NBC faces blowback over Trump town hall competing with Biden ahead of US presidential election

President Trump's town hall event was patterned after a similar Joe Biden forum that NBC had hosted on Oct 5.
President Trump's town hall event was patterned after a similar Joe Biden forum that NBC had hosted on Oct 5.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - American news network NBC was battered with criticism on Wednesday (Oct 14) after it announced plans for a Thursday town hall event with President Donald Trump to air opposite an already-scheduled ABC forum with his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.

Top Democrats, media pundits, and many journalists inside NBC and MSNBC were taken aback by the network's choice of the 8pm Eastern time (8am on Friday Singapore time) slot, which will make it impossible for Americans to watch both candidates live.

"The point of a news organisation is to serve the public," Ms Vivian Schiller, a former executive at NBC, Twitter and National Public Radio, wrote on Twitter. "This is the opposite."

Mr Trump and Mr Biden were originally scheduled to face off on Thursday in Miami at a formal debate - until last week, when Mr Trump abruptly withdrew after the Commission on Presidential Debates decided to stage the event virtually over concerns that Mr Trump could still be contagious with the coronavirus.

Mr Biden quickly arranged his own telecast with ABC, prompting Mr Trump's campaign to seek its own event that evening. After a lengthy negotiation - NBC wanted proof that the president would not pose a health risk, which it received only on Tuesday - the network announced its plans Wednesday morning.

Several people familiar with internal discussions described the network's thinking, requesting anonymity to share private conversations.

Mr Trump's town hall event was patterned after a similar Biden forum that NBC had hosted on Oct 5, the people said. It will be held at the same outdoor Miami venue, with the same format that features questions from Florida voters - and the same 8pm time slot.

But given the conflict with Mr Biden's event on ABC, why not simply start Mr Trump after the former vice-president finishes?

NBC officials argued internally that such a move could be problematic because many more American households watch television later in the evening. In theory, they argued, starting the event at 9 or 10pm Eastern time would grant Mr Trump access to a larger potential live audience than Biden had for his NBC event on Oct 5.

So why not hold the event on a different night? NBC executives have insisted that the date was their choice, the people said, and that Thursday fit the president's schedule: Because of the now-cancelled second debate, Trump's evening was free.

It was unclear if the Trump campaign would have accommodated a request by NBC to move the event to a different day. The president is trailing in many national polls and is eager for opportunities to make his case to a sizable audience. NBC's publicists declined to comment.

Numerous staff members at NBC and MSNBC expressed private dismay on Wednesday at their leaders' decision.

One former NBC News executive, Mr Mark Lukasiewicz, who produced political conventions and candidate forums for the network, wrote on Twitter, "This is a bad result for American voters, who should not be forced to choose which to watch."

In 2020, many Americans prefer to watch television programmes at their own pace, using DVRs and online streams. Viewers who want to see what both Mr Biden and Mr Trump have to say on Thursday will have plenty of options to do so.

But presidential events have a unique draw, particularly at the height of the campaign: Mr Biden and Mr Trump's first debate in Cleveland last month drew 73 million viewers. Neither town hall on Thursday is likely to come close to those numbers, given that formal debates air simultaneously across a dozen or more networks.

Still, by scheduling Mr Trump against Mr Biden, NBC may end up providing the president with one of his preferred talking points: The president is almost certain to score a higher Nielsen rating than Mr Biden, since the event will also air on NBC's sibling cable channels, MSNBC and CNBC.

Whether exposure to a mass audience is politically useful for Mr Trump is also an open question: He received poor marks for his performance at last month's debate.

NBC officials had held back on confirming the Trump event until they had credible evidence that the president would not pose a safety risk to other participants - including network crew members, the Florida voters on hand to ask questions, and the moderator, Savannah Guthrie of the "Today" show.

Network management said it was not comfortable relying solely on the word of the White House physician, Dr Sean P. Conley.

On Wednesday, NBC proffered a statement from Dr Clifford Lane, a clinical director at the National Institutes of Health. Dr Lane said he and Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, had reviewed medical data about Trump's condition, including a PCR test that the NIH analysed on Tuesday. (A PCR test is a widely used virus diagnostic that is considered more reliable than a rapid antigen test.)

Dr Lane concluded "with a high degree of confidence" that the president was "not shedding infectious virus", NBC said.

The network did not explicitly say that Mr Trump had received a negative result from the PCR test.

In an interview on Wednesday, Dr Fauci said that he and Dr Lane had reviewed the PCR result, as well as data from viral cultures and multiple negative tests on a rapid antigen test, Abbott's BinaxNOW.

Dr Fauci said he and Dr Lane had corresponded with Dr Conley, who provided all of the information that they assessed. "We were just given the data and we made a determination from the data," Dr Fauci said.

Combined with the fact that Trump was more than 10 days out from the onset of symptoms, Dr Fauci said, "We can say with a high degree of confidence that he is not transmissible."

Mr Trump's PCR test had a cycle threshold - a proxy for viral load - of 34.3, Dr Fauci said. According to data provided by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, people with a threshold over 33 carry little to no live virus.

The NBC town hall event will be held outdoors at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, and audience members will be required to wear masks. The network said that Guthrie and Mr Trump would be seated at least 12ft apart.