No matter what was asked, the candidates seemed intent on confronting one another. It turned into an all-out brawl.

Instead of talking about their strengths, the candidates spent more time talking about their opponents’ flaws. And they spent more time criticizing each other than they did criticizing President Donald Trump.

Somehow, the moderators managed to maintain enough control to keep the debate from totally spiraling — call it controlled chaos.

It wasn’t necessarily the best moderated debate we’ve seen so far, but it was pretty good. Give the moderators credit for taking the temperature of the room and allowing the candidates to naturally take the debate where they wanted, even if they wanted to take it down a back alley. They let the candidates be the focus of the night, and that’s what moderators of a debate are supposed to do.

Post-debate coverage

Both CNN and MSNBC had strong post-debate coverage.

CNN’s Erin Burnett did a superb job interviewing the candidates (better than the much-too-verbose Chris Matthews over at MSNBC). She challenged them on key moments during the debate, as well as asking several candidates whether the tone of the night was too nasty or just right.

CNN also had a new addition: Andrew Yang, making his debut after recently dropping out of the race. He brought an excellent perspective, including pointing out that Bloomberg’s rough night might have been due to a lack of preparation. Yang, speaking from experience, said that until a candidate knows for sure that he or she is in a debate, preparing can be difficult. Bloomberg didn’t qualify until Tuesday.

“I don’t think he was coached hard enough,” Yang said.

Meantime, MSNBC’s post-debate coverage was highlighted by the always-interesting Claire McCaskill, who pointed out that while Sanders is leading the Democratic pack at the moment, he’s far from the majority choice.

“That’s not the way we want to go into an election this year,” the former Democratic senator from Missouri said. “So you have to hope that there is some coalescing and the thing that’s bad about this point in the campaigns is that it’s very hard to do that gut-check moment where you got to get out. And some of these candidates are going to have to get out either voluntarily or the money is just going to dry up.”

One final debate thought

Just worth mentioning: while it’s easy in the moment to get caught up in a debate and make hot-take proclamations of campaigns surging and falling and dying, we need to remember just how few people were watching. Numbers will come out today, but the guess is fewer than 10 million were tuning in. The last debate in New Hampshire had 7.6 million viewers. The one before that in Iowa had 7.3 million viewers. There’s a chance that Bloomberg’s appearance might have made for a bump, but not THAT big of a bump.

This is not to suggest that the debate didn’t matter and many will read and watch the highlights from Wednesday night. But those who watched the debate need to be careful to not overreact because so many were not watching.

The next debate

Before Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate even started, CBS announced the moderators for the next debate, which is next Tuesday in South Carolina. And it’s a star panel led by “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell, “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King and “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan. They will be joined by CBS chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett and “60 Minutes” correspondent Bill Whitaker.


Klobuchar’s upcoming town hall on Fox News

Democratic presidential hopeful Amy Klobuchar is going on Fox News for a town hall a week from today — Feb. 27. The town hall, which will air from 6:30-7:30 p.m. Eastern, will be co-moderated by Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum.

This is the second time Klobuchar is going on Fox News for a town hall. While some Democrats might be wary of going on a conservative-leaning network such as Fox News, it’s probably not a bad strategy. It’s unlikely that if Klobuchar wins the nomination that she can sway that many voters away from Donald Trump. But if you want to get in front of conservative-leaning but undecided voters, Fox News is the best place to do that.

Journalists in exile

Three journalists from the Wall Street Journal have been expelled from China because of a column that ran in the Journal earlier this month. The WSJ reports that it’s “the first time in the post-Mao era that the Chinese government has expelled multiple journalists from one international news organization at the same time.”

Deputy bureau chief Josh Chin and reporters Chao Deng and Philip Wen have been ordered to leave the country within five days. The Chinese government is upset over the headline of an opinion column that read, “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said, “Regrettably, what the WSJ has done so far is nothing but parrying and dodging its responsibility. The Chinese people do not welcome those media that speak racially discriminatory language and maliciously slander and attack China.”

It should be noted that the three expelled journalists work for the WSJ’s news division, while the column ran in the opinion section, which is completely separate from news.

William Lewis, who is the chief executive of Dow Jones and publisher of the WSJ, said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed” in China’s decision and urged it to reconsider, adding, “Our opinion pieces regularly publish articles with opinions that people disagree — or agree — with and it was not our intention to cause offense with the headline on the piece. However, this has clearly caused upset and concern amongst the Chinese people, which we regret.”

Further complicating this matter is whether the journalists can even leave because of concerns over the coronavirus. As an example, The New York Times’ Alexandra Stevenson reported, “Ms. Deng is currently reporting in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak and the site of a lockdown that makes it nearly impossible for most people to leave.”

The greatest sports call of all time?

Al Michaels, right, talks to NBC’s Mike Tirico about his famous call in the 1980 Olympics. (Photo courtesy of NBC Sports)

“Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

That’s my pick for the greatest sports call of all time in the greatest moment in American sports history. That was Al Michaels’ famous line when the U.S. Olympic hockey team made up of a bunch of college kids upset the mighty Russians in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.

Hard to believe that this week is the 40th anniversary of what became known as the “Miracle on Ice.”

In a special that aired Wednesday night on NBC Sports (and will likely air again), Michaels said, “I almost hear it now in the third person. I’m excited because I know it’s going to happen and I know it’s going to be said, but it’s like someone else is doing it and I’m just going to exult in what’s happening. I mean, this was such a great moment, I want to be a fan at that point.”

Journalism awards season kicking off

It’s awards season in journalism. National awards for work done in 2019 will be announced on a fairly regular basis over the next couple of months. On Wednesday, the George Polk Awards — handed out by Long Island University — were named, with The New York Times’ “The 1619 Project” and The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock and his “The Afghanistan Papers” as the notable winners.

But also noteworthy was the category of political reporting which was split by The Wichita (Kansas) Eagle and The Baltimore Sun. What’s noteworthy about that? The Eagle is owned by McClatchy, which declared bankruptcy earlier this month, and the Sun is owned by Tribune Publishing, which also is undergoing financial hardships.

Journalism’s most prestigious awards, the Pulitzer Prizes, are expected to be announced in April, and the Polk Awards might not only be a bellwether for the Pulitzers, but an example of just how competitive this year’s Pulitzer Prizes will be.


This and that

  • I’ve mentioned this before, but I don’t know that there’s a more engaging show on TV that “CBS Sunday Morning.” I mention this now because last week, it delivered 5.359 million viewers, making it the most watched Sunday morning news program for the 580th consecutive week — a streak that goes back to the first week of January in 2009.

  • Vulture’s “Good One” podcast — which is about jokes and the people who tell them — is relaunching under the Vox Media Podcast Network. This is following Vox Media’s merger with New York Media last fall. “Good One” will drop a new episode every Tuesday and feature comedians such as Michelle Wolf, Ronny Chieng and Michelle Buteau. Here’s a trailer for it.

  • Lesley Visser will become the first woman to receive the Sports Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Sports Emmy Awards on April 28 in New York. Visser is the only sportscaster — male or female — to have worked on network broadcasts of the Final Four, the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, the Olympics, the World Series, the Triple Crown, the World Figure Skating Championship and U.S. Open tennis. She also was a sideline reporter on “Monday Night Football.” Visser is in her 30th year at CBS and 45th in broadcasting.

  • Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron will be the main speaker at this spring’s Harvard commencement ceremonies. Before the Post, Baron worked near Harvard as the top editor at the Boston Globe. While there, the Globe’s “Spotlight” investigative team won a Pulitzer for its coverage of Catholic priests sexually abusing kids and the church covering it up. The story was the basis for the 2015 film “Spotlight,” which won the Academy Award for best picture.


In Wednesday’s newsletter, I juxtaposed the names of NASCAR drivers Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin in a couple of spots. I apologize. I can’t even use the excuse that I’m not a sports person because I spent more than 30 years as a sportswriter. By the way, the best thing on Twitter on Wednesday? A photo of Newman walking out of the hospital holding the hands of his children. That photo didn’t seem possible this soon after Newman was involved in a horrific crash at the end of Monday’s Daytona 500.

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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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  • “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant” (Russ Hodges) and “Havlicek stole the ball! Havlicek stole the ball!” (Johnny Most)are two more memorable calls but this from Jack Buck is my favorite: