By:
October 14, 2020

So here are the facts: Donald Trump and Joe Biden were supposed to have a town hall-style debate Thursday night. Then Trump tested positive for COVID-19. Because of Trump’s uncertain health situation, the debate commission wanted to hold a virtual debate. Trump said he had no interest in that.

So Biden decided to hold his own town hall instead, and ABC agreed to air it. It’s set for Thursday night. Then Trump wanted to do his own town hall and NBC agreed to partner with him.

Here’s where the controversy comes in: NBC will air the Trump town hall at the exact same time as ABC’s Biden town hall.

And now NBC is getting roasted for that decision.

The hashtag #BoycottNBC started trending on Twitter not long after NBC announced its Trump town hall on Wednesday morning — several days after ABC announced its town hall with Biden.

Veteran journalist Jeff Greenfield tweeted, “The decision by NBC News to run a Trump town hall directly opposite ABC’s Biden town hall is indefensible.”

The Arizona Republic’s Bill Goodykoontz wrote NBC should be “ashamed” and called the event a “giant mistake. This is bad TV and even worse journalism.”

He went on to write, “The blame here doesn’t fall on Trump. He’s doing his Trump thing — stomping around and demanding attention like a toddler in a toy store. This is NBC News’ fault. It’s playing the role of the indulgent parent, catering to Trump’s tantrum. It may quiet him in the short term but it’s not making the situation any better.”

Longtime NBC News veteran Katie Couric tweeted, “Having dueling town halls is bad for democracy-voters should be able to watch both and I don’t think many will. This will be good for Trump because people like to watch his unpredictability. This is a bad decision.”

The Big Lead’s Kyle Koster slammed NBC, writing it’s “borderline unconscionable” that the network is throwing Trump a lifeline after it was Trump that backed out of the original town hall debate.

“Because, let’s be clear: this is disturbing,” Koster writes. “And not because it’s Trump. It’s not about his policies or his opinions. It’s about a process that rewards him for dropping out by giving 90 minutes of airtime without his opponent. Worse, by airing it concurrently, NBC is forcing people to choose between candidates or consume both events with a whim and a remote-control prayer.”

“Today” show co-host Savannah Guthrie is getting heavily criticized on social media because she will be the Trump town hall moderator.

Apparently, even some at NBC are upset. HuffPost contributor Yashar Ali tweeted, “I’ve heard from over a dozen NBC, MSNBC, and CNBC sources (talent and staff) and the frustration with and anger toward their employer for scheduling a town hall against Biden is palpable.”

The issue that most seem to have isn’t that NBC is doing a town hall with Trump. After all, who can blame a network for wanting to do what amounts to an hourlong interview with the president less than three weeks before one of the most anticipated and contentious elections in American history?

The anger is that the Trump town hall is being held at the exact same time as the Biden town hall.

For starters, let’s dismiss the ridiculous notion that watching one town hall means you cannot watch the other. This is 2020. Most people have the technology to watch two programs that are on at the same time.

But still, critics are asking: Why not have the town at another time, a time that is not in direct competition with Biden’s town hall?

NBC can point out that they did a town hall with Biden on Oct. 5. And that Biden has been on NBC/MSNBC 13 times since March, compared to Trump who has not appeared at all. NBC can also point out that they had an opening in their schedule because, obviously, Thursday was reserved for the original debate.

And let me point out that this isn’t a Trump rally. This isn’t a sitdown with one of his Fox News sycophants such as Sean Hannity. He will be asked what we can assume are pointed questions from an audience that won’t be made up of unwavering supporters. A town hall is not a format where Trump often excels, even if he won’t be standing next to his opponent. This actually could be a bad move on Trump’s part.

But still …

NBC cannot provide a good answer for why it has to have Trump at the same time ABC is having Biden. It does feel as if Trump is being rewarded for refusing to debate Biden and that NBC is enabling him, while at the same time, potentially sabotaging Biden’s (and ABC’s) town hall. Many are suggesting, as Brian Steinberg alludes to in his piece for Variety, that it feels like a ratings grab by NBC, and a chance for NBC to cut into rival ABC’s special night of landing the Biden town hall. 

In the end, maybe none of this even matters. After all, are there still undecided voters at this point? Is there anything Biden or Trump can say at this stage that is going to sway voters to jump sides?

Nevertheless, NBC should have thought this out and realized the backlash it would get for a decision that easily could have been avoided by simply picking another time to hold a town hall with Trump besides 8 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 15.

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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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