NBC's Trump Town Hall Was Pointless and Shameful

WASHINGTON — We didn’t need to know President Trump’s answer to whether the QAnon conspiracy theory was crazy and untrue.

We didn’t need to know President Trump’s answer about how he would replace Obamacare.

We didn’t need to know President Trump’s answer about whether he would condemn white supremacy.

The American voter knows the president’s answers — or lack thereof — to these questions. They’ve emerged in countless interviews, press conferences, Twitter tirades, and presidential debates featuring the 45th president over the past three and a half years. We’ve seen the Trump Show enough to recite them by heart. So why did NBC, one of the most powerful news networks in the world, turn over its airwaves to a politician who, to the surprise of no one, used that immense platform, as he so often does, to deceive, misinform, evade, and complain?

Even before the cameras went live on Thursday night, NBC had taken heat for going ahead with a Trump-only town hall in the first place. After all, it was Trump whose refusal to participate in a virtual format scuttled the second live presidential debate. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who had agreed to a virtual debate, scheduled his town hall on ABC News after Trump backed out, only for NBC to ride to Trump’s rescue by airing a rival town hall at the exact same time as Biden’s.

You would think that once NBC had decided to force voters to choose between watching one town hall or the other in real time, the least the network could do was commit itself to prying some new, relevant, timely information out of the president. Maybe that was too much to ask. At any rate, it did not happen. It is hard to imagine that any voter came away from NBC’s town hall with Trump better informed. And easy to picture how some might’ve come away more confused given Trump’s rambling, often nonsensical performance.

Trump did not offer any new policy plans or present any new critiques of his opponent. Yet again, he gave a fuzzy, detail-deprived answer — the same answer he’s given for nearly five years and counting — when NBC’s Savannah Guthrie asked him what he would replace the Affordable Care Act with if he ever succeeded at repealing it. The most he could say was his plan would somehow be both “much less expensive” and “much better.” “That’s where we’re aiming,” he said.

Yet again, he flouted science and medical research when asked about why he hadn’t come out strongly in favor of a national mask mandate. He allowed that he “was OK with the masks, I was good with it,” despite not wearing one in public for months and turning mask-wearing in a culture-war issue. Then, in classic Trumpian fashion, he equivocated further by saying he had heard “many different stories on masks.” What he meant by that — what stories? Who told them? — went unaddressed as the town hall rolled onward.

Credit to Guthrie: She came prepared for pugilism, aggressively questioning Trump and trying to follow up when he waffled or gave meandering and incomplete responses. With some other politician, this interviewing approach might’ve unearthed new insights. With Trump, all it led to were the usual gripes from the president about the unfair media and a few soundbite-sized, ratings-friendly clashes that NBC will no doubt run on a loop on the Today show and across the various news programs within the Peacock empire.

Perhaps the most clipable exchange of the night came when Guthrie asked Trump if he would disavow the violent and deranged QAnon conspiracy theory. Did anyone expect that Trump would do so? What is the point of a question like this? Not surprisingly, Trump had it both ways: He claimed he didn’t know much about QAnon while praising the misguided followers of QAnon for their supposed opposition to pedophilia. (“They are very strongly against pedophilia, and I do agree with that.”)

Trump’s responses to the audience’s questions were no less useless. He exaggerated the number of jobs he’d created pre-pandemic (“more jobs than this country has ever created”), and fear-mongered about Biden’s plan to undo the Trump tax cuts (it would cause “a depression the likes of which we’ve never had”), and accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of singlehandedl blocking negotiations for a new Covid-19 relief bill even though Trump himself had called off those very negotiations via tweet. He insisted, for the umpteenth time, that he had “done more for the African American community than any president with the exception of Abraham Lincoln.” And he flat-out lied to the American people by saying he was “working very hard” in support of the DACA immigration program when in fact his xenophobic administration effectively ended the program back in 2017 and has fought against it his entire time in the White House.

For NBC, the whole thing was a bit of a shit show and a huge disservice to the American public. For Trump, it was an hour-long primetime showcase, the kind of free media a candidate can only dream of.

And if there’s one thing this president understands so well, it’s the power of all that free media the TV networks have so eagerly provided him since the day he descended his golden escalator into the 2016 presidential race. “It’s called ‘earned media,’” he once said at a White House press conference to a roomful of journalists. “It’s worth billions.”

After Trump said that in late 2018, I urged my colleagues in the media to “pause and consider whether there’s another way, a better way, to cover this president without giving him what he wants.” I went on to write, “We didn’t figure him out in 2016. We hardly stopped to assess our performance and rethink our approach for 2017. Trump’s post-midterm press conference was a reminder that he’s still doing it and taunting us while he does it: It’s called ‘earned media.’ It’s worth billions.

NBC’s town hall shows the media still hasn’t figured out what to do with Trump — and still can’t get enough of him.

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