What Was Supposed To Be A Debate Degrades Into Nothing More Than A Ratings War
Here’s what happened:
- President Trump and Joe Biden were supposed to have the second of three scheduled debates tonight. It was supposed to be a Town Hall style format, with “real people” asking the questions, which tends to favor Biden, since he’s better at showing empathy and also remembering strangers’ names. Trump on the other hand has a habit of referring to “real people” when he must interact with them as “you”.
- Trump got sick with COVID-19; wasn’t clear if/when he’d be recovered/not contagious.
- Debate commission decides to have the candidates appear remotely for the Town Hall style debate.
- Trump backs out; not to his liking.
- Biden says he’ll show and do the virtual town hall on his own.
- Commission cancels debate.
- Biden books Town Hall style event on ABC.
That all happened a while ago.
Now nearly on the eve of the event, a competing Town Hall pops up, with Trump, on NBC. At exactly the same time as the ABC/Biden event.
Could it have been on a different day, or at a different time? NBC says no. But the real answers are of course and of course. It’s a stunt.
Of course there are many ways these days for people to watch different events occurring at the same time.
But will they? Of course not. They’ll watch Trump: because his supporters will watch him no matter what, and everybody else is just kind of curious to check out how he’s doing.
So most people’s consumption of the Biden event will come from selected sound bites, which aren’t likely to be the most flattering, because controversy and/or flubs are what get the best ratings too. Also, the clips will be responsive to accusations made by Trump; probably not the other way around.
So Trump will get the higher ratings. Which he’ll then boast about endlessly.
I don’t blame Trump for this. It’s clever. Is it dirty and unfair? Of course. Who cares? Will it matter? Who knows? He’s pulling it off. That can’t happen without an enabler.
So this is really only a story about NBC saying “Yes”.
Which as far as I’m concerned, boils down to two things:
- Trump’s right when he says media companies are going to have a hard time and some will go out of business if he doesn’t get re-elected. And not just giant media companies: I absolutely do not expect to be able to continue to support myself doing this if Trump loses. But I will accept that. Happily. Maybe keeping the Trump money train going might not be NBC’s core motivation at this very second. But we don’t really know. Because in its release about the new Trump event, NBC doesn’t say if this was their idea, or the Trump campaign’s. At very least, I’m sure there’s at least some of “if it isn’t us, it’ll just be someone else, so it might as well be us” going on. But who else would it be? CBS? Fox? Keep in mind Trump isn’t doing this on Fox, which would’ve been a cinch. And no one would’ve cared. Because everyone already knows Trump uses Fox in this way. So even he knows this carries more weight.
- Networks used to provide news as a public service. Putting Trump on one network at the identical time Biden is already long slotted on another is not a public service. It’s a public disservice. It’s also not “equal time.” In fact, it’s “unequal time” if any time you spend with one candidate live makes it impossible for you to see the other.
Still, it’s no surprise decision making has changed at media companies these days.
Put yourself in this position:
President comes to you and offers you an hour of his time. You know it’ll be a ratings bonanza. Also, if you don’t do it, he’ll accuse you of being unfair and out to get him. Also, you had a more than decade-long relationship, back when he was an entertainer. Do you turn him down?
To NBC, the answer is you don’t.
I think the answer is you do.
Especially if the President’s made your network and your reporters — your people — a special target of his, kicking them and you as well as your parent company Comcast, in the head on almost a daily basis, second only probably to CNN.
It’s vitally important to not stop being journalists even if the President is kicking your head in every day. At the same time, you also don’t need to go doing him any favors.
I’d imagine Trump might even be a little amazed at what he’s able to pull off sometimes: ripping into major networks as “fake news” and “true enemy of the people” yet have them snap to attention as soon as he’s willing to throw them a bone. And ratings. In exchange for free publicity of course.