Last night's MSNBC-sponsored "town hall meeting" starring Donald Trump has raised eyebrows not only for the alacrity with which MSNBC scheduled it but for the incredibly softball questions tossed to Trump by the hosts, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, and the nonsensical answers they let him get away with. It was so grotesque and slobbery that even other media outlets sat up and took notice.
For an hour each on Wednesday night, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio took to national television to flash their intellects — detailing policy proposals, navigating constitutional queries and holding forth, in great detail, on how they would endeavor to make America great (again).
A few networks away, Donald Trump preferred to take a pass on all that and let his id do the talking.
In an hourlong MSNBC interview, Trump weighed in on specifics mostly to dismiss them: He denied ever proposing a 45-percent tariff on Chinese imports and shot down the possibility that he would pick David Petraeus as his vice president, saying, “We can't, now. He has been so badly hurt.”
Asked whether he would put another general on the ticket, Trump did not get around to answering that before co-moderator Mika Brzezinski told him: “You said you’re going to build a beautiful wall and Mexico is going to pay for it. … But you never say how.”
“Very simple. You have five different ways,” Trump responded. “No. 1 … We have a trade deficit with Mexico of $58 billion, all I have to do it start playing with that trade deficit, and believe me, they're going to pay for the wall. You watch.” He never got to No. 2.
Scarborough and Brzezinski sat knee to knee with Trump on a platform in what looked a blue-ish studio filled with 80-odd voters (including lovesick governor-turned-congressman Mark Sanford, he of the Appalachian Trail) for the pre-taped session.
No doubt conscious of public scrutiny of their alleged coziness with Trump—especially from media reporters at rival CNN—Scarborough and Brzezinski opened the show by telling Trump what a lousy job he did in last Saturday’s mudslinging CBS debate, in which he repeatedly accused Jeb Bush’s presidential brother, Bush 43, of lying about Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction and pretty much blamed Dubya for the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Trump—who has called for a ban on Muslim immigrants, has retweeted posts from white supremacists, and has remarked that Mexican immigrants are "rapists"—wasn't asked about any of these assertions. He was asked about poll numbers, if Apple is wrong for refusing to unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernadino shooters, and if he can play nice with Congress if elected to office. In an hour-long question-and-answer session in Charleston, South Carolina, moderators Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough occasionally pushed Trump on specificity, but couldn't garner substantial answers. As Isaac Chotiner points out at Slate, "He wasn't pressed hard for any policy details, nor challenged about his well-catalogued dislike of the truth."
If only. Of course, none of this actually occurred Wednesday night, just like it hasn’t occurred once this entire campaign season. Instead, Scarborough and Brzezinski hosted what appeared to be a rehearsed and “safe” town hall, in which American voters asked the candidate such hard-hitting questions as “Why did you decide to run for president?” and “how will you set yourself apart” from other Republicans? It was completely worthless television, except in one sense: The program highlighted the many ways in which the media’s coverage of Trump has been soft, insufficient, and without substance.
If the softball questions weren’t enough to make you feel like you were watching a rigged entertainment program, everything else about Wednesday night’s event also had a ring of cynicism to it. CNN was hosting a “town hall” in South Carolina with several of the other candidates, and MSNBC clearly wanted to compete. They did so by managing to get the biggest ratings draw in the race to appear with his favorite hosts. (Trump often appears on Morning Joe.) It’s true that there have been moments when Trump and Scarborough have gotten tense with each other, but it has always been papered over, presumably because it’s in both of their interests. MSNBC has certainly not been uniformly easy on Trump, especially during its evening programs. But the networks’ reliance on his ratings—a problem that is especially acute at CNN—means that they need to maintain a certain amount of politeness when dealing with the real estate magnate.
There is absolutely no doubt that Scarborough plays nice with Donald Trump because Trump brings viewers to what would ordinarily be a television show with the ratings of a mediocre blog. We know that Scarborough and Brzezinski visited with Trump in his hotel room on election night in New Hampshire. This is not the usual relationship between a candidate and a neutral media outlet. Ben Carson was allowed free rein on Scarborough's show to parrot Donald Trump's attack lines against Ted Cruz.
When you look at the questions from last night you are left with the indelible impression of news hosts who are actually afraid to do their job. Their allowing Trump to continue to claim that he has always opposed the Iraq war was either duplicity or some of the worst show prep in the history of show prep. C'mon guys. I do this part time and I found it by using Google Books. In the discussion on health care, they let Trump shout balderdash and never challenged him.
Some of the critique is given away in the Slate comment. The underlying objection is that Scarborough is not only the house Republican on their liberal plantation but that he gets good ratings. But by any standard you wish to use, MSNBC is trying to use Trump's "star power" to boost their craptacular ratings. In sucking up to Trump like he is, Scarborough is doing the nation and the party he used to represent a grave disservice.