NBC News’s town hall lets the network threaten democracy for ratings

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The nonpartisan news network, NBC News, has announced they’ll be airing an impromptu town hall event featuring President Trump. According to their Wednesday morning announcement, the town hall will take place in Miami, Florida, and be moderated by TODAY show anchor Savannah Guthrie. And funny enough, it’s scheduled for the exact same Thursday evening timeslot as former Vice President Joe Biden’s own town hall event in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which is set to air on ABC News.

News of the event comes after the president’s completely on-brand, petulant refusal to participate in a virtual version of the second presidential debate, which was originally scheduled for Thursday. The virtual option became a necessity after the president tested positive for COVID-19, subsequently turning the White House and his recent in-person events into coronavirus hot spots and putting dozens of staff members, the venues’ service workers, his own administration, and his opponent’s campaign team at risk. To keep everyone safe for the second debate, the Commission on Presidential Debates adjusted to a virtual format. Biden agreed; Trump called it a waste of time. At that point — six days ago — Trump’s campaign said they’d be holding their own in-person rally in lieu of the virtual debate. Biden’s campaign decided to move forward with their own town hall-style event for Oct. 15.

Enter NBC News. I’m sure we’ll never know the full extent of whatever backroom dealings led to this last-minute cheap shot, but the network’s decision to be a willing participant in Trump’s game here is concerning to say the least. Less than 48 hours before Biden’s town hall was set to begin, the network announced its shindig with Trump. Now, voters will be presented with “dueling” town hall events in a move that turns the electoral process once again into a proverbial plaything for corporate puppeteers with something to gain — despite what the rest of the country and our democracy itself stands to lose in this election, one of the most consequential of our lifetime.

NBC News’s choice to cater to the president with such a bizarrely antagonistic scheduling choice is, in effect, giving the president license to act like a child.

Any way you consider it, the complications around the debate are the Trump administration’s own creation. And rather than mitigating the chaos, NBC News has opted to validate the president’s irrational whims by giving him an 11th-hour platform to vie for voters’ — and indeed the entire country’s — attention. A few stars and cast members of various NBC shows have spoken out on Twitter asking the network to reschedule the town hall, but it’s not likely those tweets will do much to influence the media giant.

NBC News’s choice to cater to the president with such a bizarrely antagonistic scheduling choice is, in effect, giving the president license to act like a child. It sounds elementary to suggest that the president shouldn’t be coddled when he makes poor choices, but consider how many of the country’s most involved political players — from media pundits to social media platform executives and politicians alike — have been dealing with the president with kid gloves, and it’s worth repeating.

To wit: CNN’s media correspondent Brian Stelter wrote a thread on Twitter about how the so-called “dueling town halls” came about. Per Stelter, the fact that the events are on the exact same night and at the exact same time was a result of network confusion, perhaps a bit of pushing from Team Trump, but mostly a commitment to the same vague sense of “parity” that has dangerously defined media since 2015.

Time and time again over the last four years, the president has cultivated his own instances of conflict, chaos, and dishonesty. He has shown a general disregard for whatever collateral damage might result from his actions. When major news networks and media outlets condone his behavior, they extend the president’s ever-growing track record of escaping culpability or any basic consequence. A business and political career both marked by few if any substantive negative material outcomes is emboldening enough. Of course he feels entitled to make light of a pandemic that has resulted in more than a million deaths around the world and more than 216,000 here in the U.S. Of course he feels brazen enough to toy with the idea of refusing to leave the White House. Why wouldn’t he?

Unsurprisingly, the conflicting air times for these events also mirror our own country’s current approach to politics. For all the faults of presidential debates, the idea behind the ritual is well-intentioned: It’s meant to give viewers a chance to get to know the candidates and their platforms, and more clearly outline the differences between them. The criticism of this year’s debates circles mostly around the fact that this year, most voters already know enough about the candidates, their platforms, and the differences between them and thus won’t be swayed by the event regardless of how it goes; instead, then, the debate does nothing but give the two men unfettered air time to blabber about whatever they want.

But the alternative of holding separate but identical events at the exact same time evidences another unfortunate political reality.

The “echo chamber” that many media pundits like to wring their hands over does not actually function the same way for both political factions.

Depending which politician you follow, which news network you listen to, or what links the Google algorithm is putting in your search results, it can feel like you’re living in an entirely separate reality from your neighbor. It’s part of the reason why watching the debates can feel like slamming your head into a brick wall. Our broader understanding of the world feels universes apart from the people who disagree with us politically. It’s not a novel idea by any means, but it’s still a salient one.

I’m not advocating for some overly polite, kumbaya approach; I don’t think an abundance of niceties or entertaining dangerous or dehumanizing debates is a solution. The “echo chamber” that many media pundits like to wring their hands over does not actually function the same way for both political factions. The idea of bipartisanship presumes a level, objective political landscape for everyone involved, and we know enough about all manner of institutionalized inequalities to know that’s simply not true; the extremist views espoused by some on the right, egged on by Fox News, are unmatched by any mainstream left-wing outlet.

But by replacing an event where the two candidates would’ve shared the stage — even a virtual one — with one where they can speak to entirely separate audiences from entirely separate places on entirely separate networks with entirely separate moderators, the networks have merely created another opportunity for each man to speak to only his supporters. Thursday evening’s town halls are just the latest opportunity for the unchecked tribal rhetoric to continue. And this time, it’s stamped with a major network’s approval.