We should not normalize this election

It seems clear that the TV network NBC’s decision on Wednesday to schedule a Trump town hall on Thursday at the same time as the previously scheduled town hall that Joe Biden was having on ABC (which itself was a replacement for the debate that Trump refused to take part in) was due to them caving in to the demand by Trump that it be at the same time. Trump must have been sure that he would get higher ratings than Biden and thus could gloat about it because for him, ratings are everything. But that strategy proved to be a bust because not only was his performance panned, what must have really stung was that the Biden show got better ratings than the Trump show.

Joe Biden’s town hall on ABC averaged 14.1 million viewers on Thursday night, easily surpassing the Nielsen ratings for President Trump’s town hall on NBC.

That alone was a result virtually no one in the TV business expected. And that’s not even the most surprising part.

The Trump town hall was simulcast by two of NBC’s cable channels, MSNBC and CNBC, but even when those channels are included in the total, Biden — on only one network — still prevailed.

The Trump town hall averaged 10.9 million viewers on the NBC broadcast network. On MSNBC, Trump reached 1.8 million viewers, and on CNBC, about 720,000 viewers. So Trump’s gross audience across the three channels was 13.5 million, still fewer than Biden’s audience on ABC alone.

Dan Froomkin urges the media not to normalize this election. He says that while some recent articles about the dueling town halls on Thursday seem to have got the correct idea that this is fundamentally a very different election from others in the recent past, other media seem to still be laboring under the impression that this is just another election with two candidates with different policies.

NBC did a terrible disservice to the public by ceding to Donald Trump’s demand to counterprogram Joe Biden’s ABC town hall on Thursday night. But the net effect on political journalism turned out to be quite positive.

The dueling town halls actually forced several top journalists to directly address the extraordinary imbalance between the two candidates and what they represent, rather than get distracted by the spectacle.

Just as I was despairing over how so many campaign stories understate the cataclysmic consequences of a second Trump term — normalizing the election, treating it like a game, framing the coverage as if there were a rational choice each way — a small step forward: Our top political reporters were faced on deadline with the obvious, extreme contrast between a deranged, blustery, power-hungry liar with no sense of decency and no plans on the one hand, and a relatively normal human being with relatively mainstream goals on the other.

And to a greater extent than I expected, that came across in the coverage.

In fact, I consider the main news story in the New York Times, by Alexander Burns and Katie Glueck, a signal moment for the Times, which has traditionally been way too stenographic in its spot-news coverage, leaving crucial context to euphemism-filled sidebar “news analyses” and fact-checks.

He goes on to analyze the way that various mainstream media outlets are covering the race and concludes:

None of the news articles achieved what the American people need and deserve the most from campaign coverage: constant, clear and unambiguous context about the urgent need to stop the extraordinary damage Trump has done to the country.

But NBC brass’s shameful decision to give in to Trump may have, ironically, emboldened the press corps to draw the contrasts a bit more vividly. These two men are not comparable.


  1. lanir says

    I didn’t watch either one but in hindsight the ratings make sense. The Trump Show has been on air for over four years now and the entire time it’s been lurching from one cliffhanger to another. There’s a significant degree of audience fatigue there. The Biden Show has been on air before but not recently outside this election. And it wasn’t a prime time show before. Now it’s center stage. This time isn’t so much a rerun for Biden as a remake.

    I don’t recommend treating the enormous policy differences between the two as casually as I’ve treated their appearances here but for purposes of “Why did people watch X more than Y?” I think this makes a lot of sense.

  2. Steve Cameron says

    And the ratings battle continues on YouTube where Biden’s town hall is a 5.6 million views versus 5.1 million combined views for Trump’s (3.6 m on CNBC and 1.5 on CNBC Television (?)), and that’s not including all the excerpt and highlights videos.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *