By:
October 23, 2020

President Donald Trump bragged about all he has done as president, while criticizing what would happen if Joe Biden was in charge. Biden criticized everything Trump has done, while promising all he will do if he is the next president.

So who won Thursday night’s presidential debate?

Moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News. And it wasn’t even close.

Praise for Welker around the media world was overwhelming, effusive and, as far as I can tell, unanimous. Even Trump, who complained before the debate that Welker was “unfair” and “terrible,” praised her about midway through, saying, “I respect very much the way you’re handling this.”

The Washington Post’s White House bureau chief Philip Rucker said Welker gave a “masterclass” in how to moderate a debate. ABC News’ Martha Raddatz said the job Welker did was “brilliant” and praised Welker for being “poised, confident and in control.”

CNN’s Oliver Darcy and New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi both called her the best moderator of the 2020 debate cycle. USA Today’s Susan Page, who moderated the vice presidential debate, said Welker’s job was a “service to our nation.”

On and on and on it went.

In a job that bordered on perfection, Welker moderated the debate with a firm hand, and yet a light touch. She was never rude, but she also wasn’t going to be run over by the candidates. She allowed them to speak, to respond to one another and yet reeled them in when they started to veer off the road. When they tried to interrupt or go over time, she responded by saying, “OK,” in a tone that came off as, “That’s enough!” And it absolutely worked. The result was a debate that looked like, well, a debate.

“Yeah,” NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie said, “we had a real debate.”

NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell said, “Kudos to Kristen and the way it was structured, the tremendous amount of work that went into it and the command that she asserted. She actually got them to debate with each other. You heard an incredible contrast in policies.”

Now, let’s be clear: Welker had the benefit of two things that previous debate moderators, especially first presidential debate moderator Chris Wallace, didn’t have. One was a mute button that cut off the candidate’s microphones so they couldn’t speak while the other candidate was giving his opening statement on each topic. And, two, there’s no question that Trump, who derailed the first debate by constantly interrupting Biden and Wallace, took a different tack this time around. Perhaps realizing how badly his first debate performance was received, Trump appeared to make a concerted effort this time to not interrupt Biden or talk through the moderator. The New York Times’ Matt Flegenheimer and Maggie Haberman wrote that Trump’s mandate was “Be less like Donald J. Trump.”

That made for a more normal evening.

In fact, after the debate on Fox News, Wallace said, “I’m jealous. I would have liked to be able to moderate that debate and get a real exchange of views rather than hundreds of interruptions.”

Yet, it wasn’t just because of muted microphones and a more respectful Trump that Welker had such a good night.

Her questions were tough, but fair and pertinent. She grilled the president on COVID-19, race and immigration. She grilled Biden on climate, health care and even questioned Biden over whether the business dealings of his son, Hunter, were “unethical.”

Unlike the first debate, which was punctuated by the gibberish caused by Trump’s interruptions and produced very little substance, viewers actually got to hear some ideas. Did it change any minds or swing any votes? Probably not. And fact-checkers are still calling out the candidates, especially Trump, for all that was said.

But at least viewers had a clear understanding of who these candidates are and what they believe.

“Whereas the first debate was sort of whitewater rafting blindfolded, this one was more like being on the lazy river and not even spilling my drink,” Fox News’ Dana Perino said. “I thought that this was good for both candidates. … They benefited from the two-minute rule, being able to make their points. … But I think that the ultimate winner tonight is the viewer, the American people who tuned in because you really were able to get a measure of both people. There were very different visions of the country coming from these two candidates.”

So, yes, we got to see a clear picture of the two candidates thanks to

Welker’s outstanding performance.

As NBC News president Noah Oppenheim told CNN’s Brian Stelter after the debate, “Every single person at NBC News is bursting with pride. Kristen is beloved and admired by all of us and tonight the whole country knows why.”

Welker had the best night of three on stage and, perhaps, the best night of her career.

A few final random thoughts on Thursday night’s debate:

  • Check out this video with CNN’s Jake Tapper giving a chilling warning about the spread of dangerous misinformation from the likes of QAnon. He called it “disgusting” and warned it’s going to be all over the Facebook pages of seniors in the coming days. “It’s going to be so heinous over the next 11 days,” he said.
  • The New York Post tried to do a hack job on Kristen Welker before the debate. And The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove and Maxwell Tani dismantled the Post’s in this piece. The Post also looks ridiculous following Welker’s performance in the debate.
  • I never thought I would say this, but following Thursday’s somewhat coherent and interesting debate, I’m actually disappointed that this debate cycle featured only two, instead of the scheduled three presidential debates.
  • I know networks like to get an “all sides” point of view on their post-debate shows, but watching Gloria Borger and Rick Santorum yell at each other on CNN after every debate is neither informative nor entertaining. Otherwise, the rest of CNN’s post-debate coverage is superb.
  • Speaking of CNN, whatever they pay fact-checker Daniel Dale, it’s not enough. His best moment Thursday was unveiling a shocking number. During the debate, Trump once again said COVID-19 is “going away.” According to Dale, Trump has said the virus is “going away” 38 times since February and Oct. 10.
  • And speaking of fact-checks, be sure to check out PolitiFact’s fact-check of Thursday’s debate.

And now onto the rest of today’s newsletter …

Scooping “60 Minutes”

President Donald Trump (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

“60 Minutes” has big interviews scheduled to air this weekend with both Trump and Biden. But Trump pulled his version of stomping his feet and holding his breath by posting a 37-minute clip of the interview on his Facebook page to scoop “60 Minutes.”

Upset by how the interview went with correspondent Lesley Stahl, Trump threatened several times this week that he was going to try to ruin the “60 Minutes” interview by releasing it early. At one of his rallies this week, Trump said, “Lesley Stahl is not going to be happy.”

On Thursday morning, Trump posted the interview — which, according to the Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr and Elahe Izadi (as well as CBS News), violated an agreement that the White House had with CBS News. The point of the White House also taping the interview was “for archival purposes only.”

Trump’s goal, or so he said, was to point out how unfair Stahl was. You can watch the interview for yourself, but her questions seemed fair and it appeared Trump’s biggest gripe was that Stahl called him when he said things that weren’t true.

For example, when he told Stahl that his White House had created the greatest economy, Stahl said, “You know that’s not true.”

Throughout, Trump complained about the interview, calling Stahl “negative.” Even before the interview started, Stahl asked him if he was ready for some tough questions and Trump said, “No.” He didn’t appear to be joking and he complained about that later on. He also complained that CBS News gives Biden “softball” questions. At the end, when Trump’s aides gave Stahl a five-minute warning before Vice President Mike Pence was to join the interview, Trump abruptly ended the interview, saying “I think we have enough of an interview. That’s enough. Let’s go.”

After Trump put the interview on Facebook, CBS put out a statement that said, “The White House’s unprecedented decision to disregard their agreement with CBS News and release their footage will not deter 60 Minutes from providing its full, fair and contextual reporting which presidents have participated in for decades. 60 Minutes, the most-watched news program on television, is widely respected for bringing its hallmark fairness, deep reporting and informative context to viewers each week. Few journalists have the presidential interview experience Lesley Stahl has delivered over her decades as one of the premier correspondents in America and we look forward to audiences seeing her third interview with President Trump and subsequent interview with Vice President Pence this weekend.”

One final thought on Trump’s “60 Minutes” tantrum: While he might believe that he is showing Stahl being unfair, there could be another reason for trying to scoop the program. He likely thinks it will hurt “60 Minutes’” ratings Sunday night and that — TV ratings — is the language that Trump likes to speak.

NBC News vs. Tucker Carlson

Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

On his TV show Wednesday night, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson went after an NBC News reporter for doing her job. On Thursday, NBC News struck back at Carlson and Fox News.

Carlson did a segment with Darren Beattie from Revolver News about Brandy Zadrozny, an investigative reporter who has been reporting on QAnon conspiracy theories and other misinformation typically found on social media. The way Carlson described it on his show was, “Her job is personally seeking out and identifying information about anonymous Trump supporters online.”

That is not what her job is. Her job is reporting on dangerous groups that pass along harmful misinformation. And yet Carlson seemed to add to that danger. Carlson went after Zadrozny with the help of Beattie, who said she was doing everything she could to “unearth anonymous Trump supporters basically so she can ruin their lives.”

Carlson asked, “Why would NBC News be doing something like this?”

NBC News fired back on Thursday, putting out this statement:

“Over the past several years, journalists from news organizations around the world have put themselves at risk in order to shine a light in the dark corners of society and the Internet — specifically in the realm of conspiracy theories and online extremism.

“Last night on Fox News Channel, Tucker Carlson dangerously and dishonestly targeted one of those journalists — Brandy Zadrozny. Brandy represents the best of investigative journalism and of NBC News. She is relentlessly well-researched and sophisticated in her understanding of disinformation and conspiracy theories on the Internet and within some social media communities. She’s written definitive stories on extremism, QAnon, the profiteers behind rising anti-vaccination and COVID denial movements — among many other topics. Her work is widely respected and has contributed greatly to the public’s awareness and understanding of the dangers of this alt-universe that breeds online but has very tangible real-world impacts.

“Fox News has chosen to smear Brandy. In so doing they have shamefully encouraged harassment and worse. Fortunately, any effort to intimidate Brandy is doomed to failure. NBC News couldn’t be prouder of Brandy, and we will continue to vigorously support her work.”

Just as strong of a rebuke came from Zadrozny’s colleague Ben Collins, who tweeted, “Tucker Carlson is devoting an entire segment to attacking my colleague, Brandy Zadrozny, for doing actual reporting, like using public records to confirm identities of people who create harassment campaigns. It’s disgraceful. She’s the best reporter I know. I’m with her 1000%.”

He added, “Had Tucker looked into this, his guest was emailed by Brandy the day before about a story she’s doing about his website. He spent the day tweeting retributively at her. That wasn’t mentioned. Seems pretty important to include.”

Collins was just one of many NBC journalists who spoke out in support of Zadrozny.

Fox News firing?

Has Fox News fired Melissa Francis? Several outlets are reporting that her status is in doubt and that she might have been let go, including the Los Angeles Times’ Stephen Battaglio. Francis was regularly on the day show “Outnumbered,” but has been off the air for two weeks. Battaglio wrote that Francis filed a gender-based discrimination claim that has been in arbitration. That claim was that she was not paid the same as male colleagues. Fox News Media said Francis has not been fired.

In a statement, Fox News said, “Fox News Media regularly considers programming changes, including to its daytime lineup, and will launch new formats as appropriate after the election. These changes are being made independent of any other ongoing matter.”

Media tidbits

  • Politico has launched a new newsletter called “Transition Playbook.” Isn’t it a little early to launch such a newsletter seeing as how we’re not sure Biden will defeat Trump and there will be a transition? Well, check out the first edition and there’s an explanation.
  • New York Post sports media critic Andrew Marchand reports that ESPN is planning to move its “high-profile, feature-type writing and analysis content” behind the ESPN+ paywall. The point, Marchand writes, is to “further boost the direct-to-consumer ESPN+ service.” Breaking news and other investigative pieces will remain for free on ESPN.com, but Marchand reports that writers who write about “insight and analysis” will be available only to ESPN+ subscribers. ESPN declined Marchand’s request for comment.

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

Note: This story has been updated to say that Fox News Media says Melissa Francis has not been fired.

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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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