President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden are taking their campaigns this week to the biggest tent in American media, prime-time TV, and that means more challenges for the media.
Leaving the safety of super-friendly Fox News, the only channel on which he was doing extended interviews for a time this year, Mr. Trump took the bold step of a 90-minute, town hall on ABC Tuesday night hosted by George Stephanopoulos, the one-time aide to former Democratic President Bill Clinton.
As much as critics like me focus on cable when it comes to politics, network TV still has the largest prime-time audiences, which is one of the reasons Mr. Trump put himself in the hands of Mr. Stephanopoulos and ABC. The polls are telling him he is going to have to get beyond his base if he wants another four years in office.
Mr. Biden, meanwhile, is doing a prime-time town hall Thursday with Anderson Cooper moderating on CNN. Like Mr. Trump’s ABC event, there will be a mask-wearing, socially-distanced audience to ask questions of the candidate. The CNN event will be in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Mr. Biden’s hometown, while Mr. Trump’s town hall was in Philadelphia. Not that Pennsylvania is an important battleground state or anything.
The challenges with Mr. Trump start with the very act of giving him 90 minutes of airtime. When I heard about Tuesday’s show, my first thought was: Oh, no, here we go again, 2016 redux, with network and cable channels giving him huge chunks of free airtime to lie about his record and attack his opponent.
But is it not the job of ABC News and every other news outlet that takes its role in our democracy seriously to bring candidates before citizens to be questioned when the opportunity presents itself? You don’t serve democracy by ducking such opportunities.
The president did lie and attack Tuesday night, saying, for example, that Mr. Biden wanted Medicare for All, which he characterized as “socialized medicine,” when, in fact, the former vice president campaigned against that policy in the Democratic primaries. Mr. Trump also flat out denied that he ever “played down” the pandemic despite the fact that journalist Bob Woodward has him on tape saying that he did play down the pandemic because he didn’t want to panic the American people.
Several times Mr. Trump blamed crime and poverty in American states and cities on Democratic leadership. It got to the point where Mr. Stephanopoulos interrupted him by asking, “Why do you keep talking about Democrat states, Democrat states?”
Trump: They are.
Stephanopoulos: They’re American states, American states.
Trump: No. The Democrat-run states are the ones that are doing badly, George ... And cities — in particular, cities — I mean, these cities are being run so poorly.
Stephanopoulos: But don’t you have a responsibility to those states and cities as well?
ABC and Stephanopoulos did almost everything you can to challenge a candidate in a TV town hall, and good for them. The people in the audience even asked tough questions. The first man up challenged the president on his handling of the pandemic, asking, “Why did you throw vulnerable people like me under the bus?”
Another asked Mr. Trump why he doesn’t wear a mask or call for a national mandate on masks.
The president told the questioner she should ask Mr. Biden why he and the Democrats promised a national mandate at their convention and then didn’t deliver. Mr. Stephanopoulos quickly corrected the president by pointing out that Mr. Biden said he would call on governors to mandate masks on a state-by-state basis ― that’s different from a national mandate.
Here’s the challenge: If you are going to let Mr. Trump on your airwaves, raise your game to the level ABC did Tuesday. Give him no free rides to control the conversation like he got in 2016.
The big challenge with Mr. Biden for moderators and interviewers on CNN and MSNBC is how hard they are willing to come at the Democratic candidate. As journalists, they have an obligation to be just as tough on him as ABC was on Mr. Trump.
But if Mr. Biden looks bad as a result, some in the audience are going to blame the moderators, not Mr. Biden, given the intensity of the passion among many in the audiences of those two channels to see Mr. Trump defeated Nov. 3. Be ready to anger your audience and lose some viewers, or stay out of the town hall business in 2020.
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.