By:
September 30, 2020

A hot mess. A trainwreck. A dumpster fire.

How else would you describe Tuesday night’s first — and possibly last — presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden? It might have been the most unwatchable debate in presidential history.

Here are some of the things that you never thought you would hear in a presidential debate:

  • Moderator Chris Wallace to Trump: “I’m the moderator of this debate and I’d like to ask my question.”
  • Trump to Wallace: “I guess I’m debating you, not him. That’s OK. I’m not surprised.”
  • Biden, sarcastically, to Wallace: “That was a really productive segment.”
  • Biden to Trump: “Will you shut up, man?”
  • Biden to Wallace about Trump: “Will he shush for a minute?”
  • Trump called Biden stupid. Biden called Trump a clown and a liar.

And that was just the first 15 minutes.

This pretty much carried out for the next hour and a half. Constant interruptions. Constant talking over one another. Name-calling. Juvenile bickering.

And little accomplished.

When it was over, ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos said, “That was the worst presidential debate I’ve ever seen.”

NBC News’ Lester Holt said, “If hearing that this debate is over was music to your ears, you may not be alone. What could have been a low point in American political discourse, certainly in any modern debate we’ve seen, just took place over an hour and a half.”

Holt’s colleague Savannah Guthrie said, “I think like so many in this country watching this, your jaw just dropped. You can’t pretend that this was a normal debate, a normal example of American democracy at work, a normal tussle between foes. This was different. This was an all-out grudge match. It was undignified at many times. It was cringeworthy at many times.”

Cringeworthy indeed. Stomach-turning. NBC’s Chuck Todd used an adjective that I just did, “a train wreck,” and blamed Trump for the nightmare. CBS’s Gayle King said, “It was painful to watch.”

Television’s post-debate reaction was in the same ballpark.

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell said she has been covering debates since 1976 and “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

PBS’s Judy Woodruff said, “I’ve never seen a debate like this one. It was more of a brawl at times than a debate.”

Fox News’ Bret Baier said, “I do feel like we’ve been through something. You at home may feel it, too.”

CNN’s Dana Bash could only resort to cursing: “That was a s— show.”

Fox News contributor Karl Rove said, “I’m not sure it was very edifying or enlightening for the viewers, particularly those who are figuring out who to vote for.”

It would be easy to pin the dreadful debate on moderator Chris Wallace for allowing the candidates to run amok. Is that fair criticism? Frankly, I don’t know that any moderator could have slowed this out-of-control wacky wagon. Wallace didn’t have a great night, but tried his best, often admonishing the candidates (Trump more than Biden) for talking when they were not supposed to be talking.

On MSNBC, James Carville said, “Chris Wallace should get combat pay.”

Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera said, “Let me defend Chris Wallace. I mean, my God. The guy signed up to moderate a debate and he ended up trying to referee a knife fight.”

Trump was the biggest offender when it came to talking over everyone. At one point, an exasperated Wallace said to Trump, “If you want to switch seats, we can do that.”

“It was contentious, but it also went beyond that into darkness,” MSNBC’s Brian Williams said.

Over on Fox News, noted Trump supporter Sean Hannity said, “The extremely weak, the frail, the confused, kind of angry Joe Biden just got steamrolled by President Trump.”

But most of the other post-debate coverage slammed Trump for his bullying tactics and his refusal to condemn white supremacists, saying that groups like the Proud Boys should, “Stand back and stand by.”

Trump’s comment came from Wallace asking him to condemn white supremacists. It was one of Wallace’s stronger moments of the night, along with Wallace unexpectedly bringing up climate change.

In fact, Wallace’s questions were solid, and fair — when he could actually get them in. Neither side can complain that his topics, the questions or how they were framed favored one candidate over another. The criticism Wallace received was for his inability to control the candidates, especially Trump.

But, really, what could Wallace have really done to stop Trump and, to a lesser extent, Biden, from speaking out of turn? Wallace pleaded, scolded and even yelled and nothing worked. Don’t blame him for this circus. Blame the candidates, particularly Trump.

About that “stand by” comment

During ABC’s post-debate coverage, “ABC News Live Prime” anchor Linsey Davis said, “I can’t say I was surprised but it was really a moment that I think people, especially in the Black community, heard loud and clear.”

Over on CBS, Gayle King asked Donald Trump Jr. what his father meant when he said the hate group Proud Boys should “stand by.”

Trump Jr. said, “I don’t know with ‘stand by.’ He said to ‘stand down.’ He said he’s more than happy to condemn them.”

But King pressed Trump Jr. by repeating, “He said ‘stand by.’”

To which Trump, Jr. said, “I don’t know if that was a misspeak, but he was talking about having them stand down. He’s more than happy to condemn that.”

Aside from the hostility of the debate, Trump’s “stand by” comment was the most-discussed post-debate topic on the networks. For more on the debate, check out PolitiFact’s coverage.

Cut off the microphones

Want to keep the candidates from not talking when it’s not their turn? Allow the moderator to cut off their microphones. But it’s not that easy. The debate rules have already been established. Both camps have already agreed to the rules and there is nothing in the rules about cutting microphones. That can’t be changed now without both Trump and Biden agreeing.

And MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell said, “The Trump side will never agree to that because that’s his entire debate strategy … to speak while Joe Biden is speaking. There is no other debate strategy.”

Will there be another debate?

There are two more presidential debates. After Tuesday night’s debacle, you have to wonder if the country has the stomach for any more. Twitter was running wild Tuesday with the theory that Biden might not (and should not) debate Trump again because of how Trump constantly interrupted Biden.

However, CNN’s Arlette Saenz, just 90 minutes after Tuesday’s debate, reported that Biden would continue to show up for the debates. And during an appearance on MSNBC, Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, said Biden would never turn down an opportunity to talk to the American people.

Early TV numbers for Tuesday’s debate will come out today and it’s possible the number of viewers could run well over 70 million. But after what we saw Tuesday, you have to wonder if the TV numbers for the next debate will drop significantly.

The problem is why should we expect the next two debates to go any smoother? The issue isn’t the moderator. It’s the debate itself.

As Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote, “The idea that either of the two coming moderators — Steve Scully of C-Span and Kristen Welker of NBC News — can hope to control things any better is a dubious one unless the format changes substantially. Debate Commission: It’s up to you now. Fix these debates or cancel them.”

A biased opinion?

One of ABC’s debate analysts (and frequent political contributor) was former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. It should be pointed out that Christie was part of the team that helped Trump prepare for Monday’s debate. And ABC took heat for that.

There’s not anything necessarily wrong with ABC having Christie on its coverage. In fact, you could argue that Christie adds something extra to ABC’s coverage just as long as ABC reveals that Christie helped with Trump’s preparation. And they did. Host George Stephanopoulos said that right up front. Christie admitted that Trump’s bullying ways were not a part of the debate plan, but also criticized Biden’s performance.

Speaking of debate preparation, CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Kaitlan Collins reported that Trump spent fewer than two hours prepping for the debate. They wrote, “Trump has written off formal preparations as unnecessary given the daily demands of the job and instead hopes his brawling instincts and an unguarded embrace of personal attacks will carry him through.”

They wrote that before the debate, and that’s exactly what the president tried to do Tuesday.

A Joe Biden town hall on NBC

(Courtesy: NBC News)

NBC “Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt will moderate a live town hall with Joe Biden from Miami next Monday. The one-hour primetime event called “Decision 2020: Joe Biden Town Hall” will air on NBC, MSNBC and NBC News NOW at 8 p.m. Eastern. It will include a socially-distanced audience made up of undecided Florida voters.

NBC said it also has extended the offer of a town hall to President Trump.

Also starting next Monday, Holt’s “Nightly News” will start a new series called “Across America.” The topic will be to see what voters are thinking in key battleground states, including Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Fox News enables Giuliani’s conspiracy theories

Rudy Giuliani, speaking at a conference last week. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

People go on cable news networks and say outrageous things. They have strong opinions. It’s why people watch. So I do get that there’s an entertainment factor on political shows. But it’s disturbing to see a network such as Fox News invite Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani on to spew out the kind of unproven and dangerous conspiracy theories that he did on Tuesday’s “Fox & Friends.” Giuliani said Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has dementia.

“The man has dementia,” Giuliani said. “There’s no doubt about it. I’ve talked to doctors. I’ve had them look at a hundred different tapes of his five years ago and today.” He also said, “The president’s quite right to say maybe he’s taken adderall.”

Just as bad is that the hosts allowed Giuliani the floor to continue on his rant about Biden with just the gentlest of pushback that was really no pushback at all.

Yes, it’s disgraceful that Giuliani would say such a thing, but it’s even more abhorrent that Fox News keeps inviting Guliani on their network to say such things.

But then it got worse. It’s bad enough for a guest like Giuliani to say something like that, but then Fox News’ own Tucker Carlson and Brit Hume both said similar things. In fact, Hume said Monday night on air, “I don’t think there is any doubt that Biden is senile.”

To make such baseless claims on a national news network is just jaw-dropping. And wrong.

Clinton’s new pod

Hillary Clinton’s new podcast — “You and Me Both with Hillary Clinton” — debuted Tuesday. The first episode featured a conversation with musician John Legend and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams. She also looked back at the lives of John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

By the way, did Clinton watch Tuesday night’s debate? On MSNBC, she was asked by Rachel Maddow if she would watch or turn off the TV.

Clinton laughed, “I’m going to watch it with real interest and a certain level of expectation. Unlike four years ago, Donald Trump now has a record.”

Clinton, naturally, pointed out what she felt were severe flaws in that record.

NFL ratings just fine

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes throwing a pass Monday night vs. Baltimore. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)

Yeah, that idea that NFL ratings would suffer from boycotts coming from people upset about anthem protests and messages against racial injustice? Forget it. NFL ratings are doing well. CBS said last Sunday’s week three ratings were up 8%, while Fox Sports’ Sunday’s ratings also were up. They were up just 1%, but still they were up. And, NFL Media tweeted out that since the NFL season started, the top 15 most-watched TV programs have been NFL games. (Hat tip to The Big Lead’s Brian Giuffra for his report on the NFL’s TV ratings.)

On the other hand, ratings for the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup finals between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars were the worst since 2007. The six-game series, won by the Lightning, averaged 2.03 million viewers. When the Anaheim Ducks beat the Ottawa Senators in 2007, the average viewership was just 1.6 million.

Big change at The Dallas Morning News

Mike Wilson announced Tuesday that he is leaving as editor of The Dallas Morning News at the end of the year after six years. His tweet said that his immediate plan is to “recharge.” He didn’t say exactly what is next, but he wrote, “And yet I am already getting excited about the next opportunity to do what I love: write, edit, lead, teach, learn. I’m having early conversations about where that might be and will let you know more when I can.”

Wilson has previously worked at FiveThirtyEight, the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald.

Morning News managing editor Keith Campbell will take over newsroom leadership, effective immediately. Brendan Miniter, the editor of editorials, will lead the editorial board while publisher Grant Moise figures out what’s  next. Wilson said he is working with Moise to help with the transition to a new editor. The DMN’s Paul O’Donnell has more details.

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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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