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.