By:
October 19, 2020

Another debate. Another complaint from President Donald Trump.

He complained about moderator Chris Wallace in the first debate. He bailed on last week’s scheduled debate because he didn’t want to do it virtually.

And now, days before the next debate, he’s griping about the next moderator: NBC News’ Kristen Welker.

Barring any last-minute events — and that certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility in these topsy-turvy times — Trump will square off against Joe Biden on Thursday in Nashville. That’s expected to be the final debate before the Nov. 3 election.

But before the first question has even been asked, Trump has brought up Welker’s name in rallies and has called her “extremely unfair.” He also criticized her on Twitter, tweeting, “She’s always been terrible & unfair, just like most of the Fake News reporters, but I’ll still play the game.”

Some of Trump’s beef seems to come from a flimsy New York Post story that mentioned Welker’s parents are Democrats. (By the way, the Post seems to be in a full-force mode to get Trump reelected, and questioning someone over their parents’ politics seems especially pointless.)

Anyway, for what it’s worth, Trump senior adviser Jason Miller had high praise for Welker during a recent interview with Fox News’ Martha MacCallum.

“Look, I think I have a very high opinion of Kristen Welker,” Miller said. “I think she’s going to do an excellent job as the moderator for the third debate. I think she’s a journalist who is very fair in her approach. And I think that she’ll be a very good choice for this third debate.”

The scheduled topics for this debate are “Fighting COVID-19,” “American Families,” “Race in America,” “Climate Change,” “National Security” and “Leadership.”

Meanwhile, the biggest question shouldn’t be about who the moderator is. Welker is a superb and respected journalist who will prove her objectivity. And the topics are legitimate ones.

No, the biggest question is what’s the debate commission going to do to keep this debate from spiraling out of control with interruptions like the first Trump-Biden debate when Trump ignored Wallace and talked over Biden?

After that fiasco, the debate commission said it was going to have “additional structure” to make sure future debates went smoothly. But as CNN’s Brian Stelter pointed out on his “Reliable Sources” show on Sunday, the commission has yet to announce what those measures are and we’re only three days away. Will they cut microphones? Do something else?

“We don’t know,” Stelter said.

As Biden told CNN’s Arlette Saenz after the first debate, “I just hope there’s a way in which the debate commission can control the ability of us to answer the questions without interruptions.”

Post problems

Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

Speaking of the New York Post, the tabloid ran a front-page story last week that tried to suggest Joe Biden used his influence as vice president to help his son, Hunter, with a Ukrainian energy company. Almost from the start, the story seemed full of holes and it wasn’t taken seriously by anyone outside of diehard Trump supporters.

Now there is a report of just how much of a mess that Post story appears to be.

New York Times media reporter Katie Robertson reports that the article was written mostly by a staff reporter who refused to put his name on it. Robertson wrote, “Bruce Golding, a reporter at the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid since 2007, did not allow his byline to be used because he had concerns over the article’s credibility.”

There’s more. Robertson reports that “many Post staff members” questioned the authenticity of the hard drive that supposedly held the smoking gun emails and that Golding wasn’t the only one who refused to put a byline on the story. At least one other reporter also refused.

Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who was a main source for the Post story, told the Times he took the story to the Post because “either nobody else would take it, or if they took it, they would spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out.”

Uh, in other words, it sounds like other news outlets would have responsibly vetted the story before just publishing it.

It should be noted that The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal all looked into the story and could not independently verify what the New York Post reported. A New York Post spokesperson told Robertson that the story was vetted and the Post stands by its reporting.

When people at your own paper have an issue with a story and refuse to put their name on it, it’s likely full of problems. And that’s why it never gained traction among other media outlets, despite the outrage from many Trump supporters.

And, if Robertson’s story is true, what kind of newspaper presses staffers to put their name on a story?

Most insightful segment

Practically every poll out there right now shows Joe Biden with a solid lead over Donald Trump. But we also remember this time four years ago when practically every poll out there showed Hillary Clinton with a solid lead over Trump.

There has been plenty of hand-wringing, soul-searching and back-to-the-drawing-board thinking to not repeat the mistakes of 2016. There also has been some revisiting of 2016 that showed maybe the polls weren’t that wrong, but misread. And we certainly paid more attention to the horse race of the national polls without considering the electoral college in 2016.

Anyway, that’s why it’s good to see shows like “Meet the Press” help explain polls in a bit more detail. On Sunday, during its “Data Download” segment, the show explained why 2020 might not be exactly like 2016.

As moderator Chuck Todd explained, at this point four years ago, Clinton had a 10-point lead in national polling. Biden currently has an 11-point lead. But here are the differences:

In October 2016, 65% of registered voters thought the country was headed in the wrong direction under President Barack Obama. Now? That number is at 62% — not a good sign for the incumbent president.

In addition, it appears voters like Biden more than they liked Clinton. Four years ago, in the “positive feeling” poll, Clinton sat a negative 10. But now, Biden is at a plus one.

And finally, in 2016, Trump had leads in polling among independents (+1), 65-and-older voters (+1) and white voters (+9). Today, Biden has leads among independents (+7) and 65-and-older voters (+10) and trails Trump among white voters by only four points.

“So even if 2020 might look like and feel a bit like 2016 with a surprise ending possible,” Todd said, “these numbers suggest there are substantial differences this year.”

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Be careful during the holidays

Do you have plans to travel for Thanksgiving? That might not be a good idea. In what has become must-watch TV every time he is on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb sent out a chilling warning on Sunday about the coronavirus. The worst might be yet to come.

And that’s something that must be considered when making holiday plans. As is this:

“When you talk to the governors about where the spread is occurring,” Gottlieb said, “it’s occurring in congregate settings where people feel more comfortable, a local Elks Club, a large family gathering.”

Moderator Margaret Brennan got straight to the point, asking Gottlieb if he is advising people not to gather for Thanksgiving.

“I think people need to weigh their individual risks,” Gottlieb said. “If you have people in the family who are vulnerable, I think it’s advisable to try to contain and protect them. We have two or three very hard months ahead of us. I think it’s going to be the hardest phase of this pandemic.”

Gottlieb is encouraged that we are doing a better job of treating those who are sick, but noted that more people are getting infected.

Is there any good news? Gottlieb said he realizes people have grown weary of all this, but “we’re probably in the seventh inning of the acute phase of this pandemic.”

A legend passes

Minneapolis Star Tribune sports columnist Sid Hartman in 2014 (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt, File)

A journalism legend has died. Sid Hartman, who was 100 years old and still, remarkably, writing a regular column for The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, passed away on Sunday. His son, Chad, tweeted on Sunday, “My father’s extraordinary and resilient life has come to a peaceful conclusion surrounded by his family.”

It truly was an extraordinary life. Hartman started his career in newspapers as a paperboy way back in 1928. He started writing a column for the Minneapolis Times in the 1940s and then moved over to what was then called the Minneapolis Tribune.

Over the next seven decades, he became a Twin Cities institution. The Star Tribune said he had 21,235 bylined stories in his career. The first was in 1944. The last? On Sunday. And get this: It was his 119th of 2020.

Hartman often bragged about how close he was with practically everyone in sports, using the line that he was their “close, personal friend” — a phrase that became synonymous with Hartman.

Besides writing a column and being a fixture on TV and radio in Minnesota, Hartman also was a power broker in the Minneapolis sports scene. He was integral in bringing Major League Baseball to Minnesota and, before that, basically served as the general manager of the old Minneapolis Lakers basketball team.

Hartman sometimes crossed the line of objectivity, something he never apologized for. He would openly root for Minnesota teams, but that didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most famous and beloved sportswriters who has ever lived. Fox Sports North did a feature on him in 2018, which you can watch here.

I worked at The Star Tribune from 2000 to 2003, and had the privilege of working with him. There was only one Sid. And he will be deeply missed.

What makes it even sadder is a memorial for Hartman would have been a who’s who of Minnesota sports, media and dignitaries, and probably would have needed to be held in a sports arena to fit everyone. But with COVID-19, that won’t be able to happen at this time. Perhaps in the future, his life can be remembered with such a celebration.

Media tidbits

Actress Sigourney Weaver on the cover of T Magazine. (Courtesy: The New York Times)

  • T Magazine, The New York Times’ style magazine, has a new issue out called “Greats,” which honors those who have left a mark this year. That includes photographer Dawoud Bey, political activist Angela Davis, artist Barbara Kruger, singer-songwriter FKA Twigs and actress Sigourney Weaver.
  • Much to many media critics’ surprise, including me, Joe Biden’s town hall on ABC last week had better TV ratings than Donald Trump’s town hall on NBC, MSNBC and CNBC. The final numbers were about 14.1 million to 13.5 million. But, I always point out that these numbers do not include streaming and other internet viewing. Although streaming and internet viewing tend to skew younger and you have to ask if they might, too, have benefitted Biden. In an opinion column for The Hill, Joe Ferullo writes, “Trump Lost The Ratings Battle: What That Really Means.”
  • To help you get ready for what could happen on Nov. 3, Poynter is hosting the “Weirdest Election Night Ever” tonight online from 7 to 9 p.m. For more details and to enroll, click here.

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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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