This combination of photos shows President Donald Trump, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden during the first presidential debate at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, O
( AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
Tanzina Vega: The final presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden will take place tonight on NBC, and it will be moderated by Kristen Welker. So far, the debates in this election cycle have been anything but traditional. In fact, they've been some of the most fraught and controversial in history. Now with the final debate upon us the Commission on Presidential Debates has announced some changes to the format to avoid a disastrous debate like the first. President Trump however, has already set the stage for tonight in his typical fashion. On Saturday, he called Welker terrible and unfair on Twitter, and on Monday at a rally in Arizona, he also called her a quote radical Democrat.
Well, Margaret Sullivan is with us. She's a media columnist at the Washington Post, and we're going to talk about how presidential debates have fared in this cycle and what we can expect tonight. Margaret, welcome back to the show.
Margaret Sullivan: Thanks so much, Tanzina. It's great to be with you, again.
Tanzina: Is tonight even going to matter, given what we've seen in the past couple of weeks?
Margaret: Well, Tanzina, after the first debate, which was such a disaster for viewers, I wrote in a column that if there were no more debates, that would probably be just fine, that they really weren't serving the public very well at all. However we roll on, and there were these two town halls, which actually turned out to be somewhat useful, although I thought it was pretty bad that they were scheduled opposite each other because of NBC's decision. Now we have the third and final, and we say that with a certain amount of relief, debate. There have been some rule changes, so it could be a little better. My hopes are not particularly high, though.
Tanzina: One of the things that people were calling for, myself included, after the first debate with Chris Wallace was a mute button, or the ability to cut the mic if the candidates went over on time. What is going to happen tonight, is there going to be a mute function?
Margaret: There's a bit of a change, it's not quite what you would have liked or probably what I would have liked, but it does help a bit, I think, or it can, which is that at the beginning of each one of the subject segments, and there are five or six, there will be two minutes of uninterrupted time for each candidate, so that there will be essentially a mute button or the mic turned down all the way for the other candidate.
That will allow at least that part of things to be a bit quieter, a bit more civil, but I'm also somewhat concerned that there would be interruptions that would somehow migrate over to the other mic, or cause a distraction. I just don't know how that's going to play out, but it is an effort on the part of the debate commission to address what happened in the first debate, which was so contentious.
Tanzina: What is the role of Kristen Welker tonight, given everything that's happened so far?
Margaret: In an ideal world, which is not the world we live in, the moderator would simply pose questions and encourage good discussion and debate between two candidates who would tell the truth and discuss their policy positions. That's some Xanadu that we don't live in. Unfortunately, I think that Welker is going to be in the position of having to do some control that's difficult to do. Also, she's going to have to do some form of fact checking, or at least some pushing back on outrageous stretches of the truth. Because otherwise, as I wrote in my column the other day, she threatens to allow this thing to be a superspreader of disinformation, which is nothing that we need in the middle of a pandemic.
For example, if President Trump starts talking about how we've turned the corner, on the pandemic, and everything is going to be cool, and it doesn't hurt young people, that really needs to not go unchallenged. Now she can tee it up so that Joe Biden pushes back on that but somebody will need to.
Tanzina: I'm wondering, the pushback, particularly against the President is not usually well received by him, nor is it well received by his supporters or Fox News. They have all criticized Savannah Guthrie for the pushback that she gave the President's answers during his last town hall event last week. In fact, the President even called Guthrie crazy. Is this what we would see? Is there a gender dynamic at play here, Margaret, because this is a woman moderator, and of course, tonight we're going to see a woman of color moderating?
Margaret: President Trump has been very critical of women journalists, and particularly women journalists of color. His criticism of Kristen Welker, I think has been unfair. I don't know exactly what we're going to see tonight. When Savannah Guthrie was interviewing him during the town hall last week, at one point he referred to her as cute, which is disparaging in that setting, and I not like to see that, but you never know what he's going to do. I do think there's a gendered aspect to this, yes.
Tanzina: Margaret, where do you see presidential debates going after this one? There will be more elections, there will be other presidents, there will be other vice presidents. Has this cycle of election debates, essentially ruined the format, or changed it in a way that makes it unusable going forward?
Margaret: It's hard to say because so much depends on the particular candidates. If you have two people who are relatively civil and follow the rules, then the debate format is probably reasonably fine. If you have one or two who are going to break the rules and shout at each other and be outrageous, then I think they've outlived their usefulness, at least in this current format. They may have to be really taken down to the studs and re-envisioned.
Tanzina: Well, we're going to see with much anticipation or not depending on who you are. We'll be watching tonight. Margaret Sullivan is a media columnist at the WashingtonPost. Margaret, thanks so much.
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