This week’s twin Democratic debates provide the media’s first big test of the 2020 campaign. It’s not just about how they’ll manage this unwieldy field or how much control NBC, Telemundo and MSNBC agreed to cede to the Democratic National Committee over who gets to be on the stage. It’s about whether they fall into the same trap they did in 2016 of letting Donald Trump control the national agenda and attention span to his own advantage. And make no mistake, that’s exactly what he’s trying to do; America’s troll-in-chief plans to live tweet the debates.
When I heard that, I feared that despite all the lip service paid in election postmortems on the impact of the media turning over mind-boggling amounts of airtime and endless column inches to the former reality TV star in 2016, we had really learned nothing. Or if we had learned something, too many major outlets were going to ignore the lesson and dance along with him once again during the 2020 campaign hoping for another Trump bump in ratings and page views.
Here we go again, I thought. Twitter v. TV. Digital v. Legacy. Trump v. Democracy. Trump using Twitter to do his dirty dance of name calling, slander, misinformation and lies in trying to keep the media gaze only on him and not his opponents. The greater his success, the less our chances of getting to know what each member of the wide and diverse field of Democratic candidates stands for in this election.
But Tuesday night, MSNBC and CNN gave me hope for the media and their role in the 2020 presidential election that I have not been feeling for months.
It came as the former carried none of President Donald Trump’s prime-time rally in Orlando kicking off his re-election campaign, while the latter carried only six minutes. That’s about what it deserved. After all, it’s not news that Trump is running for re-election — he filed paperwork for his re-election bid just hours after he was inaugurated — and he had nothing new to say. Those networks put real news judgment ahead of entertainment value and ratings, and that’s not an easy thing for cable news networks to do.
TV is the medium most vulnerable to Trump. And when you add in its digital arms, like CNN.com, it has the largest audience of voters by far.
For all the excellent journalists and editors working in TV, the medium is still essentially one shaped and driven by the sensibilities and formulas of the entertainment industry. Why else would journalists put on makeup to report and read the news?
Trump doesn’t just know the formulas and tropes of prime time entertainment, with its cliffhanger endings and stereotyped characterizations, he seems to live and breathe them like Chance the Gardener in Jerzy Kosinsky’s 1970 novel “Being There.” Trump strategically uses outrageous and dangerous words and acts to grab media attention and control the national discussion. It is the biggest trick in his media toolkit these days. He will do or say anything to control the media moment regardless of the truth or long-term consequences. Yet he is today not just a candidate who delivers ratings as he sucks up cable TV airtime. He is the president of the United States, and it’s a hard thing to say anything he does should be ignored.
So, even as I criticize other media outlets, I empathize with them. Covering President Trump isn’t easy.
No media operation will face a bigger test this coming week than NBC News.
Like many major media outlets, NBC wanted these debates badly, and it got them in part by offering network (NBC and Telemundo) coverage in addition to cable (MSNBC). Pre-empting prime-time entertainment programming on NBC, even in the summer, is an expensive proposition.
But in going first, NBC News will carry an extra burden of intense scrutiny as it tries to set the bar for media controlling the conversation instead of allowing Trump to do it.
For example, what should NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo do Wednesday night if Trump starts blasting away on Twitter at, say, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, someone who clearly gets under his skin? And what if he says something so offensive about her or women in general that it seems as if it cannot be ignored?
Or, worse yet, what if he uses Twitter to announce an action in the middle of the debate that will affect millions, like carrying out his rumored threat to have mass arrests and deportations, or invoking military action against Iran?
Those are very tough calls. But based on what MSNBC did Tuesday night with Trump’s rally, I am more confident than I was at the start of the week that management will know that its duty for the two hours of the debate is to maintain its focus on the candidates. That’s what it signed up for in asking to televise the debates, and that’s what the American people deserve.
Don’t split the screen or run a crawl at the bottom of the screen with the Trump tweets or statements. The minute you do that, he wins, as you have allowed him to shift the prime-time focus off the Democratic candidates. For some of them, this will be their only shot with an audience of this size. (The first Republican primary debate in the 2016 was seen by 24 million on Fox News.)
Of course, it is hard to hold the focus when the competition is covering what Trump tweeted or did. And some critics will surely blast NBC News for not reporting it if they don’t follow the shiny objects Trump displays. But the media needs to quit being a co-conspirator with Trump as he uses bad behavior to control its focus — and, thus, the conversation of civic life during this election.
(Maybe NBC could have it both ways by asking the candidates about whatever news Trump might be making during the debate. But which candidates? And is that fair to those who are or aren’t asked to respond?)
Media also have to be more introspective, transparent and honest about their own involvement in the political process as they host these debates and cover the campaigns.
The most under-reported story of the 2016 presidential election was the way media swallowed politics or, at least, merged with politics as a controlling partner in our national lives during the election. There is now almost nothing a candidate does that doesn’t involve media.
NBC made most of the decisions involving the structure of these debates with the Democratic National Committee. The 20 candidates who will be debating across the two nights were determined by the DNC based on a mix of polling and fundraising.
To make the stage, candidates needed to have either at least 1 percent support in three qualifying polls, or provide evidence of at least 65,000 unique donors, with a minimum of 200 different donors in at least 20 states, according to an NBC News statement.
The decision to not have the top 10 on one night and the lowest on another was also a DNC decision, according to NBC News.
Tom Perez, DNC chair, told MSNBC, "The purpose of that is to be consistent with our principle of trying to be fair to everybody but also, it gets to the point of your question, so that we have maximum eyeballs both nights.”
Maximum eyeballs is show-biz-think, though, the more viewers the better for the Democratic Party, too.
Which candidates will appear on Wednesday and which on Thursday was done through a drawing conducted by an NBC executive with representatives of the campaigns present, NBC said.
That process determined that Wednesday night’s lineup will feature Sens. Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke. Thursday’s debate will include Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, along with former Vice President Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Other lesser-known contenders are divided among the two nights.
But what about the decision on moderators: Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Chuck Todd, Rachel Maddow and José Diaz-Balart?
MSNBC has already taken some flak for Maddow because she is seen by some as too partisan. The New York Times recently stopped allowing its personnel to appear on her show because of that perception.
I have no problem with Maddow moderating the second hour with Chuck Todd. She’s the smartest host on prime-time cable TV, and I expect she will add a breadth and depth to the questioning. She should be part of the mix.
She will, though, get intense scrutiny, that’s for sure. And she will probably draw some fire because she is a lightning rod personality.
As early as it seems in the 2020 campaign, these debates Wednesday and Thursday matter in terms of setting the tone for how the press engages the candidates. That seems especially true in terms of how the press deals with Trump’s attempts to mess with the Democrats and set their and the media’s agendas.
Remember the first primary debate of the 2016 campaign in early August 2015 on Fox News?
Speaking of lightning rods, there was Megyn Kelly asking Candidate Trump about his misogyny.
It started with her saying, “You've called women you don't like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.”
It ended with him threatening her, a threat he kept by unleashing the dogs of social media hell on her with inflammatory tweets and statements in cable TV interviews.
It was an exchange that resonated across the election straight through the Access Hollywood tape in which he talked about how and where he likes to grab women.
For all of that, he still wound up still controlling the election narrative successfully enough to get elected in 2016.
Campaign 2020 starts in earnest this week. Let’s not let Trump — or any candidate — have that kind of media control again.