By Brent Korson
The last few weeks have, unsurprisingly, only grown more jarring and chaotic in the run-up to Election Day. While there was no way to know how the specifics would play out, (President contracts deadly virus, President covers up what he knew and when he knew it, President’s physician claims he’s tested negative after nine days of dodging, President still infectious and non-quarantining goes back to White House and holds next-level unsafe rallies), the general outline for a month full of divisive and chaotic October surprises had long been foreseeable since the day Trump took office four years ago. Especially the spasms of pre-Election Day, culture-war stoked violence throughout the country along the way.
The question we now collectively face is this: with less than three weeks until Election Day, how can the nation, and media, fortify itself against this administration’s blizzard of propaganda, disinformation and misinformation – both in general and potential next debates? In 2018, Steve Bannon reportedly summed up the administration’s strategy as “flood the zone with shit” – except now the flooding is in superspreader mode and jacked on steroids.
Way before 2016, Presidential debates already had a bad reputation for timid moderators letting lies go unchecked, with one party overcompensating for the other. The 2016 debates now seem like a quaint warm-up for what took place a few weeks ago at the University of Utah. That “debate” also reinforced one of the largest problems of the Trump era writ large: giving him his biggest public platform yet to lie on-air, unchecked, in real time.
Post-debate, a better way for how the media reports on the President’s live events over the next three weeks suddenly seemed possible; instead of solely covering the lies, what if – for contrast – they also included how few truths emerged? Not that the indefatigable Daniel Dale doesn’t have journalism’s fullest plate, but it might put things in a new context if reporters laid out, say, out of 100 Trump statements at a rally, what does the ratio of truth count to lie count look like? Could it help to see if the President made 70 false statements…and only 30 true statements out of 100 comments?
The Convergence Of The Debates, Election, President’s COVID-19 Diagnosis And Evergreen Danger Of Airing Unchecked Lies In Real Time
Like so many things in the Trump era, a new cacophony of moving parts collided over the last few weeks. An administration synonymous with being divorced from reality has never not been problematic. However, atop the least ideal scenarios for a White House that long ago exhausted the benefit of a doubt, a once-a-century-plague ranks high. Possibly less ideal: the President himself contracting this deadly virus at the height of a public health crisis. If ever there were a moment that we needed reliable narrators in this administration, this is it. The reality, however, is that we aren’t likely to get the truth about anything, much less the President’s COVID-19 status – past, present and future.
Two debate performances filled with more lies than truths by Trump and Pence; the danger of downplaying the virus; the threat of stoking Election Day violence; the misinformation on voting by mail; the refusal to accept a peaceful transition of power; the deflection of this administration to confirm when the President contracted COVID-19 and prove that he’s no longer testing negative – is all one in the same – an administration incapable of honesty. While the dishonesty isn’t new, the stakes are.
With the administration’s credibility shot, the election looming and Trump tempting the networks into airing his live rallies, this has got to be the “come to Jesus” moment for the media in its decisions on how to report on this Presidency. How to cover the lies has always mattered, but now is the moment where responsibility must usurp ratings, clicks and ad buys. There’s only one chance to reliably communicate and fact-check this administration’s claims now that voting has started and Election Day is upon us.
September 29: The Presidential Debate As Baseball Game Destined To Fail
Before the debate even started, the format was designed for collapse. The result for this pre-destined outcome had the feel of a baseball game where the fix was in, except with no winners and the audience the losers.
1. The original sin here was the DNC conceding to Fox moderating a debate, thereby helping legitimize a non-news organization. While Chris Wallace may the best Fox has got, it’s still Fox. The DNC had already clarified its stance on this issue during the Primary debates when they barred Fox from hosting duties. As Chairman Tom Perez put it, Fox News is, “not in a position to host a fair and neutral debate.
The baseball game equivalency: a non-credentialed umpire in charge.
2. Days before the debate, Wallace announced he wouldn’t fact-check. There’s no precedent for a moderator or network pre-announcing abandoning these duties. It’s impossible to separate this decision from Fox’s (lack of) standards. Although the fact-check topic comes up every four years (moderators primarily try to steer clear), this was tantamount to forewarning that the bull would have full run of the China shop. With this abdication, combined with one debater known only for lying and interrupting, the chaotic outcome was pre-determined. If none of the unprofessionalism was subtle enough, one of the six pre-announced topics included the interestingly phrased “race and violence in our cities.” Notably, climate change didn’t make the list.
The baseball game equivalency: the umpire pre-announced that he wouldn’t call balls or strikes.
3. The moderator didn’t moderate. Though he tried occasionally, it was too little too late; Wallace never definitively put his foot down, paused proceedings or succeeded in getting Trump to not interrupt for what felt like 90 straight minutes. It’s difficult to imagine any legitimate journalist succumbing as easily as Wallace. Slate’s Jeremy Stahl took on the herculean task of Trump interruption count (towards Biden and Wallace). 128 times. The President clocked an average of 1.4 interruptions per minute. For context, Stahl noted the 2016 Election’s first debate saw Trump interrupt Hillary Clinton a more restrained 51 times.
The next day, Wallace told the New York Times, that he “never dreamt that it would go off the tracks the way it did” and “I guess I didn’t realize — and there was no way you could, hindsight being 20/20 — that this was going to be the president’s strategy, not just for the beginning of the debate but the entire debate.” So either the best Fox had to offer isn’t being honest or he lacks the imagination to gauge the obvious. Both options confirm why a Fox employee should have been a non-starter for the DNC, the Biden campaign and the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). If it wasn’t already clear that Trump viewed the debate as 2-on-1 (not 1-on-1), he later tweeted a picture of him on one side, Wallace and Biden on the other and the word “VS” in the middle.
The baseball game equivalency: by not moderating effectively, one team could cheat with impunity (Trump set the ballpark on fire).
October 7: The VP Debate Featuring 1 Potentially Infectious Debater and The COVID-19-Related Reasons To Forego
Although we came off the most disastrous Presidential debate ever televised, there’s no reason to view the VP debate as a success; just because Pence’s interruptions were quieter, his lies less rabid and the event not ending in a bare knuckle brawl doesn’t make what took place, “just another debate.”
1. Pence’s attendance on September 26th at the near-entirely maskless and entirely non-socially distanced Rose Garden SCOUTUS nomination-turned-superspreader event (35 people and counting) was reason enough to forego an in-person debate. If that wasn’t reason enough, he confirmed being with Trump on October 1st. (The President tweeted his positive diagnosis at 12:54am on October 2nd).
CDC guidelines are clear: anyone who may have been exposed to the virus is to quarantine for 14 days. Even if that person tests negative, we’re so early into the pandemic that no tests exist, in any country, which can deliver 100% accurate results. For now, false negatives and false positives are an unforgiving part of our testing culture. We even know of patients testing negative multiple times, yet still exhibiting multiple, clear-cut symptoms of COVID-19.
2. Due to the the Vice President’s new immunity vulnerability, the second in line of succession to the Presidency would inspire extraordinary caution within a normal administration. Quarantining would be a given. Traveling would be an impossibility.
3. Other signs of an abnormal administration was insisting Pence debate with no plexiglass barriers. Though he acquiesced, the CPD stage appeared devoid of medical consultation, with only 12 feet and plexiglass separating him and Harris from potential infection. The New York Times was blunt in its assessment, “[T]the risk in this setting is airborne transmission of the coronavirus, and the barriers will do nothing to protect Ms. Harris and the moderator, Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA Today, if Mr. Pence were infected.” One of the aerosol experts quoted in the article was so alarmed by the Hail Mary approach that he contacted the CPD to recommend purchasing basic $300 plug-and-play air filters.
2. Because this administration has no credibility left, Pence’s claims of testing negative can’t be taken as true without substantive confirmation. His claims aren’t aided by a White House that went nine days before telling the public when the President’s last negative test took place. Not that there’s any reason to believe the President’s physician’s (who already acknowledged spinning Trump’s results) claim on October 12th that the President tested negative. Equally important, we still don’t know if Trump had knowingly tested positive before debating Biden. Curiously, an article from March resurfaced after the debates, titled “People Intentionally Spreading Coronavirus Could Be Charged With Terrorism, DOJ Says”.
3. The bizarre decision for the Biden campaign to send Kamala to an indoor debate with Pence ended up fully normalizing the administration’s reckless, life-threatening behavior. Harris showing up provided Trump’s preferred optics to the nation that it’s AOK to be next to someone who should be quarantining.
4. An outdoor debate: if this debate simply had to happen, why indoors? For visual reference, this was the October 5th outdoor NBC News Town Hall with Joe Biden.
5. A Zoom Debate: instead of going with the only practical choice, Team Biden / Harris chose a lost opportunity. Harris is now attending the SCOTUS hearings remotely from her Senate office.
The (Long Running) Misinformation-Related Reasons To Consider Foregoing Debates And Any More Live Trump Events
1. On September 30th, news broke that researchers at Cornell University reached a conclusion on the largest source of COVID-19 misinformation, conspiracy theories and falsehoods found online: the President of the United States. They analyzed 38 million articles between January 1st to May 26th; more than 1.1 million contained misinformation related to the pandemic in English-language media throughout the world. Trump’s name was found in 38% of the overall “misinformation conversation,” rendering him the single largest pusher of the “infodemic.”
2. Live debates featuring Trump and Pence have rightfully re-upped the conversation about giving televised platforms to proven liars. That was before our current global health crisis. Now consider the scale of reach – tens of millions of viewers – in light of the Cornell results.
3. With the potential for one debate left, shouldn’t Biden be asking, out loud, if preserving norms like Presidential debates outweigh the national security risks amplified by Trump’s downplaying all things COVID-19? When asked to condemn white supremacy and the President instead gives marching orders to his violent hate groups, “Stand Back and Stand By,” isn’t it worth Team Biden publicly entertaining second thoughts of giving Trump a platform that vast? From a basic safety and health perspective, was it worth Harris showing up to a debate that could have been virtual?
4. Trump and Pence aren’t John McCain and Mitt Romney – the lies are more dangerous, voluminous and spreadable on social media than in 2008 and 2012. And neither were endangering national security during their respective debates. The outsized, yet unearned credibility that Presidential debates have been bestowed needs to be rethought. Like so many norms we took for granted just four years ago, we know better now. The debates long ago devolved into a shiny object designed for media coverage, horse-race analysis and gaffe / meme. If there’s anything to be learned from the last two debates, it’s to see Presidential debates not for what they were, but what they’ve become.
The October 22nd Debate Is Still Scheduled. It Doesn’t Have To Be.
Common sense has prevailed several times in similar situations recently –
- South Carolina Senatorial Challenger Jamie Harrison pushed back on participating in a 2nd debate after Lindsey Graham refused to take a COVID-19 test, despite being exposed to Senator Mike Lee (who tested positive after the Rose Garden superspreader event) on October 1st. Harrison released a common sense statement, “If Sen. Graham will not take a coronavirus test, I cannot responsibly debate in person tomorrow night and allow politics to put my family, my campaign staff, Sen. Graham’s staff, and members of the media at unnecessary risk.” The direct result of Harrison’s push was a format change with the candidates agreeing to participate in separate, individual interviews, taking questions from panelists and the moderator.
- Saturday Night Live canceled musician Morgan Wallen’s appearance last weekend after video surfaced of him performing maskless days before the show.
- The CPD canceled the 2nd Presidential debate after Trump tested positive and refused the virtual debate format.
The October 22 debate is still scheduled and would likely be virtual if Trump chooses to participate. If the Biden campaign were to announce their reluctance to giving the leader of the free world his largest possible audience to spread unchecked propaganda, conspiracy theories and poll-watching directives to his armed militias, they’d be shining the light on a very real threat that can be avoided. By publicly voicing his concerns, Biden would be pushing the media to keep the narrative on Trump airing weapons-grade lies that get laundered through the pomp and circumstance of a bygone event. If Biden shifts the spotlight back on the media’s lack of responsibility in its years-long coverage of live Trump events, it would push the conversation on doing things differently instead of repeating the same mistakes. That last message may be the most important one for the media on Election Day coverage, and the weeks and months to follow.
Networks would obviously not suddenly cease airing live Trump events if Biden did all these things. But if Biden kept this narrative a live issue, giving the networks even the smallest pause for concern will have been worth it.