Comment: NBC caved to ratings with Trump counter-programming

The network could have scheduled a town hall at any time; it chose to drown out ABC’s Biden town hall.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

When NBC News drew fire for scheduling Thursday night’s town hall with President Trump directly opposite an ABC News town hall with Joe Biden, the excuse was parity.

This arrangement was the essence of fairness, the corporate brass maintained, since it mirrored a recent town hall that Biden had done with the network; same Miami location, same 8 p.m. ET time slot.

Totally even-handed! Right?

Actually, I’d describe that gambit with an entirely different word: specious. It may sound plausible, but it is wrong.

In fact, NBC News is doing what so much of mainstream media has done time and again: Allowed Trump to steal the spotlight and command attention on his terms.

“I am dismayed — more like disgusted — by NBC’s decision to air Trump’s ‘I won’t play by the rules so let me make my own rules’ town hall opposite Biden’s,” wrote a former NBC News executive, Cheryl Gould.

She wasn’t alone. MSNBC marquee host Rachel Maddow obliquely signaled her unhappiness with the decision on her Wednesday night show as she interviewed Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris. The former founding editor-in-chief of MSNBC.com, journalism educator Merill Brown, went a step further by telling press critic Eric Boelhert it was scandalous: “If it was their decision, then they have ignored their civic responsibilities.” More than a hundred actors and producers from NBC’s entertainment division are protesting the move in a letter to top executives as well.

Here’s the problem with NBC’s rationale: The time slots for these one-person town halls only became available because Trump refused to comply with the presidential debate commission’s common-sense proposal to keep this week’s originally scheduled debate on track after he contracted coronavirus; by doing it remotely.

Under the commission’s plan, everyone involved in the debate would remain in separate locations, united only on a screen, like everything else these days. Not ideal, perhaps, but far safer; and even preferable, since the chaotic interrupting that characterized the first presidential debate early this month could be restrained through the wonders of technology.

Trump would have none of it. In a Fox Business interview with one of his favorite sycophants, Maria Bartiromo, he dissed the idea, in part because “they cut you off whenever they want.”

Almost immediately after Trump pulled out, Biden took ABC News up on an offer to do a one-person town hall; for 8 p.m. the same night that the debate had been scheduled.

And at that point, it was all over but the shouting. It was almost inevitable that Trump would want to go up opposite Biden; and NBC News gave him the chance.

Making it all but irresistible was the opportunity to win a TV ratings battle. NBC News will not only offer the debate to viewers on its main platform but will also stream it to its siblings: CNBC and MSNBC.

The combination — plus Trump’s only proven ability as what he calls a “ratings machine” — will allow him bragging rights about the incredible, never-before-seen, record-breaking town hall numbers. And never forget that it was on the NBC reality show, “The Apprentice,” where Trump first enter the consciousness of most people.

Trump will be Trump, of course, but NBC did not have to play his game. The network could have offered him a variety of time slots and days, other than this one, and it could have walked away if he refused.

As Vivian Schiller, a former NBC, Twitter and NPR executive, put it: “The point of a news organization is to serve the public. This is the opposite.”

In a Sept. 23 note to the staff, Cesar Conde, the chairman of NBC News, offered glowing congratulations about their success in covering the pandemic and the campaign: “You are all charging hard, and doing incredible work. In the midst of all of that, it can be tough to stop and reflect, let alone find the time to really think about our mission, our business, and what steps we need to take to ensure that we continue to be the best-in-class for years to come.”

Conde is new in the role. It was only this past spring that former chairman Andy Lack stepped down after a period of tumult and a series of deeply disappointing news decisions; holding back the “Access Hollywood” recording until The Washington Post published it last year, and letting Ronan Farrow walk out the door with his groundbreaking (and eventually Pulitzer Prize-winning) #MeToo reporting.

The graphics at the bottom of Conde’s note described the news group’s mission and values in lofty terms, and touted this as its purpose: “To inform and inspire the world through our journalism.”

There has been plenty of good work in recent months, which makes it sad — as well as appalling — that the top brass at NBC News turned its back on those aims with this craven decision.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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