Executives at NBCUniversal, NBC News and the NBC broadcast network are not-so-quietly thanking an employee who has only limited command over the Comcast-owned company’s corporate direction: Savannah Guthrie.
Guthrie’s handling of President Donald Trump during a town-hall broadcast organized in last-minute fashion by NBC News helped blunt waves of criticism of the media conglomerate, which scheduled the event directly opposite one with Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic challenger, on ABC News. “Perhaps the execs at NBC — or Guthrie herself — realized how disciplined they would need to be to justify giving airtime to Trump after he violated even more democratic norms by rejecting the rules of the Commission on Presidential Debates,” says Dannagal Young, an associate professor at the University of Delaware who studies political media.
Guthrie’s mode of questioning kept Trump pinned. “You’re the president. You’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who just retweets whatever,” she said, quizzing him on why he posts conspiracy theories on Twitter. “You have said repeatedly the only way we lose this election is if it is rigged. Now that is simply not true,” she told him when asking him about the coming election. “The fact is either candidate can lose fair and square without valid fraud. So will you accept the results of the election?”
NBCUniversal had a lot on the line Thursday night. Broadcast networks like NBC, CBS and ABC try to create programs aimed at drawing the biggest audience possible. But NBC’s decision earlier this week to schedule that town hall opposite ABC’s sparked backlash from critics, who asked why the company known for capturing large viewing crowds with “Sunday Night Football” and “This Is Us” would work instead to split interested voters into two different assemblages.
Guthrie’s ability to hold Trump to account for most of the evening, keep him to relatively short responses and pepper him with questions and follow-ups pertaining to white supremacy, QAnon, his taxes and the coronavirus served “as a sort of vaccine, if you will, for the network,” says Frank Sesno, director of strategic initiatives at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, and a former chief of CNN’s Washington Bureau. The “Today” co-anchor was “persistent but not obnoxious, and that was an approach that had value for people who care about this, which should be most everybody,” Sesno added.
Few TV journalists have been able to keep President Trump, who loves to interrupt his questioners, deflect their queries and inject any number of unproven or poorly sourced theories into a conversation, on track. NBC’s Lester Holt, during a 2017 interview early in Trump’s White House tenure, managed to spur the president to tie his decision to fire FBI director James Comey to a probe into Russian election meddling, a sign that the dismissal was sparked by his desire to evade investigation. Axios’ Jonathan Swan in August of this year pressed Trump on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Fox News’ Chris Wallace pressed the president on his mischaracterization of a Biden position during an interview in July. And CNN’s Jake Tapper, during the run-up to the 2016 election, refused to move on after Trump deflected several queries about making racist comments. Tapper would ask Trump a question about his comments on the background of U.S. District Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel 24 different times.
Guthrie’s questions “kept Trump moving around,” says Jason Mollica, a professor at American University’s School of Communication who studies presidential campaigns and messaging. “It really showed more of how the president didn’t really know the facts or didn’t want to stick to the reality of what’s going on on any of the topics.”
NBC didn’t make much noise about the event the day after it took place. There were no congratulatory memos issued by NBC News Group chief Cesar Conde or NBC News president Noah Oppenheim. NBC didn’t make Guthrie or executives available to discuss the event. One person familiar with the company said executives were trying to keep a “forward-looking” stance, knowing that Kristen Welker, an NBC News White House correspondent and co-anchor of the weekend version of “Today,” was set to moderate the next debate organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates on Oct. 22.
And it’s not clear how much of a business success the Trump town hall was for NBC, or its parent company. ABC News’ town hall with Biden, billed as a special broadcast of “20/20,” drew more viewers overall than the NBC broadcast, even when it was combined with viewership from simulcasts on MSNBC and CNBC. According to Nielsen, ABC drew 14.1 million viewers to its 8 p.m. hour, compared with 13.1 million for the three NBCU networks — an advantage of 8%. ABC also captured more of the viewers in the demographic most coveted by advertisers in news programming, people between 25 and 54, according to Nielsen. On-air behavior from MSNBC anchors like Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes in the days leading up to the Trump town-hall broadcast also indicated that some staffers disagreed with the decision to put the thing on the air in the first place.
NBC’s ad breaks were populated more with NBC News promos than with ads for Norton 360 and SimpliSafe. Meanwhile, the ABC broadcast featured commercials from marketers seeking broader audiences: the J.M. Smucker Co.’s Milk-Bone; L’Oreal’s Garnier; even a new ad led by Chris Rock from Apple and Verizon.
Executives at ABC News “couldn’t be more pleased” with their event’s viewership, said a person familiar with the matter, even though they felt that “Savannah was a formidable competitor.”
Guthrie’s ability to keep Trump at bay doesn’t absolve her employer in the view of some critics. “I think it’s unfortunate that these two events were scheduled the way that they were,” says Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication and a former senior vice president of specials at NBC News. “It was a disservice to the public, and I think NBC, coming in second on this, has to bear the blame for a lot of it.”
Both NBC and ABC might have been better served with additional graphics to help their anchors better present facts in real time as the candidates spoke, says Merrill Brown, a journalism entrepreneur who is a former executive editor of MSNBC.com. “I thought from a civics point of view, it was a missed opportunity.”