Debate Dishing & Dissing: Audience Drives How Late-Night News Shows Unpack

Courthouse News has been examining how two news programs sharing a time slot — “Fox News at Night” and MSNBC’s “The 11th Hour” — compared in their presentation of the news of the day. The chaotic presidential debate was nearly all MSNBC’s Brian Williams wanted to talk about, while the topic got only a passing mention on the Fox host Shannon Bream’s show.

(Art by Carlos Ayala)

(CN) — MSNBC’s “The 11th Hour with Brian Williams” began Wednesday evening’s coverage discussing the previous night’s debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, while Shannon Bream on “Fox News at Night” kicked off her broadcast by covering each candidate’s recent campaign rallies.

Williams began by questioning Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacy during the debate and his immediate pivot to admonishing antifa. The TV news veteran then turned to highlighting clips of Republican leaders calling out Trump’s refusal, with some questioning his overall debate performance.

Bream started her show with a Fox News correspondent on the ground in Duluth, Minnesota, who spoke to people at the Trump’s post-debate rally there. One woman interviewed said she doesn’t mind Trump’s aggressive style “because it’s very down to earth, very normal,” while another man remarked “It’s not a good look — he should have been more patient.”

On Williams’ show, Ashley Parker, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Washington Post, noted the “yawning gap between the president’s assessment of his performance, which we saw in his tweets, and just about everything I heard talking to people in the president’s orbit last night. There was not a single person who thought that debate went particularly well for the president.”

Screenshot from MSNBC’s “The 11th Hour With Brian Williams” on Sept. 30, 2020.

Williams also probed whether reporters have tried to normalize the president’s behavior during the debate in a vain attempt to articulate what took place, calling the event “a dumpster fire.” Axios reporter Alexi McCammond noted progressive members of Congress, such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Elizabeth Warren, have rallied around Joe Biden despite his not being their first choice because the alternative is “a nonstarter.”

On Fox, Bream switched gears to Congress’ ongoing efforts to pass a stimulus bill, where a vote scheduled for Wednesday evening was scrubbed. According to Republicans, part of the problem is Democrats’ insistence that the bill include stimulus checks for illegal immigrants and protections from deportations.

Bream then moved on to a discussion on the confirmation process for Trump’s latest Supreme Court nominee, U.S. Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett, and the Senate Judiciary Committee’s grilling of former FBI Director James Comey over the bureau’s handling of a probe of links between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Senator Ted Cruz told Bream that Comey claimed to be ignorant of everything that happened “with the FBI targeting President Trump, engaging in a political persecution, going after General Flynn, and we now know that was directed from the very top, from the Oval Office, from Barrack Obama and Joe Biden. We now know that was a political persecution not based on facts.”

Screenshot from the Fox News program “Fox at Night,” Sept. 30, 2020.

Cruz added that Comey is trying to cover himself by making wild accusations and claiming ignorance.

The senator from Texas also spoke of a recent meeting he had with Judge Barrett, saying he was impressed. “She is an extraordinary scholar and will make an excellent judge. The Senate will take up and confirm Judge Barret, and we’ll do so by the end of the month, we’ll do so before Election Day, and that’s consistent with 200 years of precedent.”

Back on MSNBC, Williams asked his guests about Trump’s decision to forgo denouncing the Proud Boys, a group the Anti-Defamation League has called a white supremacist group. Robert Costa, a reporter for The Washington Post, said Senate Republicans he spoke with were privately alarmed and disagreed with Trump’s decision not to admonish the group.

Costa said many Republicans he spoke to thought Trump would be able to claw his way back but doubted they would be able to do the same, saying they were forced to walk a tightrope to avoid getting into a battle with the president or his supporters.

After Biden reminded Trump that his own FBI director had released a statement calling the Proud Boys a white supremacist group, Trump said he’s wrong, and quickly turned his attention to antifa — which Biden noted is “an idea, not an organization.” Trump declared to reporters Wednesday that he doesn’t know who the Proud Boys are.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, described the Proud Boys as a “hate group” and said “they’ve styled themselves as a western fraternity, but they traffic in anti-Semitism, misogyny, xenophobia, anti-Muslim bias and a kind of homophobia that isn’t just ugly, but violent.”

Greenblatt said Trump is lying about not knowing who the group is and considers them “his fellow travelers” and “allies.”

On Fox, meanwhile, Bream made mention of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s signature on a bill that creates a nine-member task force to study the feasibility of paying reparations to Black Americans in an effort to mitigate some of the impacts of slavery. The task force is set to make recommendations to lawmakers by July 2023.

Bream at last turned her attention to last night’s debates, asking White House communications director Brian Morgenstern if Trump’s team had set their expectations too low.

“No, the president did a great job, that’s why the other side is saying we shouldn’t have any more debates,” Morgenstern told Bream. “If your candidate does well you want them to debate more, and that’s what the president’s team is saying. He laid out his vision, he held the vice president’s feet to the fire. Joe Biden wouldn’t denounce antifa, he did not stand up for law enforcement, so the president was really able to get his message out.”

On MSNBC, Williams brought up Trump’s statements decrying the large-scale mail-in voting and his refusal to outright say he would accept the election results. Guest Frank Figliuzzi, a former FBI agent, said, “The very fact that we’re having this conversion pains me because it lends further credence that we might not be able to trust the results,” adding that’s exactly what Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin are hoping for.

Williams wrapped up the evening discussing the problems facing American families as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and reported American Airlines announced it will furlough 18,000 workers after lawmakers failed to agree on a relief deal.

Bream ended her broadcast by discussing the two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officers who were shot in their patrol car this month, and the charging of a suspect Wednesday on attempted murder charges.

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva told Bream: “It’s scary, the situation, in the sense that there are people that have such deep seeded hatred toward law enforcement they’re willing to just kill unprovoked.”

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