Round 2: Media winners and losers from Democratic debates, featuring NBC’s magic moment

June 28, 2019

Maybe Joe Biden didn’t see it coming, but NBC did.

The signature moment of Thursday night’s Democratic debate — as well as the must-see TV of the entire four hours over two nights of debates — was the exchange on race between Biden and Kamala Harris. As it developed, you realized immediately that we might be watching a pivotal moment in history. How did it happen? Debate moderators Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow ignored the rules on time and simply let this hold-your-breath conversation play out for three minutes. It was actually Biden who stopped the tense exchange by saying his time was up.

On MSNBC’s post-debate show, Maddow said, “That was one of those things when you felt the weather shift. … That was a moment that, any time you’re preparing for a debate, that’s the moment that you want. But in this case, it had nothing to do with us. That was the candidates bringing that themselves. And it was magic in the moment.”

Now for the rest of the story: NBC fully anticipated the magic. NBC News chairman Andy Lack told Politico’s Michael Calderone after the debate that NBC was waiting for a Harris-Biden showdown because of Harris’ past comments.

Lack told Calderone that NBC “didn’t know how, when, precisely what the character of it would be. … It was a mystery to us what (Biden) was going to say.”

Lack added, “I’m in a (production) truck with 15 screens, and I’m looking at the two of them, and we’re directing shows, and the important piece for us (was) just to give them a chance to speak to each other in the way that they did. And it was quite compelling.”

That kind of anticipation and patient direction was not only the signature moment of the debates, but the shining moment for NBC, which gets high marks for its two-night coverage. Thursday’s debate was more interesting than Wednesday’s, and maybe that’s because Thursday featured more of the leading candidates. But NBC’s work stood out Thursday night when it didn’t get in the way.

When a debate is over and all the special moments involve the candidates, that’s usually a sign of a job well done by the moderators. Typically, the less you remember about the moderators after a debate, the more likely it is that they did a good job. You could make that argument Thursday night.

Yes, there were times when they struggled to keep the candidates under control. As veteran newsman Dan Rather tweeted, “I don’t envy the moderators. It’s like herding cats while conducting a symphony orchestra riding a unicycle.”

The moderators did OK on that front. It was actually Harris who did the best job corralling her fellow candidates when she (I’m guessing) used her talking-points cheat sheet for this line: “Hey, guys, you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight. They want us to know how we’re going to put food on their table.”

Some candidates (Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang and John Hickenlooper, for example) might complain that they didn’t get enough time to talk and there might be a little to that. NBC did seem to concentrate on the candidates who were polling the best. Yet it did feel as if America heard from the most relevant candidates on the most relevant topics.

When asked about moderating, Maddow said, “This was absolutely freaking terrifying. … When we’re setting these things up, obviously, we’re studiously neutral between the candidates. We’re trying not to give anybody a particularly hard time or particularly easy time, trying to make sure that everybody gets on stage and the most important stuff gets litigated.”

If that was the goal, NBC succeeded.

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