From Tom Jones | Poynter <[email protected]>
Subject Let’s debate the debate: Does tonight even matter?
Date August 23, 2023 11:29 AM
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Republicans will have their first presidential debate ahead of the 2024 election. The candidate most likely to be the nominee won’t be there. Email not displaying correctly?
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** Let’s debate the debate: Does tonight even matter?
A Trump supporter stands outside Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee ahead of tonight’s GOP presidential debate. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Tonight certainly feels weird. Republicans will have their first presidential debate ahead of the 2024 election. But the candidate most likely to be the nominee won’t be there.

Or will he?

No one expects Donald Trump to jump out from behind a curtain and, ta-da, physically appear on stage tonight in Milwaukee. But his presence will be felt, and his name certainly will come up. Even without being on stage, Trump will be center stage in the debate.

Will the other candidates criticize or support him? How often will they go out of their way to bring him up? How often will they purposely avoid his name or duck questions about him?

And, just how many questions will be about him? Will moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, both of Fox News, push the candidates about their stances on all of Trump’s many legal troubles or will the moderators, careful not to raise the ire of the likely eventual nominee, tread lightly when it comes to Trump questions? Tonight could give a good peek into exactly where Fox News stands on Trump.

That’s what makes tonight fascinating.

With apologies to Richard Rodgers, “How do you solve a problem like Donald?” Especially when it comes to the indictments and, especially, in front of what's expected to be a mostly conservative audience that polls have shown is supportive of the former president and could be growing weary of all the indictment talk.

MacCallum told The Associated Press’ David Bauder ([link removed]) , “Of course we’ll bring it up. I expect that the candidates will bring it up in part as well. And to the extent that there’s indictment fatigue, there are so many other issues we’re going to be talking about on the stage, it’s certainly not going to be the lion’s share of the night.”

Wait, there are other issues and other candidates?

Well, of course there are, and that figures to be, as MacCallum said, the lion’s share of the night. While polls show Trump with a commanding lead among GOP candidates, recent polls also show Republicans are open to other candidates. An NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll released just this week showed that the majority of Republican caucusgoers in Iowa — 52% — say their minds aren’t made up, and they could be persuaded to support another candidate.

Tonight could be the start of that persuasion.

MacCallum told the AP, “I don’t think as members of the media or people who watch politics it’s our place to say, ‘Oh, this is over, these people aren’t going to be the nominee.’ It’s way too soon to say that.”

For the record, the debate will consist of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Even without Trump, it will be interesting to see how some candidates handle tonight. Will DeSantis be able to shake his reputation of being awkward and thin-skinned, particularly if he is a target of the other candidates? Will Ramaswamy, who has been gaining momentum, perform well despite never holding public office? Is there an underdog (Burgum? Hutchinson?) who could break away from the pack?

That’s what makes tonight worthwhile at least for a little while. And, in a way, Trump not participating could be a good thing for the other candidates. He won’t be there to dominate the stage.

MacCallum told The Hill’s Dominick Mastrangelo ([link removed]) , “I think it’s kind of a golden opportunity for (the other candidates). For all of them, I just think they’re going to get a little more room to breathe. I think there’s going to be a lot of focus on the issues that people care about, because that is the number one thing that we hear from everyone we speak with, is that they are just so hungry to move the conversation off of everything that’s been happening in the past and some of what’s been on (Trump’s) plate and hear about what matters to them.”

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** Is Trump afraid to debate?

Former Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, the Republican who is now a commentator for CNN, has another reason for why Trump might be skipping out on the debates: He’s a scaredy cat.

OK, he didn’t say it quite like that, but he did use a pretty strong word.

“Donald Trump is a coward,” Kinzinger said on air.

Kinzinger added that there’s one person Trump is fearful of in a debate.

“He’s scared to death of Chris Christie,” Kinzinger said, “because I think Chris Christie is gonna wipe the floor with him and I think that’s what he’s afraid of.”

It does seem like Christie has been the most critical of Trump in recent weeks.

Kinzinger said, “So what will be interesting in this debate is watching everybody kind of try to show their bona fides and pretend like they’re tough by attacking everybody else on that stage and staying quiet, with a few exceptions, on Donald Trump. So I guess from his perspective, he can sit back and watch them all tear each other up, but I think Chris Christie’s gonna really kind of bring the show and point out the cowardice of Donald Trump.”

Mediaite’s Charlie Nash has more ([link removed]) .

** Why run?

If you have a bunch of candidates who have no chance to be president then why run? Why spend all that money and all that time for a bid that’s pretty much certain to end with a speech saying they are dropping out of the race?

The New York Times’ Trip Gabriel writes ([link removed]) , “Candidates can raise their profiles and polish their resumes for a future bid for office. They can land lucrative commentator gigs on any number of platforms. A presidential run can lead to a high-paying job in the private sector or, of course, a big role in someone else’s administration.”

But Gabriel writes, “Even the longest of long shots — candidates with no electoral experience and limited political charisma — believe they might catch lightning in a bottle.”

There have been candidates in the past who started off as underdogs and managed to not only win the nomination, but to actually become the president. Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama and Donald Trump all went that route.

Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota, one of the very longshot candidates in tonight’s debate, told the Times, “We’re running for president, and we actually think we have an excellent chance.”

Even though Trump has a commanding lead in the polls?

“You wouldn’t say so-and-so is going to win the Super Bowl next February, we’re just going to cancel the season,” Burgum said. “No, you play the game. America loves competition. America loves an underdog story, too.”

** A few PolitiFact pieces ahead of tonight’s debate …
* Amy Sherman of PolitiFact with “Fact-check: How accurate are 2024 Republican presidential candidates' attacks on one another?” ([link removed])
* Another piece from Sherman: “Checking GOP presidential candidates' attacks on Joe Biden, Democrats ahead of first primary debate.” ([link removed])
* PolitiFact’s Louis Jacobson with “Who are the candidates at the GOP debate in Milwaukee, and what are their backgrounds?” ([link removed])

** Musk’s latest move to annoy the media

Elon Musk continues to make it harder to like the social media site formerly known as Twitter and continues to cross swords with media outlets. His latest plan: stripping headlines from news articles shared on X.

Fortune’s Kylie Robison broke the news, tweeting ([link removed]) , “Scoop: X/Twitter, is planning a major change in how news articles appear on the service, stripping out the headline and other text so that tweets with links display only an article’s lead image, according to material viewed by Fortune.” (Here’s Robison’s story ([link removed]) .)

Robison writes, “The change means that anyone sharing a link on X — from individual users to publishers — would need to manually add their own text alongside the links they share on the service; otherwise the tweet will display only an image with no context other than an overlay of the URL. While clicking on the image will still lead to the full article on the publisher's website, the change could have major implications for publishers who rely on social media to drive traffic to their sites as well as for advertisers.”

Musk confirmed it on X, tweeting ([link removed]) , “This is coming from me directly. Will greatly improve the esthetics.” Musk also believes it will cut down on what he feels are “clickbait” articles.

Robison reported the change, as far as Musk is concerned, is meant to reduce the vertical height of posts, and that would allow more content to appear on the screen.

A source told Robison, “It’s something Elon wants. They were running it by advertisers, who didn’t like it, but it’s happening.”

** ‘Get out of my house!’
A tribute to Joan Meyer, the late 98-year-old co-owner of the Marion County Record, sits outside the weekly newspaper's office this week. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

One of the big media stories in recent weeks was police in a small town in Kansas raiding a newspaper ([link removed]) and the home of the co-owner and publisher, Eric Meyer. Meyer’s 98-year-old mother, Joan (also a co-owner), lived with her son and died a day after the raid. Eric Meyer said he believes the stress of the raid contributed to his mother’s death.

Now the paper, the Marion County Record, has released a video of Joan Meyer ([link removed]) yelling at police during their search. She yelled, “Get out of my house ... I don’t want you in my house!” To another officer, she said, “Don’t touch any of that stuff! This is my house!”

Knowing that Meyer died a day later makes the video disturbing to watch.

Days after the raid, a prosecutor said that there was insufficient evidence to justify the raids. The seized computers and records have been returned. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation continues to look into the case.

The Associated Press’ John Hanna and Jim Salter have more details ([link removed]) , including reaction from the community and across the state. During a recent city council meeting, Darvin Markley, a Marion resident, took issue with Marion County Police Chief Gideon Cody, who led the raids. Markley said, “As far as Chief Cody goes, he can take his high horse he brought into this community and giddy-up on out of town. The man needs to go. He needs to be fired.”

** Media tidbits
* In Tuesday’s newsletter, I linked to viral photos and videos showing how the parking lots surrounding Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles were flooded because of Tropical Storm Hilary. But was it really as bad as it looked? Or was it a trick of the eye? Los Angeles Times reporter David Wharton and photographer Robert Gauthier did a little digging and came up with this story: “No, Dodger Stadium didn’t flood. That’s just a reflection.” ([link removed]) And here’s PolitiFact’s Jeff Cercone with a fact check ([link removed]) on the viral videos and photos.
* My Poynter colleague and NPR public editor Kelly McBride with “How to interview vulnerable sources without exploiting them.” ([link removed])
* The New York Times’ Katie Robertson with “Lachlan Murdoch Pays $840,000 to Site He Had Accused of Libel.” ([link removed])
* Interesting quick read from Philadelphia Magazine’s Victor Fiorillo: “Buzz Bissinger Banned His Book “Friday Night Lights” Before Iowa Did.” ([link removed])
* A few days old, but a good read: British Vogue’s Zing Tsjeng with “‘I Really Want to Write the Books I Want to Write Before I Die’: Zadie Smith Is Back With an Epic — And Emotional — New Novel.” ([link removed])
* New York Times baseball writer Tyler Kepner announced on X ([link removed]) that he is joining The Athletic as a baseball writer. The Times owns The Athletic and announced in June that it was disbanding its sports desk. Kepner wrote that he starts next month at The Athletic. Meanwhile, Times sportswriter Matthew Futterman has been hired by The Athletic to cover tennis.

** Hot type
* Esquire’s Deborah Jian Lee writes about discrimination against LGBTQ+ students at Christian colleges and universities in “Persecution in the Name of the Lord.” ([link removed])
* The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer has a Q&A with the U.S. soccer legend in “Megan Rapinoe answers the critics.” ([link removed])

** More resources for journalists
* Poynter will honor Anderson Cooper at the Bowtie Ball ([link removed]) in Tampa, Florida, on Nov. 18. Learn how to get first dibs on tickets ([link removed]) during a donor pre-sale event Sept. 5-10.
* Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Media ([link removed]) (Mar., May & Sept. 2024) — Apply by Sept. 8, 2023 ([link removed]) .
* Power of Diverse Voices: Writing Workshop for Journalists of Color ([link removed]) (Nov. 15-18) (Seminar) — Apply by Sept. 15 ([link removed]) .
* Will Work for Impact: Fundamentals of Investigative Journalism ([link removed]) (Oct. 2-30) (Online) — Enroll now ([link removed]) .

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at [email protected] (mailto:[email protected]) .
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