January 16, 2020

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Hot takes abound after Tuesday’s debate

Good Thursday morning. Before we get to the rest of the newsletter, here are some leftover thoughts from Tuesday night’s Democratic debate.

First off, nice comeback for the Dems in terms of interest. The debate averaged 7.3 million viewers on CNN, which is up more than a million from the 6.2 million for December’s debate on PBS and CNN.

(Oh, quick side note: the “Jeopardy Greatest of All Time” tournament drew huge TV numbers: 14.4 million, 14.8 million, 15.4 million and 13.5 million for the four nights.)

Let’s see if the Democrats can keep interest up because plenty of debates are on the way. Debates are scheduled for Feb. 7 in New Hampshire, Feb. 19 in Las Vegas and Feb. 25 in South Carolina. That’s three in only 19 days and the potential for debate fatigue. This is after seven debates so far.

FiveThirtyEight’s Maggie Koerth wrote, “The downside to having had this many Democratic primary debates already is that it all kind of feels predictable and unsurprising at this point. But realistically, this is the point where most voters actually start to tune in, right?”

We shall see.

Maybe a heavy rotation of debates made things more difficult for CNN on Tuesday. I mean, there are only so many times you can ask candidates how they are going to pay for their healthcare plans or why they have what it takes to be commander-in-chief. Whatever the reason, 24 hours after the latest debate, reviews of Tuesday’s moderators performance were mixed. #CNNisTrash was trending on Twitter for a while during and after the debate. I criticized Abby Phillip’s question of Bernie Sanders that essentially called him a liar over his denials that he ever told Elizabeth Warren that a woman couldn’t be elected president.

HuffPost’s Zach Carter had a story with the headline: “CNN Completely Botched The Democratic Presidential Debate.” Carter wrote that the questions were “terrible” and “awful.”  “… They were the focus of CNN’s tedious, interminable, frivolous debate on Tuesday night ― a fiasco of irrelevance held three weeks before the Iowa caucuses.” He also called it the worst debate of this cycle so far.

Rolling Stone called CNN’s performance “Villainous and shameful.” Writer Matt Taibbi wrote, “Over a 24-hour period before, during, and after the debate, CNN bid farewell to what remained of its reputation as a nonpolitical actor via a remarkable stretch of factually dubious reporting, bent commentary, and heavy-handed messaging.”

That seems a little too strong. I don’t believe CNN has permanently sullied its reputation. And Phillip’s question notwithstanding, I thought the moderators did a decent job. But perhaps the night can be a cautionary tale for ABC, NBC and CBS, which (in that order) host the next three debates. The stakes are getting higher and the scrutiny is getting more intense.

Hot mic

This juicy story broke Wednesday night. CNN found the backup audio feed of an awkward exchange between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on stage immediately after Tuesday’s debate. Warren walked over to Sanders and did not shake his hand. Then, referring to the controversy of whether or not Sanders ever told her a woman could not be elected president, Warren said to Sanders, “I think you called me a liar on national TV.”

Sanders said, “What?”

Warren: “I think you called me a liar on national TV.”

Sanders tried to diffuse the situation by saying then wasn’t the time to have that discussion.

Was it supposed to be a private conversation? Did CNN cross a line?

Well, for starters, we can’t even be sure Warren expected the conversation to be private. For all we know, Warren might have very well known and even hoped her comments would get out. And if she didn’t know her comments would become public, she should have. It’s a stage with microphones everywhere. Warren could not have had a reasonable expectation of privacy, particularly because she made her comments right in front of another candidate — Tom Steyer.

It’s hard to find fault with anything CNN did. But this has taught the candidates and everyone else a valuable lesson: If you’re near a microphone, assume anything you say will be heard and made public.

There’s competition on the cable horizon

CNN, Fox News and MSNBC dominate the primetime TV news landscape, but someone else will try to elbow their way into that space.

WGN America, a Nexstar Media Group station based in Chicago, will launch a three-hour live nightly national newscast this summer. Makes sense — WGN reaches 75 million TV households across the country. “News Nation” will air from 8-11 p.m. and will draw on Nexstar’s 5,400 local journalists spread out over 110 newsrooms across the country. Nexstar said in a statement that the broadcast, “will deliver news reporting that is fact-based, impactful, educational and unbiased.”

A break-in we can get behind

NBC News’ Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell reporting about the latest on impeachment proceedings on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of NBC News)

Interesting to see just how seriously the major networks are treating the impeachment of President Donald Trump. All networks, especially cable, tend to play fast and loose with over-the-top anchors and graphics screaming “At this moment: important, breaking news!” even if the news is neither important nor breaking.

But cutting into regular programming is a sure sign of what the networks believe is truly important and breaking. Take Wednesday, when NBC broke in at 10:08 a.m. with the news that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had named House managers for the impeachment trial.

Anchor Chuck Todd was joined by NBC News chief political foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, who said of Pelosi, “She’s trying to emphasize that witnesses need to be called, and if they’re not called, it is a sham trial. This is a big bet for Pelosi because by demanding John Bolton, they risk the Republicans saying, ‘OK, bring on Hunter Biden.’ And do they really want to see Hunter Biden in the middle of a 2020 campaign being deposed, someone who is not used to being in that spotlight?”

The special report ended at 10:26 a.m., making it a strong 18-minute segment with truly breaking news and solid perspective telling viewers what it all means.

NBC was far from done. When articles of impeachment were delivered to the Senate, the network  broke in again with anchor Lester Holt leading the coverage. NBC News’ special report lasted from 5:17-5:51 p.m. and included reports from the network’s top political reporters.

Is this his idea of fun?

Here’s a disturbing story out of Michigan. A 22-year-old female reporter was trying to ask a 59-year-old male Michigan state senator about a controversy and he ended up telling her that a group of teenage boys could “have a lot of fun” with her. She wrote about the exchange for her news outlet, Michigan Advance.

Allison Donahue wanted to ask Sen. Peter Lucido outside the Senate chamber if he belonged to a violent, anti-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer Facebook group, which has been deleted. Before talking to Donahue, Lucido said he first wanted to honor a group of boys from De La Salle Collegiate, an all-boys Catholic high school which also happens to be Lucido’s alma mater.

Lucido asked if Donahue had heard of the school and then, according to Donahue, Lucido said, “You should hang around! You could have a lot of fun with these boys, or they could have a lot of fun with you.”

Donahue wrote, “The teenagers burst into an Old Boys’ Network-type of laughter, and I walked away knowing that I had been the punchline of their ‘locker room’ talk. Except it wasn’t the locker room; it was the Senate chamber. And this isn’t high school. It’s my career.”

Later, Donahue confronted Lucido about the remark and Lucido told her he meant no harm. When asked by the Detroit Free Press, Lucido first said his comments were taken out of context and he had no reason to apologize to the reporter. But later, he put out a statement that said, “I apologize for the misunderstanding yesterday and for offending Allison Donahue.”

In her piece, Donahue said, “Maybe he truly means that he never intended to cause harm with his comments, but that doesn’t excuse how we normalize this behavior from men in power.”

A real film about something fake

CNN’s Brian Stelter. (Photo by John Nacion/STAR MAX)

What is the cost of fake news?

HBO will delve into the topic with the help of CNN media reporter Brian Stelter. He is executive producer on an Andrew Rossi documentary titled “After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News,” which is scheduled to debut in March.

HBO describes the doc as examining, “the rising phenomenon of ‘fake news’ in the U.S. and the impact that disinformation, conspiracy theories and false news stories have on the average citizen.”

The film will focus on several cases, including the 2016 presidential election, “Pizzagate,” and the Jade Helm conspiracy.

This is not the first time Rossi and Stelter have crossed paths in a film about the news business. Rossi directed the 2011 film, “Page One: Inside the New York Times.” At the time, Stelter was a Times media reporter and was featured in Rossi’s film.

A big handoff in Philly

Big news from the Philadelphia Inquirer. CEO and publisher Terrance C.Z. Egger is retiring and will be replaced by Lisa Hughes, who will become the first female publisher of the Inquirer in its 190-year history. Hughes is on the Inquirer’s board of directors and is the former VP and publisher of the New Yorker magazine.

In its story, the Inquirer pointed out that Hughes has not worked in local news other than being on the Inquirer’s board of directors. But according to the story, she was selected for her business experience helping to lead The New Yorker’s “transformation from a legacy brand dependent on print advertising into a digital player that leans more on reader revenue.”

Not leaving ‘The View’ quietly

Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Abby Huntsman might be leaving “The View” at the end of the week, but she’s going out with a bang. On Wednesday, she had a tense exchange with Democratic presidential hopeful Mike Bloomberg. Huntsman asked Bloomberg about his refusal to release women from non-disclosure agreements following reports of sexual harassment lawsuits at his media company. Among those reports is that Bloomberg allegedly made crude comments and created an uncomfortable workplace environment.

Huntsman asked Bloomberg what he has to hide.

Bloomberg said, “We don’t have anything to hide, but we made legal agreements which both sides wanted to keep things from coming out. They have a right to do that. Remember, just because you signed a non-disclosure doesn’t mean you can’t talk about other things. You just can’t talk about what was in that agreement.”

The NY Times never stops pioneering

The New York Times is known for its breaking news scoops, but it also wants to be known for its outstanding writing. So it’s starting something new called “The Great Read.”

Here’s how executive editor Dean Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn describe it: “Each weekday, the mobile feed and the homepage will prominently feature a sparkling piece of writing, offering delight and serendipity beyond the day’s headlines.”

The first piece is up — it’s Ellen Barry’s story of how a Maine paper mill found an unexpected savior in a Chinese tycoon.

Hot type

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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…
Tom Jones

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