Donald Trump needed a hand—and once again, NBC was happy to oblige.
The US broadcast network announced it will air a town hall meeting with the US president tomorrow at 8pm US eastern time, hosted by Today co-anchor Savannah Guthrie and simulcast on MSNBC and CNBC. That’s the exact same date and time as ABC’s town hall with Democratic challenger Joe Biden, which has been scheduled since Oct. 8.
The second of three presidential debates was supposed to be tomorrow, but when the Commission on Presidential Debates changed the format to a virtual one after Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis, the president said he wouldn’t participate. The commission then canceled the debate entirely. Shortly after that, Biden said he would hold a town hall with voters on ABC on the original date and time as the debate.
Now NBC is setting up a dueling town hall, forcing voters to choose between watching one or the other. It serves Trump’s interests by giving him an hour of free airtime while no doubt chipping into Biden’s audience on a rival network. Because Trump’s town hall will also air on two cable networks in addition to NBC, it will probably draw a larger TV audience than Biden’s, which is airing only on ABC—no doubt pleasing the ratings-obsessed Trump.
The decision goes directly against the public interest of giving as many voters as possible an opportunity to see both candidates, while rewarding Trump with unmoderated access to viewers after he blew up the debate schedule. Freelance journalist Yashar Ali reported a number of NBC staffers were upset by the network’s call to schedule a Trump town hall opposite Biden’s.
NBC did not respond to a request to comment on the rationale behind its decision to air Trump’s town hall at the same time as Biden’s. In a statement, NBC said it was told by independent health officials, including US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, that Trump is likely no longer contagious. Audience members at the Miami, Florida, event will be socially distanced and required to wear masks. (Trump will not wear one.)
Health risks aside, the NBC town hall is the latest example of the network coming to Trump’s aid at crucial moments. In 2015, it allowed then-candidate Trump to host Saturday Night Live in the thick of the Republican primary race. (SNL cast members later called that decision “shameful.”) In September of 2016, two months before the election, Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon playfully tousled Trump’s hair when he was a guest on the late-night NBC talk show. That same month, then NBC anchor Matt Lauer was widely excoriated for asking Trump softball questions at a televised “Commander-in-Chief” forum.
Trump has benefited from a long relationship with the legacy US network. He hosted the reality show The Apprentice on NBC from 2004 until 2015, which burnished his dwindling reputation as a businessman and created a windfall of cash right as he faced the prospect of financial ruin. Trump then leveraged his celebrity into a run for US president.
NBC’s preferential treatment of Trump is somewhat ironic, given he routinely attacks the network for being “unfair” to him. Still, it’s clear the network has trouble saying no to him, even when it’s objectively bad for democracy. The debate schedule changes were a debacle of Trump’s making, but he’s likely to come out of the situation with a win for his campaign—thanks again to NBC.