ABC’s George Stephanopoulos found it easy to steer an old-school Washington veteran through political schemes against a patriotic backdrop, while NBC’s Savannah Guthrie had to navigate the stormy waters of QAnon, white supremacy and whether the virus-stricken president had pneumonia would have. (Despite repeated inquiries, he wouldn’t say.)
Thursday’s viewers of the Dueling Network’s town halls with President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr., which aired simultaneously on prime time, much to the chagrin of bourgeois critics, were treated to two television shows as different as the candidates they were presented.
On a night when Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump were supposed to meet on a single stage of debate, television split in two. Mr. Biden’s ABC town hall had all of the fireworks on a vintage episode of This Week With David Brinkley. Mr. Trump’s NBC forum had the subtlety of a professional wrestling match.
The choice may depend on what type of program Americans want to watch over the next four years.
Ms. Guthrie, a “Today” presenter, greeted viewers with a friendly greeting – “We’d like to say that things shouldn’t go this way tonight” – which just pointed out the stakes for her and her network.
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There was no debate on Thursday as Mr Trump pulled out and refused to commit to a virtual matchup. Mr. Biden agreed to an ABC town hall, and NBC booked Mr. Trump for the same night – and at the same time, which sparked an angry backlash. NBC stars like Mandy Moore denounced the network, and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow chastised her bosses in the air.
But if Mr. Trump was expecting an easy night on NBC, the former home of his show “The Apprentice,” he wasn’t expecting Ms. Guthrie, whose background as a former trial attorney quickly came in handy.
In a barrage outside the gate, Ms Guthrie repeatedly pressed Mr Trump on his health if he took a coronavirus test before the first presidential debate, if he would denounce white supremacy, and if he spoke out against QAnon – questions that Mr Trump, who usually sat down with friendly interviewers who had avoided standing up.
The President is a seasoned dodger who has outmaneuvered his interlocutors for four years. But Ms. Guthrie repeatedly interrupted his filibuster attempts and threw Mr. Trump off balance.
“I just don’t know anything about QAnon,” the president protested once, refusing to criticize the fringe conspiracy group. “You know it!” Mrs. Guthrie shot back, respectfully but relentlessly.
At another moment, when Mr. Trump was brandishing a wad of papers to refute a point: “I have things here that will tell you just the opposite!” – Ms. Guthrie revealed her own documents. “Me too!” she replied.
Oct. 15, 2020 at 11:44 am ET
After 20 minutes of grilling from Ms. Guthrie, Mr Trump’s advisors appeared concerned. His communications director, Alyssa Farah, approached Ms. Guthrie during the first commercial break and then joined three other aides who had gathered on stage with the president.
Even when Ms. Guthrie asked questions from voters, she kept the pressure going and got Mr. Trump to sideline a New York Times report on his $ 400 million debt burden that he had not previously confirmed. And she confronted him with a concern shared by even some of his allies: “You are the president,” said Ms. Guthrie. “You’re not someone’s crazy uncle who can retweet anything.”
At ABC the mood was different. Mr Biden and Mr Stephanopoulos had a sober political conversation that was more appropriate for a Sunday morning program on public affairs.
The men sat cross-legged on a drab blue set discussing the pandemic, taxes, the environment and the Supreme Court. As Mr Stephanopoulos tracked the impact of the coronavirus on the Democrat’s tax plans – “Mr Vice President, let me push you. “- Mr. Biden replied:” Absolutely. That’s a good question. “He cited a study by the financial firm Moody’s.
Later, when Mr Stephanopoulos nudged Mr Biden to summarize an answer, the candidate apologized. “Not at all,” replied Stephanopoulos politely.
The tone tightened as Mr. Biden refused, as he has done several times, to fully explain his view on the expansion of the Supreme Court. “Don’t voters have a right to know where you stand?” Mr Stephanopoulos asked.
That didn’t stop Republican strategist Ari Fleischer from complaining about what he thought was too easy a night for Mr. Biden. “NBC is under interrogation,” he wrote on Twitter. “ABC is a picnic.” Sean Hannity on Fox News more explicitly accused Ms. Guthrie of bias, saying she interrupted Mr. Trump too often.
NBC critics are likely to argue that despite the grilling, Mr Trump still enjoyed a full hour of prime time on NBC, MSNBC, and CNBC, the networks that simulate his town hall. And all after he refused to take part in the proposed debate with Mr Biden.
Shortly after the Trump event concluded, Ms. Maddow raised her forehead to her MSNBC viewers. “Well,” she explained, “that’s what happened.”
Tiffany Hsu contributed to the coverage.