Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The job of journalists and major media outlets is to tell the truth, hold the powerful to account, and serve the public. NBC News has just disgracefully failed on all three of those objectives.
It’s just weeks before Election Day, and the American people are already casting ballots that will shape the direction of our country for generations to come. The two men competing for the presidency were set to have an in-person, town hall-style debate on Thursday night. The uncontrolled pandemic and the President’s positive test for coronavirus, led the Commission on Presidential Debates to ask for the event to be virtual
Trump refused to participate. As a result, the commission called off the debate. Democratic nominee Joe Biden said he would stand by his word and speak to the American people, town-hall-style. After the cancellation, Biden made his own arrangements — on the same day the canceled debate would have occurred — for a town hall with ABC, which announced the event last week.
Stunningly, ABC’s competitor NBC made the wildly irresponsible and self-interested decision to provide Trump a 60-minute town hall of his own. The NBC event will take place at the same time Biden is on ABC — the same time both would have appeared together in the debate that Trump ran away from — leading to a social media outcry for a boycott of the Trump event.
Who, exactly, does NBC’s decision serve? Not the American people, for whom it is surely preferable to see the two candidates side by side, answering the same questions, so that we can compare their relative positions and visions for America’s future. Instead, viewers now have to decide: Will they watch Biden or will they watch Trump?
But Trump was offered the same format, day of the week, and length of time as Biden — it was called the town hall debate. Biden was willing to hold up his end of the bargain by answering voters’ questions and debating the president. That Trump pulled out is on him. And NBC choosing to hold a competing event at the same time as the ABC one is on them.
Trump is clearly available Thursday evening. He could have debated Biden as he said he would. Instead, he’s going on NBC because with his own event, the reality show host president has a clear advantage. People watch him to be entertained, not informed; even those who can’t stand him listen to him speak to see what ludicrous, offensive, or fabricated thing he spouts off.
Biden is staid, serious, and, by contrast, boring — all of which is an asset for a president, but not so much for television ratings. Seeing Trump and Biden side by side is informative and part of civic life; choosing which channel on which to watch one or the other, as if deciding between tuning into “60 Minutes” or “The Real Housewives of DC,” is treating the election like cheap reality TV entertainment.
The news media is a crucial source of information and a check on power. But NBC seems to have decided it would prefer ratings over responsibility. Less than a month before the end of the election, news outlets have an obligation to give voters the clearest picture of the options in front of them.
Both candidates must be forced to answer tough questions and be forcefully corrected if they lie to the public. Both must account for their records — their failures and accomplishments alike. Both must tell Americans exactly how they will improve our lives, and particularly, how they will keep us safe and healthy during a pandemic that has killed more than 215,000 in the United States and more than 1 million people worldwide. And both men must go head-to-head, so we can collectively see and hear in real time how they answer the same questions, which facts and sources each rely on, and how they challenge each other.
A debate is one crucial venue for that to happen. But unfortunately, Trump refused to participate. Shame on him — he should be roundly criticized for his cowardice and for his lack of regard for the people to whom he is accountable. Instead, NBC has rewarded him.
As a result, Trump will get exactly what he wants: His own platform without the more thoughtful, and more presidential Joe Biden standing in sharp contrast next to him. NBC will get the ratings it expects by turning a political event into reality show theater. And the American public will lose out.