President Donald Trump and former Vice President, Joe Biden, are set to debate for the first time today at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio.
“My job is to be as invisible as possible,” said Chris Wallace of Fox News, the moderator for the opening matchup.
Today's debate, which airs commercial free from 9:00PM to 10:30PM EST on every major network, is likely to attract a television and live-streaming audience of close to 100 million eyes. This type of group gathering has been rare in a COVID-19 shutdown. A fragmented news media, due to the Global Pandemic, means that many voters will consume the debate through a probable biased lens, be it partisan cable news stations, tailored social media feeds or online outlets that cater to the left or the right.
The 'Commission on Presidential Debates,' a bipartisan nonprofit group, controls the look and feel of tonight's event, which is designed to evoke a more traditional political environment. Due to social distancing, barely 100 people are expected to attend in person. Each candidate has two minutes to respond to a question, a Tolstoyan span by rapid-fire TV news standards.
Wallace, who won rave reviews in 2016 for his stewardship of the third debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton, is now in the hot seat. The opening round typically attracts the largest audience of the campaign. The Fox News anchor will also face intense scrutiny on how he handles the evening, particularly given Trump’s tendency to hurl false claims at his opponents.
“There’s a vast difference between being a moderator in a debate and being a reporter who is interviewing someone,” Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., a co-chairman of the debate commission, told CNN. “We don’t expect Chris to be fact check(ing). The minute the TV is off, there are going to be plenty of fact checkers in every newspaper and every television station in the world.”
Some media pundits have called on TV networks to impose their own fact-checks in real-time, through onscreen graphics, clarifying captions or cutaways to reporters offering context. Anchors on CNN and MSNBC occasionally broke into speeches during the Republican National Convention in August, clarifying false information or baseless accusations. However, that interventionist approach is less likely to occur on Tuesday, according to executives and producers at several TV networks. Unlike the conventions, executives said, the debates are intended as an unfiltered test of the wit, stamina and ability of the candidates.
On Fox News on Sunday, Wallace said he had “an awful lot” to cover in 90 minutes, citing the coronavirus, racial tensions, economic problems and protests across the country. Just this weekend, the president nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and The New York Times published a major investigation revealing that Mr. Trump paid not federal income taxes in 10 of the 15 years before 2017.
How many viewers can even be swayed by Tuesday’s proceedings is an open question. Roughly 70% of Americans said the debates would not matter much to their ultimate vote, according to a poll this month by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News. The survey found that 44% of respondents said the debates would not matter at all.
84M Americans tuned in for Trump’s first debate with Clinton in 2016, on a par with major football games and last century’s sitcom finales. This year’s ratings may not match that because so many viewers now use streaming services that cannot be credibly measured.
What many can agree on, is the unwavering anticipation for the first joust between Biden and Trump.
Courtesy of Fox News, NBC News, CNN News and The New York Times