October 9, 2020

Let’s be honest. After the first two debates in this presidential election, we could use a break.

It looks like we’re going to get one. Maybe for a week. Maybe for four years.

This seems certain: Next Thursday’s presidential debate is postponed. Because of the uncertainty of President Donald Trump’s COVID-19, the debate commission wanted to turn next Thursday’s town hall debate in Miami into a virtual debate. But that idea didn’t get very far.

During a rambling, off-the-rails, scattered interview Thursday morning with Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo, Trump said, “I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate, that’s not what debating is all about. You sit behind a computer and do a debate. It’s ridiculous.”

Later Thursday, ABC News put out a release saying Joe Biden would do a town hall in Philadelphia next Thursday with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos.

Trump’s campaign said they would be willing to push the town hall debate back a week from Oct. 15 to Oct. 22 and then the third and final debate could be held on Oct. 29 — just days before the election. But Biden spokesperson Kate Bedingfield said, “Donald Trump doesn’t make the debate schedule; the Debate Commission does. Trump’s erratic behavior does not allow him to rewrite the calendar, and pick new dates of his choosing. We look forward to participating in the final debate, scheduled for October 22, which already is tied for the latest debate date in 40 years. Donald Trump can show up, or he can decline again. That’s his choice.”

Like kids on a playground making up rules for a game on the fly just to benefit themselves, Trump and Biden have thrown what’s left of this campaign into total chaos — as if we hadn’t already reached that point.

So here’s where we are: There might be two more debates, maybe one, maybe none. One might be virtual. Or maybe not. Biden was willing to do two more, but only if one was virtual. Trump wants two more, as long as neither is virtual. Oh, and then late Thursday, after his doctors cleared him to resume regular activities starting on Saturday, Trump said he wants to debate Biden as originally planned next Thursday.

Is your head spinning?

I’m still a big believer in debates, even if very few votes are going to be changed in this particular election. It’s never a bad thing when the leaders of our country talk directly to the American people for an extended period of time. But after Trump’s rude behavior in the presidential debate and a vice presidential debate that got sidetracked by evasive answers from both candidates and Mike Pence talking over everyone, maybe we could use a break to reset, take a breath and gear up for the stretch run.

In the end, however, it’s the debate commission that needs to set the rules without being influenced by either candidate. My suggestion, assuming Trump is healthy and can participate without being infectious, is to have one more debate — a town hall in Miami as planned, but a week later than originally scheduled. That would put it on Oct. 22.

That would be the final debate … thank goodness!

Radio rally

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh announced Thursday that Trump will host “the largest virtual rally in radio history” today. Apparently, Trump is going to answer questions from listeners. Stay tuned.

The moderator’s take

Vice presidential debate moderator Susan Page. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)

USA Today’s Susan Page received mixed reviews for her performance as the moderator in Wednesday’s vice presidential debate. Most felt her initial questions were excellent, but she didn’t follow up or press the candidates when they refused to answer her questions. In addition, she did a poor job stopping the candidates from going past their allotted time, especially Mike Pence, who simply ignored and talked right through Page’s polite “thank you” attempts to cut him off.

But Page told The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr that she had no regrets and, “I felt good about how it went. I felt it was a relatively civil debate, and one that was focused on issues that mattered to voters.”

She thought any refusals to answer questions from candidates were actually telling for viewers. As far as not being able to stop the candidates — again, mostly Pence — from going over their time, Page told Barr, “I didn’t see many options beyond just speaking up and saying, ‘Thank you,’ to try to get them to stop. I didn’t have alternatives that came to mind. … Saying ‘thank you’ was the best option to think of.”

Amusingly, she never saw the other star on the stage Wednesday night: the fly that landed on Pence’s head.

In the end, Page said, “It wasn’t a perfect debate. There were things I wish had gone better. But, all in all, I felt a sense of, as you can imagine, relief. … I guess I would leave it for others to judge whether it was a useful exercise for Americans, generally, who were watching.”

“Washington Week’s” special guest

Page will be one of the guests tonight on PBS’s “Washington Week,” which airs at 8 p.m. Eastern on most PBS stations. Also joining moderator Robert Costa will be “PBS NewsHour’s” Yamiche Alcindor and The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib.

Oh, speaking of debate moderators, check out this interesting comment from Fox News’ Chris Wallace. During an interview with Mediaite editor-in-chief Aidan McLaughlin on “The Interview” podcast, Wallace was asked what he thought about getting criticism from Fox News personalities such as Mark Levin and Greg Gutfeld that he was biased against Trump in the first debate.

Wallace said, “I don’t take it very seriously.”

Debating the debate

Vice President Mike Pence takes notes as Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris answers a question during the vice presidential debate. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)

I really enjoyed how The New York Times editorial board looked back at Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate. In a cool chart and story, 17 members of the editorial board looked back at the best and worst moments and picked who they believe won the debate.

The breakdown: 11 felt Kamala Harris won the debate, four chose Mike Pence and two rated it as a tie.

Among the stronger comments, Elizabeth Bruenig said, “Pence may be evangelical, but he’s not charismatic.”

But Ross Douthat said, “You have to take into account degree-of-difficulty here: Pence’s task was to normalize the presidency of Donald Trump after its most insane week yet, and he gave a truly remarkable (and, yes, often truly brazen) performance of normalcy, from which Harris’s prosecutorial style was unable to shake him.”

Then again, Gail Collins, who picked Harris as the winner, wrote, “Nobody is going to be talking about this debate in two days. They’ll be lucky to get a 10-minute discussion by serious political junkies at breakfast.”

Meanwhile, The Washington Post’s editorial board wrote, “Ms. Harris’s silence on court-packing is disrespectful to voters, but Mr. Pence’s failure to commit to accepting the election results is unconscionable. One concerns how the nation’s democratic institutions might evolve. The other concerns whether the nation will have a democracy at all.”


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Debate TV ratings

Wednesday’s vice presidential debate drew more than 50 million TV viewers, which absolutely crushed the viewership of the 2016 vice presidential debate between Pence and Tim Kaine. That debate drew about 35 million people. As I write all the time when talking about debate numbers this election cycle, these are just the TV numbers. They don’t include internet/streaming viewership.

According to Nielsen, Fox News’ coverage drew 11.3 million viewers, setting the record for the highest-rated vice presidential debate in cable television history. It also led all TV networks in viewership Wednesday night.

While Wednesday’s debate blew away the 2016 vice presidential debate, it won’t go down as the most-watched vice presidential debate in TV history. That record still belongs to the 2008 debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. Nearly 70 million watched that debate, which was actually more than the first presidential debate that year between Barack Obama and John McCain. Also, just to note, about 56.7 million watched the 1984 debate between George H.W. Bush and Geraldine Ferraro. Wednesday’s TV numbers were about on par with the 2012 vice presidential debate between Biden and Paul Ryan.

A strange interview

As I mentioned above, Trump did a rather lengthy interview with Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo, who has gone from a one-time respected news anchor to a shameless supporter of Trump. Her softball interviews and refusal to push back on anything have seriously damaged what at one time was a good reputation in the journalism world.

She even got into it with Fox Business colleague Dagen McDowell when McDowell rightly criticized Bartiromo for an interview that was “all over the place” and “going back down the rabbit hole” of talking about Hillary Clinton’s emails. That seemed to hit a nerve with Bartiromo, who said, “I don’t think a rabbit hole, because Hillary Clinton continues to get away with so much!”

Meanwhile, CNN’s Chris Cillizza watched the whole interview and wrote, “The 48 Most Unhinged Lines from Donald Trump’s Fox Business Interview.”

Trump also gave a phone interview to Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Thursday night, again touching on a wide range of stream-of-consciousness topics.

A sad passing

Somber news from the journalism world on Thursday: Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and columnist Jim Dwyer died of complications from lung cancer. He was 63. Dwyer was a legend, particularly in New York, where he worked for Newsday, The Daily News and The New York Times for nearly four decades.

In the obit of Dwyer, The New York Times’ Robert D. McFadden wrote, “In prose that might have leapt from best-selling novels, Mr. Dwyer portrayed the last minutes of thousands who perished in the collapse of the World Trade Center’s twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001; detailed the terrors of innocent Black youths pulled over and shot by racial-profiling state troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike; and told of the coronavirus besieging a New York City hospital.”

Dwyer won the 1995 Pulitzer for commentary for his Newsday columns, and was also a part of Newsday’s team that won the 1992 Pulitzer for spot reporting on a subway derailment in Manhattan.

He wrote his last column for the Times on May 26 of this year.

In a note to staff, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet and metro editor Cliff Levy wrote that Dwyer was “a wondrously inventive writer and relentlessly dogged street reporter. He was a crusader for those facing injustice, and a chronicler of everyday lives on the subway. He had more friends than almost anyone in journalism because he was brilliant, thoughtful and very funny.”

Tributes poured in on Twitter. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he was devastated by the news and added, “To say it’s a great loss to journalism is to understate it.” The Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones called it “a sad day for New York journalism.” And music star Rosanne Cash said, “His voice will be missed.”

Those are just a few examples.

In 2006, Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark wrote about his admiration for Dwyer, saying, “When I see the bylines of certain reporters, I will read whatever they write. Jim Dwyer of The New York Times is one of those. Jim has become, in my mind, the prose-poet of 9/11, the journalist who has, with a special decency and power, managed to chronicle the lingering effects of a horrible day.”

ESPN troubles?


(AP Photo/David Kohl, File)

Front Office Sports’ Michael McCarthy is reporting that ESPN could undergo massive layoffs “in the coming weeks.” One source told McCarthy that the number of layoffs could be between 300 and 700. Another source estimated it could be around 400.

McCarthy wrote, “The cuts are expected to hit hardest among ESPN employees who work behind the camera. But some on-camera TV and radio talents could be impacted — particularly if their contracts are expiring this year.”

Outkick’s Ryan Glasspiegel also reported cuts are on the way, pointing out the economic impact that the coronavirus has had on Disney, which owns ESPN. Awful Announcing’s Andrew Bucholtz wrote that the cuts might not happen until January.

The reporting also included that ESPN might ask some of its high-paid talent to take a pay cut in order to save tens of millions of dollars.

ESPN employs about 6,500 around the world, and about 4,000 at its headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut. ESPN did not comment for McCarthy’s story.

Promising ESPN news

Even though ESPN could be facing some tough times, it announced Thursday that Domonique Foxworth has signed a multi-year extension with The Undefeated — ESPN’s site that explores the intersection of sports, race and culture. Foxworth, a former NFL player and NFL Players Association president, has established himself as a thoughtful and entertaining personality at ESPN — not only as a writer, but as an on-air personality for such shows as “Get Up,” “First Take,” “Outside the Lines” and “Highly Questionable.”

Media tidbits

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, right, and his three daughters in an interview for a story that will air on “CBS Sunday Morning.” (Courtesy: CBS News)

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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