By:
September 29, 2020

The first presidential debate of 2020 is tonight. It will be a big night for two men: President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Check that. It will be a big night for three men. It’s also a big night for moderator Chris Wallace.

But while Trump and Biden hope to make a splash, Wallace is hoping for just the opposite. Wallace hopes he’s hardly noticed at all. During a TV appearance on Sunday on Fox News, Wallace said, “My job is to be as invisible as possible.”

Wallace wants the candidates to do most of the talking.

While all eyes will be on Trump and Biden, all ears will be on Wallace, who has the job of not only asking good questions, but also keeping the candidates from running amok. How Trump and Biden do will depend on the job Wallace does. And what he doesn’t do.

As with every debate, there will be plenty of spinning and pivoting from the candidates. And what if they say something that simply isn’t true? What will Wallace do?

Wallace has turned down all interview requests leading up to tonight’s debate, but as The New York Times’ Michael M. Grynbaum notes in his debate preview, Wallace sees himself as a facilitator, not a fact-checker. Before moderating a debate in 2016 between Trump and Hillary Clinton — a job he was widely praised for — Wallace said, “I do not believe it is my job to be a truth squad.”

That’s also what debate commission co-chairman Frank Fahrenkopf said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday — that the moderator is not there to fact-check the candidates.

It is the job of the networks and other news organizations to fact check. However, don’t expect to see the networks fact-checking in real time on your TV screen as the debate is ongoing. The networks will save that for their post-debate coverage. Throughout the night, however, you would expect to see fact-checking in places such as PolitiFact, CNN (with Daniel Dale) and The Washington Post with Glenn Kessler and his fact-checking team. And speaking of debate coverage, check out Josie Hollingsworth’s PolitiFact guide on how to watch tonight’s debate.

Does it even matter?

Two things about tonight’s debate. Expect huge television numbers. And yet don’t expect it to sway many voters.

The first Trump-Clinton debate in 2016 drew a whopping TV audience of 84 million, making it the most-watched presidential debate ever. That many people could watch tonight’s debate, although not all on TV. Streaming services and views on websites could make up a sizable portion of the audience.

But will it make a difference among voters? The New York Times’ Michael M. Grynbaum points to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that shows that 70% of voters say the debates likely would not influence their vote. In that case, you wonder if some will not watch simply because they are stressed out or just plain tired of divisive politics.

Meanwhile, a new NBCLX/YouGov poll shows that while Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats for their preferred candidate to say whatever is necessary to “win” a debate, 83% of those polled (3,190 Americans) prefer that candidates always tell the truth in a debate.

I do expect a big audience tonight, even if it won’t change many minds. Why? Partly for viewers to feel validated by their candidate and partly because, hey, it’s Trump vs. Biden for the first time on TV.

A scary thought

President Donald Trump speaks at the White House on Monday. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The New York Times editorial board brings up an interesting and troubling thought. Let’s say that, on election night, early reports show President Trump leading in many states. But because mail-in and absentee ballots continue to be counted, news networks and election officials won’t call the swing states. And yet Trump takes to Twitter, declares that he has won and, the editorial board suggests, “tells his tens of millions of followers that the Democrats and press will try to change the result and steal the election.”

This is not an outlandish scenario. As the Times’ editorial notes, in 2012, Barack Obama trailed Mitt Romney by 30,000 votes when he was projected to win. In 2016, Trump accepted Hillary Clinton’s concession when he led the popular vote by nearly one million votes, but ended up losing the popular vote by nearly three million.

So what happens if there is a “blue shift” as is expected, but Trump jumps the gun by declaring victory on social media?

The Times’ board writes, “To prevent such a nightmare scenario across social media, technology’s biggest platforms need to create a clear, explicit framework for what qualifies as electoral misinformation and disinformation. They must determine exactly what they will not tolerate and what the penalties will be for violating those rules. Then they ought to make those rules public.”

The Times goes a step further and says tech companies could form a “consortium to formalize these standards across platforms.”

This is an admirable suggestion, but time is running out. The election is five weeks from today. There are more intriguing thoughts in the editorial. Check it out. And check this out, too …

Ben Smith’s latest

The latest column from New York Times media columnist Ben Smith is about Arnon Mishkin, who runs Fox News’ “decision desk” and could be the one who calls the winner of the election for that network.

Mishkin told Smith, “There will be no one putting their finger on the scale in either direction.” Still, the Fox News crew knows that the nightmare scenario could come true: that Trump declares himself the winner and expects Fox News to do the same. Smith said it could get even worse if Trump’s allies at Fox News (such as Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson) follow Trump’s lead and call Trump the winner on air before it’s official.

Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley recently wrote, “The Fox News Decision Desk Controls the Fate of American Democracy.”

Mishkin tells Smith that he and his team are independent and Smith quotes another source as saying Mishkin’s team really doesn’t report to anyone at Fox News. And, in media circles, Mishkin and his team are respected as responsible journalists.

Former Fox News host Megyn Kelly told Smith, “That night, you’re going to be able to trust who’s out there because it’s run by the journalists at Fox News.”

Shepard Smith’s return

Shepard Smith in 2017. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Hard to believe that it has been nearly a year since Shepard Smith abruptly quit his job at Fox News, presumably because he was unhappy with the direction of the network and because of his belief that truth should be journalism’s most important quality.

Smith returns to the airways on Wednesday with the debut of his CNBC show “The News with Shepard Smith.” The hourlong 7 p.m. general newscast is all about what the title suggests: the news.

“We’re going to come out and do just the news,” Smith told the Associated Press’ David Bauder. “We’re not planning to do any analysis in our news hour. We’re going to have journalists, reporters, sound and video. We’re going to have newsmakers and experts … but no pundits. We’re going to leave the opinion to others. It’s exactly what I’ve been wanting to do. It’s what I’ve been working at for 30 years.”

Smith hasn’t said much about his Fox News departure. He told Bauder that it was just “the right time” to leave. When The New York Times’ Michael M. Grynbaum asked Smith if he has watched Fox News since leaving, Smith said, “I watch a lot of news. I don’t really watch much opinion programming.”

Is that a veiled shot at Fox News? He told Bauder, “Their opinion people state their opinions and they draw big audiences. I have no problem with that.”

Whatever the case, Smith is putting Fox News behind him and looking toward his new show.

“We’re not interested in helping you know how to think about something,” Smith said. “We’re interested in giving you the information, so that you can make your decisions and form your opinions with good, solid information. I’ve never felt like anybody’s very interested in my opinion, and on an evening newscast I’m not going to share it.”

Smith’s timing is good. A day after a presidential debate, Trump’s taxes, a Supreme Court justice nomination and just five weeks away from an election — certainly a good time for news.

Swisher interviews Musk

Kara Swisher interviews Elon Musk in the latest episode of her New York Times podcast “Sway.” Swisher asked Musk about politics, but Musk would not say who he is voting for in the presidential election. He did say that climate change is on his mind.

“Let’s just see how the debates go,” Musk said. “I want to see if Biden has it together. If he does, he probably wins.”

The two also discuss Musk’s electric car company Tesla, the future of energy and space civilization, computer chips in your brain, and Musk’s supposed micromanaging style.

“The practical reality of it is that I cannot delegate,” Musk told Swisher, “because I can’t find people to delegate it to.”

I’ve written this before, but want to reiterate: Swisher is an outstanding and thought-provoking journalist and an excellent interviewer. I had high hopes for her new podcast and just a few episodes in, including interviews with Nancy Pelosi and Gavin Newsom, her pod has exceeded those hopes.

You news

About a quarter of U.S. adults say they get news from YouTube, according to the latest study by the Pew Research Center. The study found that about 26% said they get news on YouTube, however, relatively few people say YouTube is their primary news source. Still, they found it an important way to stay informed, according to Pew.

Pew writes, “About one-in-five YouTube news consumers (23%) say they often get news from YouTube channels affiliated with external news organizations, while an identical portion of consumers (23%) say they often get news from independent channels, defined in this study as ‘news channels that do not have a clear external affiliation.’ And indeed, these two types of channels are common across the platform, with 49% of popular YouTube news channels being affiliated with news organizations and 42% not having an external affiliation.”

Whose vote counts?

Vox Media is bringing out the stars to cover voting rights, money and politics, as well as how gerrymandering could sway the electoral college. On Monday, Vox Media announced “Whose Vote Counts, Explained” — a new limited series produced by Vox and Vox Media Studios in partnership with Appian Way Productions. It is three short-form episodes narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, Selena Gomez and John Legend. The series also includes Stacey Abrams, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, John Kasich and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The series premiered Monday and is available on Netflix. The first episode is available through Netflix’s YouTube channel.

In a statement, showrunner Claire Gordon said, “Our show aims to shed light on topics that are important to the current moment, and few topics are as important right now as the power of our votes, or as interesting as a historic election taking place in the middle of a pandemic.”

The Post recommends …

Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The Washington Post editorial board is endorsing Joe Biden for president. In an editorial Monday, the Post wrote, “The Democratic nominee, former vice president Joe Biden, is exceptionally well-qualified, by character and experience, to meet the daunting challenges that the nation will face over the coming four years.”

The editorial criticizes Donald Trump for his “narcissism” “cynicism” and his “belittling and demonizing of opponents,” while praising Biden’s character. It also endorsed his leadership abilities and experience.

The board wrote, “It is fortunate to have, in Joe Biden, a candidate who can lead an administration that is both honorable and successful.”

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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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