By:
October 16, 2020

Donald Trump and Joe Biden held dueling town halls Thursday night and, somehow, the earth did not spin off its axis and American democracy did not come crashing down.

Despite boycotts by celebrities, outrage from the public and even indignity from others in the media, NBC’s decision to host a Trump town hall at the exact same time ABC was holding a town hall with Biden did not break anything. In fact, it probably didn’t move the needle on this election even in the slightest.

So who had the best night of all?

NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie.

She was the star of the night, moderating the Trump town hall and pushing the president right out of the gate on the coronavirus, his own personal COVID-19 experience, whether or not he really did denounce white supremacy, QAnon, his taxes and much, much more.

In what might have been her best moment, she called out the president for his retweets, saying, “You’re the president. You’re not, like, someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever.”

That’s just an example of her outstanding effort all night long, asking tough but fair questions of Trump and then following up on voter questions by challenging him on things he said that were misleading or not true. It was contentious at times, but effective.

And while she didn’t get direct answers on topics such as Roe v. Wade and Obamacare, she doggedly questioned him on topics he tried to dodge. Unlike many others, including Biden and moderator Chris Wallace from the first presidential debate, Guthrie was somehow extremely effective in cutting off the president and getting him to listen when he went on a ramble or said something untrue. It was top-notch interviewing.

Her performance earned lots of praise from media types, such as:

Michael Barbaro, host of The New York Times “The Daily” podcast, tweeted: “FWIW– @SavannahGuthrie has figured out how to repeatedly and frequently interrupt the president in exactly the way required to actually interview him.”

Washington Post White House bureau chief Philip Rucker tweeted: “Sharp, tough questioning by @SavannahGuthrie, who is smartly following up to pin Trump down when he responds with vague or rambling answers.”

The BBC’s Nick Bryant tweeted: “Can Savannah Guthrie moderate every presidential debate?”

And on The New York Times live blog, White House reporter Maggie Haberman wrote that “Guthrie is doing the kind of take-it-to-him interview that a lot of people have wanted to see for a long time.”

Over on ABC during Biden’s town hall, moderator George Stephanopoulos mostly stayed under the radar, but that town hall had a much different vibe than the Trump town hall. It was voter-driven. Voters asked direct questions and Biden seemed to give direct answers, meaning Stephanopoulos didn’t have to step in as often. There were moments when Stephanopoulos should’ve reeled Biden in when Biden’s answers became long-winded. But, perhaps he let Biden go out of respect, and it did make for a more calm town hall.

As veteran journalist Katie Couric tweeted near the end of the Biden event, which ended 30 minutes later than Trump’s: “My blood pressure is now down significantly. @JoeBiden is coming across as sincere and humble.”

In the end, both Trump and Biden were probably pleased with their nights. Stephanopoulos certainly had a good night.

But it was Guthrie who had the best night of all.

Tuning in

Donald Trump arrives in Miami for Thursday night’s town hall. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Prediction: When the TV ratings come out today, look for Trump’s town hall to have drawn more eyes than the Biden town hall. There are a couple of reasons for that. One, Biden’s town hall was only on ABC, while Trump’s town hall was on NBC, MSNBC and CNBC.

The other reason? Going in, the Trump town hall had the greater “off the rails” factor, meaning people might have been more curious to tune in to see what wild thing Trump might say as opposed to the more predictable Biden.

Whatever the reason, expect the Trump town hall to have had more viewers, and also expect Trump to brag about that at some point today. And, as you should always remember, TV ratings only count the TV audience, not those who watch on streaming services and elsewhere on the internet.

Moneymaker

While we can all weigh on the town halls and how the networks should be committed to democracy and ethics and doing what’s best for American citizens and so forth, perhaps we need to remind ourselves that networks also are in the business of drawing viewers and, most importantly to them, advertising dollars.

Keep that in mind as I tell you that Variety’s Brian Steinberg reports that ABC and NBC were asking for an average cost of $198,000 for a 30-second commercial during Thursday night’s town halls.

As Steinberg points out, that’s nowhere near the money networks can get for top-tier programming, such as the National Football League. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” for example, might draw three times that. However, the ad dollars for the town halls are in line with a presidential debate and certainly more than what the networks are getting now for the reruns and reality shows that are airing during a pandemic that has shut down the production of many first-rate dramas and sitcoms.

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Debatable behavior

Thursday night’s dueling town halls were a result of the second presidential debate being canceled. Just when you think all that couldn’t get more controversial, here comes this news: Steve Scully, the C-SPAN political director, has been suspended after he admitted that he lied about his Twitter feed being hacked. Scully was supposed to moderate the second debate.

It all started last week when President Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that Scully was a “never Trumper” because, back in 1978, Scully worked as an intern in Biden’s office for about a month. In a since-deleted tweet, Scully said to former White House director of communications Anthony Scaramucci, “@Scaramucci should I respond to trump.”

Scaramucci wrote back, “Ignore. He is having a hard enough time.”

When the exchange made news, Scully claimed his Twitter feed was hacked. But, on Thursday, Scully admitted that was a lie.

“These were both errors in judgment for which I am totally responsible for,” Scully said. “I apologize.”

He added that he let down his colleagues at C-SPAN, other journalists and the debate commission, saying, “I ask for their forgiveness as I try to move forward in a moment of reflection and disappointment in myself.”

In a statement, C-SPAN said, “He understands that he made a serious mistake. We were very saddened by this news and do not condone his actions.”

According to the Associated Press’ David Bauder, who broke the suspension story, Scully will not be a part of C-SPAN’s election night coverage. But he is expected to return eventually. The network said, “After some distance from this episode, we believe in his ability to continue to contribute to C-SPAN.”

This is C-SPAN’s biggest controversy since … uh, ever?  The network is known for never being controversial or even the slightest bit biased — so much so that it’s often the subject of parodies on shows such as “Saturday Night Live” for being boring.

While many on social media were calling for Scully’s firing, Scully did have at least one supporter: Scaramucci, who tweeted: “Brutal outcome for a silly non political tweet. Nothing objectionable. Cancel culture going too far.”

The president also weighed in, tweeting: “I was right again! Steve Scully just admitted he was lying about his Twitter being hacked. The Debate was Rigged! He was suspended from @cspan indefinitely. The Trump Campaign was not treated fairly by the ‘Commission’. Did I show good instincts in being the first to know?”

Tweet of the day

This, from Axios media reporter Sara Fischer. How true:

“We’re just weeks away from election, and in past few days, the media has really become the story

– FB, Twitter & NYPost fiasco turns into a censorship battle

– ABC, NBC dueling town halls have press critics calling foul on NBC

– Scully saga drags the rarely controversial CSPAN”

Oops, the NYT did it again

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

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

The New York Times’ terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week continued with an embarrassing mistake in a routine local story. The news was that Amy Cooper — the white woman who this spring called police, falsely saying she was being threatened by a Black bird-watcher in Central Park —  made two 911 calls, not just one.

During the second call, the Times reported, Cooper claimed that he had assaulted her. In fact, a subsequent correction noted, Cooper only charged that he tried to assault her. I stumbled on the gaffe as a reader but checking back in the evening I saw that a homepage headline still had not been fixed. By Thursday afternoon, the correction was gone.

Though the bird-watcher, Christian Cooper, has said that he does not want to press charges, prosecutors are still pursuing the case.

The Times has been embroiled this week in heavy-duty controversy over alleged inaccuracies and its response in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project” on slavery and its “Caliphate” podcast.

Biden in a landslide?

Rupert Murdoch in 2019. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Cartwright reports that media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who founded and owns Fox News, is telling those close to him that he believes Joe Biden will defeat Donald Trump in a landslide. Cartwright writes that Murdoch is “disgusted by Trump’s handling of COVID-19, remarking that the president is his own worst enemy, that he is not listening to advice about how best to handle the pandemic, and that he’s creating a never-ending crisis for his administration, according to three people who have spoken with Murdoch.”

Cameo in movie leads to firing

A Boston TV anchor said she has been fired for making an appearance in the Adam Sandler Netflix movie, “Hubie Halloween.” Alaina Pinto tweeted she was fired from WHDH Channel 7 News because the movie appearance violated her contract.

In the movie, Pinto plays a news anchor for a fictional TV station and is dressed up for Halloween as DC Comics character Harley Quinn. The station, as of Thursday, had not responded to requests for comment from various Boston media outlets. Pinto said in her Twitter thread that she was “deeply disappointed and saddened.”

Sad news

ESPN NFL reporter Vaughn McClure has died. The cause of death has not been released. He was 48.

I had the privilege of knowing McClure from my days as a sportswriter, and I think I can speak for those who knew him professionally in saying he was an excellent reporter and a class act.

ESPN senior deputy for digital NFL coverage John Pluym said, “We all loved Vaughn. He had a heart of gold. He was so helpful to our reporters. In the last few hours, we’ve heard so many stories about how Vaughn had helped them with a story or how he put in a good word for them with a coach or player.”

McClure covered the Atlanta Falcons for ESPN. Before going to ESPN, the Chicago native and Northern Illinois graduate covered the Chicago Bulls for the Chicago Tribune, as well as Notre Dame football for the Chicago Sun-Times. His resume also included stops at The Fresno Bee, South Bend Tribune and DeKalb Daily Chronicle.

Our planet

The Atlantic has launched a new section called Planet, which will be dedicated to covering climate change. In a statement, Atlantic executive editor Adrienne LaFrance said, “Living through a pandemic has primed people to think differently about climate change. This isn’t just a science story, and it’s not just a politics story. It’s an everything story.”

In a piece introducing the new section, The Atlantic’s staff writer and lead climate reporter Robinson Meyer writes that Planet, “will cover climate change in the present tense — not as a distant threat, but as a force that is already reconfiguring business, culture, society, and life on Earth. This outlook doesn’t reflect our prediction about where the world is heading; we think a detached assessment of the facts allows for no other conclusion.”

Hot type

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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  • I am a voter and I watched the town hall last night with our President Donald Trump and moderator Savannah Guthrie .
    This so called moderator was a disgrace !!!
    She didn’t want to moderate but instead wanted to debate and interrupt the President numerous times ! She was so RUDE !!! This just proves what the President has said about how differently he and the other Republicans are treated , compared to Biden and the Dems !
    The Dems , most of the media , including her…. are so hateful !!! They are unfair bc they don’t like Trump no matter what good things he has done for this country you just won’t accept it !!!!!
    I WILL be voting to re-elect our Great President Trump in person on Nov. 3.
    You, by thinking Savanna Guthrie was the real winner in the Town House last night , are ridiculous and so wrong !!!! Like I said , she was a Disgrace !!!! And many other voters I have talked to about it are agreeing with me on this !!!!

    Kathy Bayne
    Voter from Indiana
    Proud to be voting for President Trump !!