September 29, 2020 – ON SUNDAY, PRESIDENT TRUMP DEMANDED THAT JOE BIDEN, his Democratic opponent, take a drug test ahead of (or just after) their first debate, which is tonight. “His Debate performances have been record setting UNEVEN, to put it mildly,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Only drugs could have caused this discrepancy???” Biden initially declined to respond, but his campaign subsequently did decide to clap back. “Vice President Biden intends to deliver his debate answers in words. If the president thinks his best case is made in urine he can have at it,” a spokesperson said. “We’d expect nothing less from Donald Trump, who pissed away the chance to protect the lives of 200K Americans when he didn’t make a plan to stop COVID-19.”
Thus was the tone set for a debate that may prove to be up there with the most consequential in American history. In the buildup, mainstream media coverage has been more high-minded—though not always by much. Many reporters and pundits have, as is their wont, rushed to gamify the stakes—comparing them explicitly to sports, and babbling about winners and losers, offense and defense, expectations and tactics, narratives and polls. Moral considerations have often been secondary to optics, or shrouded in euphemisms or false equivalency. The New York Times referred to Trump’s despicable drug-test smear as evidence of “an absence of guardrails”; news outlets have cast the president’s debate “style,” as, variously, “unconventional,” “brash and unorthodox,” “say-anything,” “relentless and disciplined,” even “under-appreciated.” The Associated Press called the debate the “last chance” for Trump to “define” Biden—a cartoonish framing that I’ve objected to before. The dreaded g-word—gaffes—has come out, too. Last week, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Jill Biden, Joe’s wife, about her husband’s tendency to commit them. Jill, to her credit, shut the question down. “After Donald Trump, you cannot even say the word ‘gaffe,’” she said. Tapper grinned, somewhat sheepishly.
In light of the “pre-game” coverage, there’s reason to fear that, in the name of fairness, Biden will be grilled as hotly as Trump tonight, and that the answers of both will be let go, even if/when Trump launches into volleys of deranged lies. The debate will be hosted by Chris Wallace, of Fox News, who is not “of Fox News” in the same way that Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity are, but does have a history of misplaced bothsidesism, rooted in a decidedly old-school journalistic philosophy. Wallace has argued that debate moderators should be “as invisible as possible” and should not fact-check the candidates, an approach that was endorsed, on Brian Stelter’s CNN show on Sunday, by Frank Fahrenkopf, a co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates. Nor does Wallace’s selection of debate topics uniformly inspire confidence. One of them is “race and violence in our cities”—a topline framing that, as many observers have pointed out, seems to channel a dishonest “law-and-order” talking point that Trump has placed at the center of his election pitch.
One of Wallace’s other chosen subjects—“the integrity of the election”—is more promising, given that it seems to channel the central, urgent concern that Trump plans not to accept the election result if he doesn’t like it. Wallace has put Trump on the spot about accepting the result before: during a debate in 2016, and again in an interview that aired on Fox over the summer. (On both occasions, Trump demurred.) Here too, though, I have questions. Will Wallace’s conception of fairness compel him to press Biden on accepting the result as much as he presses Trump, amplifying an increasingly-common Republican smear in the process? If/when Trump spews lies about mail-in voting, will Wallace intervene, seeing them not as a typical fact-checking matter, but as central to the “integrity of the election” itself? Or will he leave it to Biden to respond, thus turning the levelness of the playing field into the ball game itself?
Conceiving of election integrity as a debate “topic” implies, too, that the discussion about Trump’s threatened refusal to transfer power will be siloed, when we should think of it more as a basic democratic principle underpinning the debate as a whole—there is, after all, no point in having a debate at all if those watching at home won’t have their votes counted in a fair and transparent way. At a time of overlapping crises, it’s a tough ask for a moderator to cover all of them in a way that doesn’t feel siloed and respects linkages and nuance: the blocky debate format, after all, cuts against that. Still, Wallace should try. So, too, should the reporters and pundits covering the debate and its aftermath, who get to structure their coverage pretty much how they like. In recent weeks, Trump’s threats to the election have been treated as an urgent story. Yet they’ve mostly been disconnected from the pre-debate froth, when they should be central to it.
As many good pieces of journalism—Barton Gellman’s terrifying recent essay in The Atlantic perhaps foremost among them—have made plain, if/when Trump tries to subvert the election outcome, he’s likely to exploit the myriad inadequacies of America’s existing institutions, rather than try to overthrow them by brute force. (Authoritarianism needn’t be jack-booted to be authoritarianism.) The press—while not directly involved in the counting of votes or the litigation thereof—is one such institution, since any subversion strategy relies in part on the rampant dissemination of disinformation and confusion. It’s our job to stand as a bulwark against even the possibility that that could happen. In many respects, we’re fighting back already; in others, though, we’re still allowing Trump to muddy our coverage. Treating tonight’s debate like a game isn’t commensurate with what’s required of us at this crucial historical juncture; nor is Wallace’s stated commitment to invisibility on stage. Let’s not piss away our democracy.
Below, more on debate night:
- How will the networks handle it?: During the recent Republican convention, MSNBC and CNN cut in to correct falsehoods in real time, but according to Michael M. Grynbaum, of the Times, “that interventionist approach is less likely to occur” tonight. Executives and producers at various networks told Grynbaum that they see the debates as “an unfiltered test of the candidates’ wits, stamina and ability to persuade the electorate.” We can expect to see more fact-checking after the debate, and online.
- Primers: Writing earlier this month, CJR columnist Bill Grueskin argued that debate moderators should try to fact-check candidates in real time: “They can’t expect one candidate to fact-check the other,” he wrote, “and they can’t wait for the post-debate news crews to clean up the mess.” Also for CJR, Mark Cronin, a veteran reality-TV producer, outlines the “conflict-winning techniques” he expects Trump to reach for tonight. “Journalists should be ready to recognize these techniques,” Cronin writes, “if only so as not to perpetuate them out of ignorance.”
- Where’s the climate crisis: Wallace has not selected climate change as a topic for tonight’s debate—a decision that irked the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, among others. (As Sullivan noted, this is nothing new: the general election debates in 2012 and 2016 did not feature a single climate question between them.) With wildfires continuing to rage in California, the stakes of the climate crisis are immediate, urgent, and demonstrable. Wallace should add at least one climate question to his list.
- The audience: We can expect a big TV audience tonight (CNN’s Oliver Darcy reckons it could prove to be the “most-watched political event in history”) but many of those tuning in will already have made up their minds as to who they plan to vote for: according to a poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, more than 70 percent of Americans say the debates won’t matter much to them—with 44 percent saying the debates won’t affect their choice at all—and just three percent of respondents to a Monmouth University poll said that it’s “very likely” the first debate will sway them. Interestingly, 63 percent of respondents to the Monmouth poll think that the moderator should fact-check the candidates.
Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.
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