What's worse: no presidential debate at all or separate and unequal events staged at exactly the same time with a media outlet putting both thumbs on the scale to favor one candidate over the other?
We will probably find out Thursday night. NBC's recent decision to stage a town hall with President Donald Trump at the exact time of the already scheduled town hall on ABC with Joe Biden is the latest example of a media organization ignoring the best interests of the voting public in favor of its own.
NBC knew ABC had already booked a town hall with Biden starting at 8 p.m. ET, a forum that might have enlightened some viewers on the former vice president's views. There are plenty of other hours between now and the next actual debate that NBC could have chosen for its own town hall with the President. Instead, it scheduled its event directly against ABC's, ensuring voters had to deal with conflict instead of illumination.
People will now be forced to choose between the town halls based on two factors: preference for a candidate and entertainment value. According to the most recent polls, Biden seems to have the edge on the former, but when did people pass up the chance to see the type of hijinks, aggression or low comedy that only Trump can offer?
Will anyone be surprised if Trump draws a bigger crowd than Biden? Consider the entire history of Trump's political career. He has been all about creating noise, distractions and levels of outrage to play well across the breadth of media.
In other words: Trump is treating this as a circus. And let's face it, at the circus, the guy calmly juggling bowling pins while trying to balance himself on a ball is never going to draw the same crowd as the freak show.
Trump really can't be blamed for doing everything in his bag of pyrotechnic tricks to grab attention, though. He has been down in the polls throughout the campaign and has only been sinking lower of late (not incidentally after his roundly booed debate performance).
NBC intends to run the town hall across its multiple networks, including MSNBC and CNBC, which gives Trump wider coverage than Biden will get on ABC alone. Trump, of course, is president largely on the basis of his television appearances, and TV ratings mean a lot to him. He will likely want to create a ratings comparison he can brag about as some evidence of his superiority to Biden, perhaps because the polls are not providing any succor for him in that department.
A desperate guy tries desperate ideas. Facing off against Biden in the virtual debate format initially laid out by the debate commission was anathema to Trump, and he told us the reason why: "They cut you off whenever they want."
NBC is offering Trump what he really wanted: a replay of the first debate, at least in terms of a chance to speak on top of whatever Biden is saying without fear of interruption. Offering unchallenged bombast is always his central goal. By having his own dedicated town hall, Trump will get to strut and fret his hour on the stage, sucking up virtually every ounce of oxygen — and attention — the media has to give.
NBC's defense, provided by an NBC News executive who did not want to be named, is that voters are not being disserved because they can and should watch both events through replays of one or the other. It's the modern age, after all. Linear TV is dead, NBC is arguing — as though that is really what the mass of people are going to do: Record one town hall and watch the other later. Sure.
The one thing we know is that Americans rarely pass at the chance to gawk at a traffic accident. That's what NBC News has set up for them Thursday night — another potential traffic accident.
NBC's justification for inviting Trump on for a town hall is completely legit in one context: The network had already given the same to Biden earlier this month. But permitting Trump to get what he wants — blowing up the real debate because he disliked the format only to create an ersatz one more favorable to him — is embarrassing for NBC.
It will only get worse if Trump is allowed to run roughshod over this event as well, browbeating the moderator, Savannah Guthrie, or any questioners he doesn't like.
He has already expressly insisted on a format where he would not be cut off. NBC has given him everything else he wanted. Will they stand up to him when the bully shows up again?