The first presidential debate is less than 48 hours old and the aftertaste is still so strong and bitter that we can’t imagine choking down another one, let alone two.
The Washington Post’s Dan Balz wrote, “What two more debates like this will accomplish is hard to imagine, other than to heighten tensions in a country already on edge.”
The first debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden on Tuesday was filled with interruptions, insults and a complete disregard for the rules and decorum, mostly from the president, who constantly interrupted both Biden and moderator Chris Wallace.
It seems evident now that plowing through everyone like a bulldozer is not only Trump’s debate style, but his debate strategy. So how do we fix it before the two debate again two weeks from tonight?
Sadly, we might not be able to.
The Commission on Presidential Debates announced Wednesday that there is a need for “additional structure” in the format to “ensure a more orderly discussion.” It praised Wallace, but said it “intends to ensure that additional tools to maintain order are in place for the remaining debates.” It will announce those additional tools “shortly.”
“CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell reported that could include moderators having the ability to shut off a candidate’s microphone.
For the record, the format for the Oct. 15 debate will be a bit different. It will be a town hall with undecided voters from Florida. Voters will ask questions with moderator follow-ups.
Former Obama campaign manager and senior advisor David Plouffe tweeted, “Having prepared for these, the town hall is a completely different event in the debate olympics. If Trump brings that same nasty act to Florida, it will be doubly painful to watch but it will be doubly painful to him politically.”
And in an interview with The Boston Globe’s Christina Prignano, the director of debate at Vanderbilt University, John Koch, said, “It shifts to voters asking questions and I would expect the candidates to be more respectful to average voters than they were to Chris Wallace, and attempt to answer those questions, because I think there’s a lot of risk in acting that way when voters are the ones that are asking the questions.”
However, that format doesn’t guarantee less interrupting than we saw in the first debate. The candidates still can speak out anytime they want and if Trump believes he can rattle Biden or that his hard-charging act shows force and power then he will almost assuredly keep doing it.
Liz Peek, writing for Fox News, said, “As a Trump supporter, my take was that the president had prepared little for the encounter, and was ill-served by that act of overconfidence.”
But White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told Fox Business on Wednesday morning that Trump feels he won the first debate. She said, “He brought the fight that I think the American people wanted to see.”
With that attitude, why shouldn’t we expect more of the same?
As I explained in Wednesday’s Poynter Report, cutting the mics is not that simple. The debate rules, which are painstakingly negotiated, have already been set. Both candidates would have to agree to any alterations of those rules and it seems unlikely that Trump’s camp would give up a tactic it feels works.
Another suggestion is that the moderator cracks down harder on interruptions. But if you watched Tuesday’s debate, you saw Wallace desperately try to control Trump. He pleaded, begged, scolded and even tried to embarrass the president into staying quiet. Nothing worked. This isn’t a kindergarten teacher trying to quiet 5-year-olds. These are grown men. There’s only so much a moderator can do. There’s no reason to think the second presidential debate moderator, Steve Scully, the mild-mannered C-SPAN political director, will have any more success than Wallace.
What’s the answer? Frustratingly, I’m not sure there is one, other than giving additional time to the candidate who isn’t talking. But that might just mean more time for the other candidate to interrupt.
So don’t be surprised to see more of the same in the next two debates. That’s the bad news. The good news? The next two debates will be held on nights when there are NFL games. At least you’ll have the option to watch something less violent than a presidential debate.
The debate commission
In Wednesday’s Washington Post, conservative radio host and Post contributor Hugh Hewitt said, “If this doesn’t kill the Commission on Presidential Debates, nothing ever will. It should be killed.”
Let’s not blame the commission for Tuesday, and let’s not revamp the whole thing just because one candidate chose to ignore the rules that he previously agreed to follow.
The commission did announce it is now scrambling to put rules in place to salvage the final two presidential debates.
But, as CNN’s Brian Stelter said on air Wednesday, “This commission has never had this structural problem before. Trump is the reason why they’re having to revisit the rules in the middle of the debate season. That is a wild situation.”
What did moderator Chris Wallace think about the debate?
“I’m just sad with the way (Tuesday) night turned out,” he told The New York Times’ Michael M. Grynbaum. “I never dreamt that it would go off the tracks the way it did.” He also said it was a “missed opportunity.”
Wallace told Grynbaum that he didn’t realize it would be Trump’s strategy to be as disruptive as he was. But when asked if Trump derailed the debate, Wallace said, “Well, he certainly didn’t help.”
When asked if he cared to elaborate, Wallace said, “No. To quote the president, ‘It is what it is.’”
Wallace told Grynbaum, “Generally speaking, I did as well as I could, so I don’t have any second thoughts there. I’m just disappointed with the results. For me, but much more importantly, I’m disappointed for the country, because it could have been a much more useful evening than it turned out to be.”
How about the debate itself?
Most of the conversation since the debate has been about just how chaotic it was. As far as the debate itself, there was some substance. Here are some of the more thoughtful and insightful reports in the aftermath:
- The New York Times’ Shane Goldmacher with “Six Takeaways from the First Presidential Debate.”
- The Los Angeles Times’ Janet Hook with “Trump Needed the Debate to Change a Race He’s Losing; Instead, He Doubled Down.”
- The Atlantic’s Megan Garber with “Trump’s Interruptions Had a Double Message.”
- Slate’s Justin Peters with this headline grabber: “The Debate Was Good!”
- The New Yorker’s Roger Angell with “The Children’s Hour.”
The ratings are in
More than 73 million people watched Tuesday night’s debate on television. That’s below the 84 million that watched the first debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016, but it’s still a huge number.
And a couple of things to keep in mind. That 73 million figure is just how many watched on TV. It doesn’t include how many watched on streaming services and the internet, options that are much more available now than in 2016. So the number of those who watched the debate in some form or another is well over 73 million. Fox News had 17.8 million viewers, more than any other network.
After Tuesday’s contentious debate, already considered among the worst ever, we could see a severe decline in viewership numbers for the two remaining presidential debates.
Chuck Todd calls out Jason Miller
The most controversial moment from Tuesday night’s debate, and the one drawing the most attention (besides the chaos of the night), was Trump and his comments about white supremacists. When asked to condemn the hate group Proud Boys, Trump told them to “stand back and stand by.”
On Wednesday’s “MTP Daily,” moderator Chuck Todd pressed Trump advisor Jason Miller in a very testy exchange. Miller insisted that Trump condemned the Proud Boys and disagreed when Todd said Trump refused to condemn former KKK leader David Duke in 2016. Miller kept denying that.
An exasperated Todd said, “Oh my god! … You’re making stuff up. Enough with the gaslighting. Enough with your gaslighting. … You know what you’re doing, you know what you’re doing here by taking things purposely out of context to try to somehow equalize what the president did.”
It was a strong interview from Todd, who added, “Jason Miller, I want to understand why the president of the United States, four years ago, couldn’t condemn David Duke. Three years ago (he) said there were fine people on both sides, said here he couldn’t condemn the Proud Boys. This is not an accident anymore. This is called a pattern.”
Craig Carton was a big sports radio star in New York City for powerhouse WFAN when he was charged three years ago and convicted of a fraud scheme involving loans and gambling debts. He served a year in federal prison. And now he’s almost back on the air.
New York Post sports media columnist Andrew Marchand reports Carton could get an offer any minute to return to WFAN. And, Marchand writes, Carton has an offer to host a morning show in Philadelphia.
If he goes back to WFAN, it could be in the afternoon to go up against ESPN-New York radio star Michael Kay. Or he could go midday. He would not return to mornings, where he used to co-host a show with former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason. These days, Esiason’s partner is Gregg Giannotti and that show performs well in the ratings.
HBO has a documentary coming on Carton called “Wild Card: The Downfall of a Radio Loudmouth.” It premieres Oct. 7.
- Hearst hired controversial leader Troy Young to disrupt its magazine business. Then it fired him. New York Magazine’s Ben Wallace with “The Fall of Troy.”
- Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. with “While You’re Sleeping, Zooming or Making Dinner Plans, Our Democracy is Slipping Away.”
- Poynter’s PolitiFact continues to fact-check the first debate.
Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More resources for journalists
- Sign up to receive our new Coronavirus Facts newsletter — PolitiFact and MediaWise
- Informing Citizens About Voting Barriers — Oct. 1 at noon Eastern, National Press Foundation
- Inside the Newsroom With NBC News’ Chuck Todd moderated by Tom Jones — (Online Event) – Oct. 20 at 6 p.m. Eastern, Poynter
- The 2021 Media Transformation Challenge (MTC) Program: A Poynter Institute Executive Fellowship — Apply by: Nov. 20, 2020
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