MIAMI — NBC has been rocked by an internal feud over its decision to host a town hall with Donald Trump at the same time as ABC’s Thursday event with Joe Biden, a scheduling move that critics contend is a gift to the president after he refused to participate in a debate originally scheduled for Thursday.
The internal conflict extends to the highest levels of NBCUniversal, where MSNBC head Phil Griffin strongly disagreed with NBC News President Noah Oppenheim’s decision to unilaterally move forward with the town hall during that time slot, according to three high-ranking sources at the TV media giant.
Griffin and Oppenheim have been increasingly at loggerheads over the way the two networks present their news, with MSNBC moving more leftward in its commentary while NBC News tries to maintain a more traditional down-the-middle approach, the sources said.
“Each side thinks the other is ruining the other‘s brand, and this just ripped it open,” said one of the sources.
Under fire from Biden allies calling for a viewership boycott, former NBC personalities and media critics, NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde acknowledged the external and internal controversy in a written statement.
“We share in the frustration that our event will initially air alongside the first half of ABC’s broadcast with Vice President Biden,” Conde, who is the boss of Oppenheim and Griffin, said. “Our decision is motivated only by fairness, not business considerations. We aired a town hall with Vice President Biden on October 5 at 8 p.m. If we were to move our town hall with President Trump to a later timeslot we would be violating our commitment to offer both campaigns access to the same audience and the same forum. We hope voters will watch both discussions – ours will be available at any time, free and on-demand on YouTube, Peacock and all our digital news platforms.”
Conde’s statement wasn’t the only expression of damage control from the media giant.
NBC News has hired an outside third-party firm to independently identify many of the attendees at tonight’s Miami town hall to ensure that they represent a true cross section of voters, one of the NBC sources told POLITICO.
Last week at a town hall for Biden, moderator Lester Holt told viewers that “we are surrounded by dozens of undecided voters” but all of the questioners appeared to lean toward or support Biden outright. Three had previously told MSNBC that they supported Biden. This time, the town hall participants have been screened to ensure that didn’t happen. Bookers for NBC also fanned out in Miami asking network sources to provide them with names of suitable town hall participants.
An NBC executive downplayed the severity of the disagreement between MSNBC and NBC, but acknowledged that the timing of the town hall was a contentious issue within the company. It also led to a Twitter mob engaging in a “Fire Chuck Todd” social media campaign directed at the “Meet The Press” host and NBC News political director. But Todd had no involvement in either town hall.
“Chuck wasn’t involved in this event,” the executive said.
A colleague of Todd’s at the network said “Chuck was blindsided by this. This was an executive decision, not a journalist decision.”
At last week’s town hall with Biden, Holt made sure to mention Trump was invited for his own town hall but the president’s campaign had yet to agree. Holt, sources say, was never scheduled to host a town hall with Trump, who was unlikely to agree to the Nightly News anchor as moderator after a controversial interview with Holt in 2018 and the campaign’s dislike of Holt’s questioning of Trump in a 2016 presidential debate. Savannah Guthrie, co-anchor of NBC News’s “Today” show, is slated to moderate Thursday’s town hall.
The campaign debate schedule was upended after Trump announced Oct. 2 that he tested positive for COVID-19 and rejected the Commission on Presidential Debate’s decision to hold a virtual debate on Oct. 15. Biden then accepted ABC’s town hall offer for Thursday, only to see Trump’s team take NBC up on its offer for a town hall on the same date in the hopes of beating Biden in viewership ratings.
“This is completely insane. We’re rewarding Trump’s bad behavior and playing his game,” said a top source at NBCUniversal. “The fact is this shows how NBC always helps the Trump brand. He was created here on ‘The Apprentice.’ He got a W-2 from here just like I do.”
NBCUniversal declined to comment on the record for this story.
Another high-level company official called the timing of the town hall and the handling of the previous one “a complete f–king clown show.”
Trump’s team enjoyed the in-fighting almost as much as the prospect of him beating Biden in ratings.
Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Trump adviser and campaign-trail surrogate, said that “NBC’s Trump town hall comes with lots of intra-woketopian controversy … The ABC Biden town hall should come with smelling salts. I expect Biden will have the highest ratings with clinically diagnosed insomniacs searching for alternate therapies.”
Biden surrogate Chris Coons, a Delaware senator, decried what he framed as Trump’s gamesmanship.
“The 25 million Americans who are out of a job and the more than 7 million people who have been infected so far don’t need a reality TV star chasing ratings, they need a leader who can address this pandemic and build back our country. That’s Joe Biden,” Coons said.
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