The big media buzz on Wednesday was NBC’s decision to hold a town hall with President Donald Trump at the exact same time ABC is holding a town hall with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Both will be tonight instead of the presidential debate that was originally planned before Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis altered everything.
So what gives?
I wrote a story about NBC’s decision, and the blowback it is getting. Respected veteran journalists such as Katie Couric and Jeff Greenfield are criticizing NBC’s decision. Critics of NBC’s move are calling it everything from “indefensible” to “bad journalism” to a “giant mistake” to “borderline unconscionable.” The anger seems to be because Trump refused to do a virtual debate and when Biden went forward with his own plans to do a town hall, NBC came along to bail Trump out by giving him his own town hall — at the same time.
As I wrote in my piece on Wednesday, there are plenty of reasons not to get too bent out of shape over NBC’s decision. Let’s start with this: It’s not as if we are incapable of watching two programs in one night. That’s what DVRs are for. Heck, on Sundays, I manage to watch a half-dozen Sunday morning news shows and twice as many NFL games all before the sun goes down.
And, as far as throwing Trump a life preserver, this is not a Trump rally or one of those call-in interviews to Fox News where sycophants such as Sean Hannity let him run wild. NBC isn’t just turning over its airways for an hourlong Trump infomercial. This is a town hall and you would expect some pointed questions, meaning this could be something that backfires on Trump.
But I get the criticism, too. It would seem that NBC easily could have found another time. It most definitely would be in the best interest of citizens to not have the town halls run simultaneously.
Now, I’ll say this: I do think some of the outrage has to do with Trump — that if the situation was reversed and a network scheduled a Biden town hall to run up against Trump, the uproar would not have been as out of control as it has been the past 24 hours.
And let’s also be honest: NBC won’t say it out loud, but they are in the business of drawing viewers and a Trump town hall up against a Biden town hall is a shot across the bow at rival ABC.
That doesn’t mean NBC’s decision is right. Ultimately, it’s just bad optics and it’s alienating a bunch of people for one night of decent ratings. And so that makes it a bad business decision.
The town halls likely won’t influence any voters at this point, probably making this whole thing moot anyway. Plus, so much is going on right now that this controversy will quickly be replaced by whatever is next.
Still, in the end, it just seems as if NBC could have avoided a lot of headaches and criticism if it had chosen to air a Trump town hall at literally any other two-hour time frame outside of the one it chose.
An erosion of trust
“Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace was among those interviewed Wednesday by Financial Times news editor Matthew Garrahan at the Future of News conference. Wallace said there’s no question that President Trump’s attacks on the media have eroded trust in the media, and that Trump might have a lasting impact on the media.
“My concern, in terms of the media, is that his attacks on the media and his polarization of the whole process has infected some people in the media,” Wallace said. “And I’ve tried very much to stay out of this. And I think that some of the people, I’m not talking about opinion people, I’m talking about straight news reporters. … And I am actually shocked by the animosity, the hostility, the kind of advocacy in White House briefings now, because I think that his license in attacking the media has given reporters, I think, either lulled them or enraged them, that they have become advocates themselves, often against him. And I think that’s a terrible mistake.”
However, Wallace does admit that facts are under attack, too, mentioning the time Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway went on “Meet the Press” and used the phrase “alternate facts.”
How does he see election night going? Wallace said, “I just hope for a landslide, either way. Whether it’s a Biden landslide or a Trump landslide. Something that is so conclusive that there can’t be any talk of ballots being harvested or voter suppression on either side and we are able to say this is the president of the United States and nobody can really question it.”
By the way, Wallace will receive this year’s Poynter Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism at a virtual gala in November.
Enemies of the people
Speaking of Trump vs. the media, a new documentary that has been getting some prerelease attention airs on TV tonight. “Enemies of the People” will be at 7:30 p.m. Eastern on Vice TV. (It also can be seen on Vice TV’s YouTube channel.) I’ve seen an early screening and it is outstanding. It includes interviews with such media types as Maggie Haberman of The New York Times, David Remnick of The New Yorker, CNN’s Jeff Zucker, Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and Brian Stelter, NBC News’ Katy Tur and Univision’s Jorge Ramos.
About Trump, Haberman says in the film, “His followers don’t get how much of this is a game for him, and that’s what I think the danger is.”
A journey to a new start
Journalist Alexis Johnson was in the news this year. The reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette brilliantly tweeted out a photo of trash and litter and led people to believe it was from a protest about race. Then she revealed it was actually the aftermath of a tailgate party from a Kenny Chesney concert. Because of the tweet, which was funny and harmless but biting, the Post-Gazette claimed she was biased and would not cover any protests relating to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Johnson eventually resigned from the Post-Gazette and on Wednesday, she announced on Twitter that she has landed a new job: correspondent for “Vice News Tonight” in the Washington, D.C. bureau. She tweeted, “I can’t say enough how pumped I am for this opportunity, and I’m so thankful for the journey that led me here!”
A questionable hire
The Washington Examiner, the conservative website and publication, has named a new managing editor. He is Greg Wilson, formerly of NBC News, the New York Daily News and, most recently, Fox News, where he was managing editor of FoxNews.com for four years.
Examiner editor-in-chief Hugo Gurdon said he “couldn’t be more pleased” and that Wilson was “a highly accomplished newsman and newsroom manager.”
However, it must be pointed out that Wilson was the deputy editor of FoxNews.com when it ran, and then later had to retract, a 2017 story that tried to tie the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich to Wikileaks. Wilson stood strongly behind the story and even declared that the news outlet would eventually be “vindicated.”
Rich’s father, Joel, told NPR at the time that the story’s publication was “almost as bad for us as when we first learned of Seth’s death.”
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Relationship with anchor leads to mayor’s resignation
The mayor of Anchorage, Alaska, has resigned because of what he called an “inappropriate” relationship with a local news anchor. Ethan Berkowitz said he is stepping down following a scandalous chain of events.
The story is a wild one: A reporter named Maria Athens, who worked as an anchor at two Alaska stations, took to Facebook last week and said she had an “exclusive” story coming up about Berkowitz that claimed he had posted nude photos of himself to a website that featured underage girls. For the record, authorities have investigated Berkowitz and found no evidence of criminal conduct. Athens also left a voicemail on Berkowitz’s phone that included anti-Semitic remarks and threats to expose Berkowitz as a pedophile.
In the message, which was made public, Athens told Berkowitz, “I’m going to get an Emmy, so you either turn yourself in, kill yourself, or do what you need to do.” She also reportedly said she would kill him and his wife.
This happened on the same day that Athens was banned from the station where she worked and arrested for allegedly assaulting the station’s manager, who is reportedly her ex-boyfriend. Reports are that she no longer works at the station.
But Berkowitz then announced this week that he is stepping down because of an “inappropriate messaging relationship” with Athens.
In a statement, Berkowitz said, “My resignation results from unacceptable personal conduct that has compromised my ability to perform my duties with the focus and trust that is required.”
A light at the end of a very dark tunnel?
Well, here’s some encouraging news: During an extended interview with “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell on Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci said he is hopeful, if all goes well, we could have a vaccine for coronavirus by April 2021.
But it sounds like we have some tough times ahead before we get there with a possible surge in cases as the country hits the colder months. And that might mean making alternative plans for Thanksgiving.
“That is unfortunately a risk, when you have people coming from out of town, gathering together in an indoor setting,” Fauci said. “It is unfortunate, because that’s such a sacred part of American tradition — the family gathering around Thanksgiving. But that is a risk.”
O’Donnell’s interview with Fauci is well worth your time, so check it out.
What to make of the New York Post-Hunter Biden story?
Less than three weeks before the election, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani leaked a story to the New York Post involving, let’s see … Hunter Biden and photos and emails and a Ukrainian gas company and Joe Biden and Barack Obama and undue influence and so on and so on and so on.
Here’s what you need to know: Both Facebook and Twitter put measures in place to limit the distribution of the Post story on their platforms.
A Twitter spokesperson told Variety’s Todd Spangler that the Post story violated Twitter’s hacking material policy, which bans “the use of our services to directly distribute content obtained through hacking that contains private information, may put people in physical harm or danger, or contains trade secrets.”
Facebook policy communications director Andy Stone told Spangler that the Post story was “eligible to be fact checked by Facebook’s third-party fact checking partners” and, “In the meantime, we are reducing its distribution on our platform.”
Vox’s Andrew Prokop has a good take on the whole story.
- Excellent work from Washington Post reporter Travis M. Andrews and illustrator Nicole Rifkin about Trump and Twitter: “Commander in Tweets.”
- In an op-ed for MSNBC, Joshua Johnson with “Covid-19 is Forcing Americans to Ask What We Owe Each Other.”
- In The New York Times, former national security adviser Susan Rice with “This Year From Hell.”
- The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Molly Beck with “‘I Shouldn’t Be Here’: Oshkosh Bar Owner in ICU with COVID-19 Angry with Trump Over Out-of-Control Pandemic.”
- Cristina Tardáguila from Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network with “Without Methodology or Transparency, Facebook and Twitter Become the Arbiters of the Truth.”
More resources for journalists
- Subscribe to Alma Matters – Poynter’s new newsletter for college journalism educators
- The Weirdest Election “Night” Ever: What the public needs to know about the media, the 2020 elections and a working democracy — (Panel discussion) — Oct. 19 at 7 p.m.
- Inside the Newsroom With NBC News’ Chuck Todd moderated by Tom Jones — (Online Event) — Oct. 20 at 6 p.m. Eastern, Poynter
- The Poynter Institute Celebrates Journalism — (Online Gala) — Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. Eastern
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