At President Trump’s town hall in Miami last night, Savannah Guthrie did what the other moderators could—or perhaps would—not do. While Fox News’s Chris Wallace allowed Donald Trump to descend into duplicitous, racist-slur-spewing madness at the first debate, and while USA Today’s Susan Page failed to stop Vice President Pence from evading her questions in his face-off against Sen. Kamala Harris, NBC’s Savannah Guthrie fact-checked and followed up.
When Trump claimed that 85 percent of people who wear a mask catch coronavirus, she corrected him: The study actually found that of a group of 150 Covid-19 patients, 85% said they had worn a mask. When Trump tried to dismiss sharing a conspiracy theory to his 87 million Twitter followers—“That was an opinion of somebody and that was a retweet. I’ll put it out there. People can decide for themselves,” he said— she shot back, “You’re the president. You’re not someone’s crazy uncle who can retweet whatever.” (Although Mary Trump, the president’s niece who leaked details of his tax returns to The New York Times, had something to say about that.) And she asked him to condemn QAnon, an internet group that continues to spread a conspiracy theory that the “deep state,” run by pedophilic Democratic elites, wants to undermine Trump. He wouldn’t. “I just don’t know about QAnon,” Trump deflected, to which Guthrie responded, “You do know.” Normally, Trump’s interview tactics are to shout and steamroll, but Guthrie stood her ground. (Which, by the way, stood in stark contrast with her former colleague Matt Lauer, who in 2016 made a mess moderating a forum with Trump and Hillary Clinton.)
When NBC announced its town hall with President Trump earlier this week, it drew immediate, intense ire: “It’s an irresponsible and selfish move by NBC,” a source close to the Biden campaign told The Daily Beast. “If they’re going to allow Donald Trump an hour of air time to spread disinformation about COVID and repeat his greatest hits of lies and conspiracy theories, they ought to at least do it an hour later and let voters hear from both candidates. Broadcast networks have a role in our Democratic process, and NBC doesn’t seem to be taking theirs very seriously today.” Former Today co-host Katie Couric also criticized NBC for having Trump appear at the same time as Biden, tweeting, “Having dueling town halls is bad for democracy-voters should be able to watch both and I don’t think many will.”
Having dueling town halls is bad for democracy-voters should be able to watch both and I don’t think many will. This will be good for Trump because people like to watch his unpredictability. This is a bad decision. #vote
— Katie Couric (@katiecouric) October 14, 2020
In the end, NBC needed Guthrie’s performance to justify their decision: Was Trump’s counter-programmed town hall just a ratings ploy, or would it pass journalistic muster?
It’s hard to know if Guthrie changed any minds last night—or if Biden’s did, either. After all, Harvard Business School found that 72 percent of voters decide on a candidate more than two months before the election. But what did suburban women—who may be a swing demographic on November 3—think when, after an intense line of questioning, Trump condescendingly called Guthrie “cute”? Any woman would recognize the line as a last-resort retort; proof that the guy couldn’t counter your point with reason, so he instead scraped the bottom of his barrel of biases to see if a sexist one might stick.
There’s one more debate left before election day, scheduled for October 22 at Belmont University in Nashville, and Kristen Welker, a NBC News White House correspondent, will moderate. As she poses her questions, let’s just hope that Welker, like Guthrie, will hold the powers-that-be accountable for actually answering them.