By:
August 21, 2020

One convention down and one more to go. The Democrats wrapped up their virtual convention Thursday night. Because of the coronavirus, it was unlike any convention that we’ve ever seen. All week long, I’ve credited the Democrats for what was, obviously, meticulous planning to fill four nights with energetic speeches, slickly-produced videos of touching stories, and musical and celebrity guests.

The Democrats not only pulled it off, they crushed it. Following Thursday night’s festivities, CNN commentator and former Barack Obama adviser David Axelrod said, “I’ve been involved in 11 conventions now either as a journalist or I helped craft a couple of them. I don’t think any was as effective or impactful from start to finish as this one.”

On MSNBC, USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page said, “This was not the convention Democrats had hoped to have, but it turned out to be exactly the right convention for the moment that we’re in.”

Here’s a look back at the highlights and lowlights of Thursday’s final night:

The speech of his life

Joe Biden’s convention acceptance speech — a combination of anger toward the president, empathy for the American people, as well as some of his policy plans — earned rave reviews from most, except for diehard Republicans. While one might not agree with Biden’s politics, one must admit that Biden’s delivery was among the best of his long career. In what was his most important speech ever, he laid out his plans and, most of all, defied what has been the Republican narrative that he is sleepy or not mentally sharp enough to handle the job of president.

“He blew a hole, a big hole in that characterization,” Fox News’ Chris Wallace said.

His speech might have Republicans, specifically President Donald Trump, rethinking that plan of attack.

Veteran journalist Jeff Greenfield tweeted, “I genuinely did not think Biden could deliver a speech with that power and passion. … Well-crafted, yes, but given with perfect pitch to an audience of millions gathered in small clusters in their homes.”

CBS News’ John Dickerson said, “This looked like an old-fashioned presidential speech. In that sense, this constrained convention, that theater of it, looked like he was giving a national address, rather than a campaign speech in a convention.”

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said, “It may have been the best speech Joe Biden ever delivered.” CNN’s Gloria Borger agreed, adding, “It wasn’t a convention speech, written for applause lines; it was a presidential address, even kind of a fireside chat.”

It had to be, considering there was no crowd. And without a crowd, as I’ve said time and time again this week, the Democrats took advantage of the format to make a deeper connection with the audience.

Even Fox News had to give it to Biden. Bret Baier said it was the best Biden has ever been as far as delivery. Wallace said, “It was an enormously effective speech.”

Wallace also said, “Donald Trump is gonna have to run against a candidate, not a caricature.”

Fox News’ Dana Perino said, “The other night I said that Michelle Obama stuck the landing and I think keeping with that theme that Joe Biden just hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth. … He had pace, rhythm, energy, emotion and delivery. I think if he looks back, he’s got to say that was probably the best speech of his life. He really just took the moment.”

But once Fox News’ straight news coverage ended and programming was turned over to Laura Ingraham, the praise stopped. Ingraham called the DNC “four days of empty pablums, politicians, depressing vignettes.”

Other thoughts from Thursday night …

Brayden Harrington speaks during Thursday night’s Democratic National Convention. (Democratic National Convention via AP)

  • In what might have been the bravest and most inspiring moment of the four nights, 13-year-old Brayden Harrington, the young man with a stutter who was mentored by Biden, gave a speech talking about his stutter and Biden. If you didn’t tear up watching it you might want to check your pulse. Even ardent Trump supporter and counselor Kellyanne Conway tweeted, “Way to go, Brayden!”
  • The video recapping Biden’s life — from his early childhood when he was mocked by a teacher for stuttering to getting into politics to the personal tragedies of losing family members — was masterfully produced. You wouldn’t think someone who has been in the public eye and politics for nearly 50 years would have to introduce himself to America, yet it was a moving film about his life even though most of us know the story.
  • What an ingenious move to reunite many of the Democratic presidential candidates on one big Zoom-like call. It was sort of moderated by Cory Booker and the guests were Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Andrew Yang, Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke. It was partly a roast, partly a reunion show. But it was a smart way for the candidates to show their unity and support for Biden.
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus was the moderator/host of night four and mostly did a good job, adding something we rarely see at conventions: humor. And it was a smart thing to try. The target, obviously, was for a younger, hipper audience. It’s also why the Democrats invited Sarah Cooper, who has blown up in recent months by simply lip-synching actual things said by Trump. And she, who has to listen to A LOT of Trump, took a shot at the president by saying, “I’ve heard Donald Trump say some pretty unhinged things. I’ve heard them over and over and over again. But nothing is more dangerous to our democracy than his attacks on mail-in voting during a pandemic.”
  • I say Louis-Dreyfus mostly did a good job. Many of her jokes landed. One did not. After a taped segment that showed Biden talking about his faith after his son died, Louis-Dreyfus said, “Joe Biden goes to church so much that he doesn’t need tear gas and federalized troops to help him get there.” That moment, right after a sobering and emotional testimonial, was not the right time for humor — even if it was her intention to take a snarky shot at Trump.
  • Louis-Dreyfus’ most devastating joke was what she thinks Trump will say about her performance: “As Donald Trump will call me in a tweet tomorrow, ‘A washed-up, horse face, no talent, has-been with low ratings.’ … With all due respect sir, it takes one to know one.”
  • It should be noted, however, that Louis-Dreyfus’ tone changed at 10 p.m., once the convention went live on the three major networks.
  • Powerful moment: a feature remembering the late Congressman John Lewis, followed by a performance of “Glory” by John Legend and Common.
  • Now that the DNC is over, it’s time for Joe Biden to hit the interview circuit. He and vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris will be interviewed today by ABC’s David Muir and Robin Roberts. An early look at the interviews will air tonight on “World News Tonight.” The entire interview will air Sunday night at 8 p.m.
  • Next up, the Republicans. The Democrats have set a high bar for this virtual convention stuff, and now we will see how the Republicans respond. Fox News’ Chris Wallace said, “The Democrats have had a good convention, now it’s the Republicans’ turn.” Early reports are that speeches will dominate the convention and that Trump will be featured prominently each night. I’ll have more on this in Monday’s newsletter.

Controversy on the homepage

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

The Washington Post took plenty of heat Thursday for an online ad that dominated the top of its homepage. What was the issue? It was an ad for Donald Trump. (Vanity Fair’s Michael Calderone had a tweet that showed what it looked like.) But there was more to it than it being an ad for Trump.

Even The Washington Post’s own Glenn Kessler, the editor and chief writer of the Post’s Fact Checker, had issues with the content on his own paper’s website. He tweeted, “So the Trump campaign has taken over the @washingtonpost home page with ads that take you to a series of YouTube videos that make claims that we have fact-checked as false. Here’s a sampling.” Kessler then gave examples of false claims.

To which CNN’s Oliver Darcy tweeted, “Which raises an interesting question: Are news orgs OK with directing their audiences via an online ad to false information from a political candidate, even if that false info isn’t in the actual ad running on their page?”

In a statement to Poynter, Kristine Coratti Kelly, the Post’s vice president, communications, said, “We understand why questions have been raised about why we would accept these ads. We have long given advertisers wide latitude to exercise their First Amendment rights and engage in advocacy, and that includes political advertising.”

There can be a debate about whether news outlets should accept advertising money from political candidates. But, if you are going to run an ad from a candidate, it seems there is a responsibility to make sure the claims made in that ad — or the claims made in the video links in the ad — are true.

Also worth mentioning is what appears to be a double standard. Newspapers and online sites are questioned over accepting ads from political candidates, and yet television stations and networks routinely run political ads that aren’t necessarily vetted for the truth.

Shocking claims in Stelter’s new book

Fox News’ Sean Hannity speaking at a Trump rally in 2018. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

CNN media reporter and host of the “Reliable Sources” TV show, podcast and newsletter, Brian Stelter, has a new book coming out next week about Fox News. It’s called “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News and the Distortion of the Truth.”

Vanity Fair is out with an excerpt in which Stelter writes about Trump and his relationship with Fox News star Sean Hannity. In a shocking passage, an unnamed Hannity associate told Stelter, “Hannity would tell you off-off-off the record that Trump is a bats— crazy person.” Another friend of Hannity’s told Stelter, “Hannity has said to me more than once, ‘he’s crazy.’”

Stelter also writes that Hannity gained weight and “vaped incessantly, which some members of his inner circle blame on Trump-related stress.”

The excerpt also tells the story of what happened when Stelter came across Hannity at a holiday media party last year, as well as how Hannity worked the room at that party. It was fascinating stuff.

It’ll be fun to see what else is in Stelter’s book — and how Fox News responds to it.

Blockbuster news on Bannon

President Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon leaves federal court on Thursday after pleading not guilty to charges that he ripped off donors in an online fundraising scheme to build a southern border wall. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

The big news Thursday, just hours before the conclusion of the Democratic National Convention, was the arrest of Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former adviser who helped run Trump’s 2016 campaign. Bannon was charged with defrauding donors in a fundraiser called “We Build the Wall.”

For more of the details, including the actual indictment, check out the story by Alan Feuer, William K. Rashbaum and Maggie Haberman in The New York Times. Or, see The Washington Post story by Matt Zapotosky, Josh Dawsey and Rosalind S. Helderman.

What did Trump have to say about Bannon? He told reporters on Thursday, “He was involved in our campaign. He worked for Goldman Sachs. He worked for a lot of companies. But he was involved likewise in our campaign and for a small part of the administration, very early on. I haven’t been dealing with him at all.”

He also said, “I don’t like that project. I thought it was being done for showboating reasons.”

It’s not unusual for Trump to distance himself from those in and around his administration who have run into trouble, as Amanda Terkel points out in her story for HuffPost.

Gannett’s diversity report

On Thursday, Gannett, which owns USA Today and more than 260 local news operations, disclosed demographic figures for the entire company and many of its individual newsrooms. The point? To show transparency as the company announces an initiative to make its workforce as diverse as the country by 2025. In addition, the company wants to increase the number of reporters covering such topics as race and identity, social justice and equality.

USA Today’s Nathan Bomey wrote, “The overall company, which has a presence in 47 states, said women make up 46% of its workforce and Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) make up 22%. In Gannett’s news division, about 41% of its journalists are female and 18% are BIPOC. At USA TODAY, women make up 48% of the newsroom and BIPOC staff members make up a little over 30%.”

In a column, Gannett president of news and publisher of USA Today Maribel Perez Wadsworth wrote, “How can we hope to fully understand the issues and needs of our communities if our newsrooms don’t reflect the people we serve? And yet, across the nation, newsrooms continue to struggle with a lack of diversity –– especially in leadership ranks, including some of our own. We must do better. Diversity and inclusion are choices, not just words.” (Wadsworth’s column includes links to the diversity reports of many of the newsrooms.)

USA Today editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll wrote, “We must continue training and accountability at all levels to make sure everyone truly embraces inclusivity. We must create environments where all staffers, at all levels, are empowered to speak up, challenge and lead. We need leadership that listens and acts. When we fall short, we must own it and address it.

Media tidbits

  • Big newspaper news: Emilio Garcia-Ruiz has been named editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Chronicle. Garcia-Ruiz has spent most of the past 20 years with The Washington Post, most recently as the managing editor of digital since 2013. Garcia-Ruiz replaces Audrey Cooper, who left the Chronicle in June to become editor-in-chief of WNYC in New York.
  • Chanel Rion, a favorite of President Trump who works for OANN and is occasionally seen in White House press conferences, wants to start her own organization to rival the White House Correspondents’ Association. (A tweet from Erik Wemple of The Washington Post has the details, including a link to Rion’s press release.) I wouldn’t expect this to go anywhere.
  • Vice President Mike Pence will be a guest this morning on “CBS This Morning” to give his reaction to the Democratic National Convention and share what’s in store for next week’s Republican National Convention.
  • As I wrote in Thursday’s newsletter, Cincinnati Reds announcer Thom Brennaman was caught on a hot mic Wednesday using a homophobic slur. He apologized and was immediately taken off the air. Brennaman also calls NFL games for Fox Sports. Well, not this year. Fox put out a statement Thursday that said, “FOX Sports is extremely disappointed with Thom Brennaman’s remarks during Wednesday’s Cincinnati Reds telecast. The language used was abhorrent, unacceptable, and not representative of the values of FOX Sports. As it relates to Brennaman’s FOX NFL role, we are moving forward with our NFL schedule which will not include him.”

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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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