Savannah Guthrie Grills
Trump's Sober Biden Chat
Instead of a cancelled debate, a pair of network prime-time town halls made for competing telecasts.
ABC 's George Stephanopoulos had it simple, directing an old-school Washington veteran into patriotic reform strategies, while NBC's Savannah Guthrie had to negotiate QAnon's stormy seas, white nationalism, and whether the virus-stricken president had pneumonia. (He'dn't say despite repeated inquiries.)
Viewers of Thursday's dueling city halls network with President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr.—which broadcast concurrently in prime time, much to the grief of civic-minded critics — were presented a pair of telecasts as strikingly as the candidates they featured.
On a night when Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump were expected to meet on a one-stage debate, television cleaved in two. Mr. Biden's ABC Town Hall had all the explosions of a "This Week With David Brinkley" retro episode. Mr. Trump's NBC forum had all the subtlety of a professional wrestling match.
The election will hinge on what sort of programming Americans want to watch the next four years.
Ms. Guthrie, an anchor on "Today," greeted audiences with a warm greeting—"We want to say, right off the start, that's not how things were meant to go tonight"—that just pointed at her and her network's stakes.
Thursday was no discussion when Mr. Trump withdrawn, declining to agree to a simulated matchup. Mr. Biden committed to an ABC town hall, and NBC booked Mr. Trump the same night — and at the same time an angry uproar. NBC stars like Mandy Moore criticized the network, and Rachel Maddow, anchor of the MSNBC, chastised her employers.
But if Mr. Trump predicted an easy night on NBC, the longtime home of his "The Apprentice" program, he didn't predict Ms. Guthrie, whose experience as a longtime litigator soon became useful.
In an out-of-the-gate barrage, Ms. Guthrie constantly asked Mr. Trump about his medical status if he had taken a coronavirus exam before the first presidential debate, if he denounced white nationalism, and if he rejected QAnon — concerns that Mr. Trump, who normally sits with polite interviewers, had avoided facing.
The president is a professional dodger who has outmaneuvered his four-year interlocutors. Yet Guthrie disrupted his filibuster efforts repeatedly, throwing Mr. Trump off kilter.
"I don't know about QAnon," the president complained at one point, refusing to condemn the conspiracy party. "You know! "Ms. Guthrie fired, polite but persistent.
At another point, when Mr. Trump brandished a sheaf of papers to rebut a point — "I've got stuff right here that'll show you the contrary! "— Ms. Guthrie revealed her own documents. "I too! "She responded.
After 20 minutes of grilling Ms. Guthrie, Mr. Trump 's advisers looked worried. His communications chief, Alyssa Farah, met Ms. Guthrie after the first commercial break and then joined onstage three other assistants with the president.
And as Ms. Guthrie asked voters questions, she kept up the pressure, cajoling Mr. Trump into a sidelong acceptance of a New York Times story concerning his $400 million debt burden, which he had previously declined to confirm. And she approached him with a fear that some of his supporters share: "You're the president," said Ms. Guthrie. "You're not a mad uncle who can retweet something."
ABC 's mood was new. Mr. Biden and Mr. Stephanopoulos engaged in a sober reform dialogue better suited to broadcasting Sunday morning public relations.
Sitting on a drab blue set, crossing legs, the men debated the pandemic, taxation, climate, and the Supreme Court. As Mr. Stephanopoulos followed up on coronavirus impact on Democrat tax plans — "Mr. Vice-President, let me question you on that, "Mr. Biden answered:" Absolutely. That's a great question. "He went on to quote Moody's financial firm 's study.
Later, when Mr. Stephanopoulos nudged Mr. Biden for a reply, the candidate apologized. "Not at all," Stephanopoulos replied respectfully.
The tone tensed when Mr. Biden refused to thoroughly clarify his view of extending the Supreme Court, as he has many times. "Can't voters know where you're standing? "Mr. Stephanopoulos.
That didn't deter Republican strategist Ari Fleischer from moaning about what he called Mr. Biden's oversimplified night. "NBC is an interrogation," Twitter wrote. "ABC is a picnic." Sean Hannity was more specifically accusing Ms. Guthrie of racism on Fox News, claiming she interrupted Mr. Trump too much.
NBC opponents are sure to contend that Mr. Trump, amid grilling, nevertheless enjoyed a full hour of prime-time through NBC, MSNBC, and CNBC, the networks simulating his town hall. And this after he declined Mr. Biden's planned debate.
Moments after the Trump case wrapped up, Ms. Maddow embraced her MSNBC audience tightly arched. "Well," she said, "it happened."