"Dealt dreadfully lousy cards—that is, widespread and justified criticism of NBCUniversal and its traumatized news division for hastily gifting Donald Trump an hour of free airtime at the same moment that Joe Biden was doing his previously scheduled town hall over on ABC—Today show co-host Savannah Guthrie did not fold," says Lloyd Grove. "Quite the contrary, she managed to burnish her journalistic reputation, if not that of her employer, by repeatedly forcing the president to answer the sort of inconvenient questions he has easily evaded during countless press gaggles, phoned-in interviews, and his first and possibly final official debate against the frontrunning Democratic nominee. The 48-year-old Guthrie, a lawyer before becoming an NBC White House correspondent and network anchor, took command of the situation from the outset of the hour-long campaign event, something the nominally more seasoned Chris Wallace was unable to accomplish during an embarrassing Sept. 29 shout-fest staged by the Commission on Presidential Debates as if produced by Jerry Springer. It seemed like the volume on Guthrie’s microphone was turned up a notch or two higher than Trump’s (if so, a good thing) as she sat a safe distance away on a waterfront stage in Miami and pressed him, and even fact-checked him, relentlessly." Meanwhile, fellow journalists praised Guthrie, with CNN's Brian Stelter -- author of a book on the network morning show wars -- tweeting that it was "one of the best moments of @SavannahGuthrie's career." Variety's Brian Steinberg says it "may be the performance of a career...She kept the president to short answers and, after he responded to various citizens in place to ask him questions, added fact checks and follow-ups. Even close observers of the news industry and the current outrageous political cycle gave her kudos."
The dueling Joe Biden and President Trump town halls showed us exactly what happens when we treat elections like entertainment: "The larger takeaway from Thursday’s mess isn’t that ABC/Disney is the good guy and NBC/Comcast the villain," says Judy Berman. "NBC News’ scheduling decision didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened within the extremely competitive business of primetime television—one that has been floundering for years amid the rise of streaming, and one that has become desperate for content following months of COVID-related production delays. CNN’s Brian Stelter reported that network execs don’t see the choice to host town halls as 'primarily profit- or ratings-driven,' along with a reminder that they do run ads against these telecasts, unlike official debates. But it still seems worth noting that the series premiere of quarantine sitcom Connecting…, a timely upstart which filled the same time slot for NBC last Thursday, drew an inauspicious audience of just 1.6 million. We may never get corporate agendas out of American elections (see also: Citizens United). Even so, in such a chaotic political and media landscape, where the cancellation of a bipartisan debate can lead to competing primetime spectacles, broadcasters’ power over voters poses novel dangers. Maybe we need a specific rule preventing simultaneous televised events. Maybe we need tighter regulations on candidates’ TV appearances in general. That’s a question for political analysts, not TV critics. But one thing is certain: to repeat a common 2020 refrain, we can’t go on like this."
Trump campaign boasts that the president "soundly defeated" Guthrie, his "debate opponent": “Even though the commission canceled the in-person debate that could have happened tonight, one occurred anyway, and President Trump soundly defeated NBC’s Savannah Guthrie in her role as debate opponent and Joe Biden surrogate," the Trump campaign said in a statement. "President Trump masterfully handled Guthrie’s attacks and interacted warmly and effectively with the voters in the room."
Did working with Matt Lauer prepare Guthrie for grilling Trump?: "Guthrie's past experience working with disgraced Today show host Matt Lauer may have prepared her well for managing a most unruly Trump," says Sophia Tesfaye. "More than merely moderating questions from would-be voters in the audience, Guthrie was quick to offer relevant follow-ups and fact checks. She was often able to pin down the president's familiar pattern of interrupting the preamble to a question, talking about whatever he wants, pretending the interviewer is interrupting him when she tries to finish, then moving on to the next question. She was prepared and pointed, delivering the grilling I suspect many anti-Trump voters found reassuring."
Guthrie stepped into a tough spot, but she probably made the White House wish they had done the virtual debate: "Savannah Guthrie is a lead anchor on the Today show for a reason — and on Thursday night, it showed," says Emily Stewart. "NBC got a lot of flak for programming a Trump town hall at the same time as the Biden event on ABC, especially given that it was the president who dropped out of the originally scheduled debate in the first place. Guthrie’s quick line of questioning, pushback, and real-time fact-checking of the president probably made the White House wish they had just done the debate...Guthrie stepped into a tough spot on Thursday, and in that spot, she seized on the chance to ask questions that really matter to the American people — and press on their behalf to get answers."
Guthrie may have taken the heat off of NBC for its town hall decision: "NBC faced sharp criticism this week for scheduling a Thursday night town hall with President Trump, with even network employees chiding their employer for giving him an hour of airtime — 'a free hour of television,' he said, sounding pleased, at a rally earlier that day," says Jeremy Barr. "Even worse, critics said, it was matched up against ABC’s town hall with Democratic candidate Joe Biden, making voters choose. But despite fears that the event would amount to a free promotion for Trump’s campaign, it ended up being one of the toughest grillings he has faced as president, with questions about white supremacy, covid-19 deaths and his taxes. While the event was nominally a town hall, featuring questions from Florida voters, it included a lot of direct pressing by the moderator, Today co-host Savannah Guthrie, who repeatedly challenged the president’s evasions."
Guthrie revealed there's no substitute for tough questions: "It may have taken the jaw-dropping years-long series of Trump’s blatant falsehoods to finally prod a journalist into full-on confrontation, but it should serve as a template for how to push future candidates off their talking points," says Jeff Greenfield. "There are hard questions about abortion, for example, that arise from both parties’ platforms: The Republican plank, read literally, would ban the practice absolutely; the Democratic platform would permit it under any and all circumstances. More urgently, there are millions of Americans waiting for desperately needed relief to save their homes and feed their families. Is it really possible that weeks or months will go by with no way to resolve the differences between the White House, Senate Republicans and Speaker Pelosi?"
NBC's town hall was pointless and shameful: "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," says Andy Kroll. "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."
Joe Biden's ABC town hall with George Stephanopoulos was refreshingly boring: "When Trump’s hour on NBC was finally over, I switched the television to ABC, where there were still thirty minutes left in Biden’s town hall. It was all dulcet tones and policy wonkery," says Susan B. Glasser. "After listening to Trump, the Biden show sounded soothing, and even a bit boring. Turning the channel to the former Vice-President exchanging civilized words with George Stephanopoulos and an auditorium full of earnest Pennsylvanians was like stumbling into a meditation room after being trapped at a barroom brawl. If Trump was Guthrie’s crazy uncle, Biden was his sensible, long-winded brother."
Fox News wasted little time trashing Guthrie and NBC: Sean Hannity called Guthrie "Joe Biden's surrogate,” and said “NBC Fake News did their best to just ambush President Trump at tonight’s town hall.” Laura Ingraham, meanwhile, tweeted: "Joe’s stand-in: As expected, Savannah Guthrie is debating, not interviewing, Donald Trump. They wonder why people tune them out."
Rachel Maddow again distanced MSNBC from NBC News' town hall: “Well, that happened,” Maddow said at the start of her show immediately after Trump's town hall ended. “Let me remind you that what you just saw was a production of NBC News. We are MSNBC. We did not produce that event, we simulcast that here along with CNBC. But that was a strange replacement for what was otherwise supposed to be the second presidential debate of this general election season."