Vogue magazine published a swooning piece Thursday about NBC News anchors Savannah Guthrie and Kristen Welker. The publication names the two women as the winners of the 2020 election press coverage. From the best that I can tell, the decision was made because of Guthrie’s town hall with President Trump in October and Welker’s performance as the moderator of the second presidential debate.
Let’s think back to those two political events. In the town hall with President Trump, Guthrie’s performance as moderator was almost cartoonish. She aggressively came at Trump as though it was a one-on-one interview when the purpose of a town hall is to allow audience members to ask questions. It is supposed to allow time for personal exchanges between the public official, in this case, the president, and voters with questions. Guthrie hogged the time and resorted to constant interruptions and finger jabbing in the direction of Trump when she didn’t like his answers. She looked to be over-served on caffeinated coffee.
At the time of the town hall, many of her viewers on NBC were angry that the network agreed to do a town hall with Trump when he decided to skip the second scheduled debate. You may remember that the Biden team wanted a virtual event after Trump’s bout with COVID-19. Trump refused so NBC scheduled a town hall with him. It was also the same night as a town hall with Biden on another network. Naturally, the Democrats wanted the night to go to Biden. The Vogue writer swooned over Guthrie’s handling of the town hall “in the Florida heat.’
The backlash wouldn’t last. With a delicate mix of authority and relatability, Guthrie salvaged the town hall with sharp, straightforward questions and unrelenting follow-ups. In the Florida heat, she asked an evasive Trump no fewer than three times whether he tested negative for COVID-19 before the first presidential debate. “It reminds me of being in high school, coming home after my curfew, and my mom saying, ‘Did you buy cigarettes?’ and she wouldn’t let me get out of it until I gave her the answer,” Guthrie said with a smile. (Before the town hall, Guthrie and NBC received their own assurances that Trump was not contagious, including a test independently conducted by the National Institutes of Health.) When the president defended retweeting QAnon conspiracy theories about Biden, Guthrie memorably quipped, “You’re the president, not, like, someone’s crazy uncle.”
Joe Biden didn’t show up to debate Trump but Savannah Guthrie did that night. The writer describes Guthrie as “loath to be hailed as a Trump-slayer”, which is good since she didn’t “slay” the president, she just conducted herself unprofessionally.
Many consider Trump to be a notoriously tricky subject—not Guthrie.“I’ve interviewed a lot of people who are hard to interview,” she said, shrugging. “In point of fact, I thought the president was very respectful.” (She declined to mention that after the town hall, Trump called her “totally crazy” at a rally in Fort Myers, Florida.)
Critics applauded Guthrie’s grilling: “It was like somebody putting a roadblock right in front of the bs,” Salon television critic Melanie McFarland told me. But as an impartial journalist, Guthrie is loath to be hailed as a Trump-slayer: “It’s more important than ever that journalists recognize that we are on no one’s side,” she asserted, her usually chipper tone intensifying. She aims to challenge subjects of both parties, prodding Biden last year in Iowa, asking him about his son Hunter Biden’s business dealing with Ukraine. “He did not enjoy that question,” she noted. Objectivity, in this moment, can seem like a dying art. “I don’t see a lot of people looking for neutrality and straight reporting,” she said. “I do see a lot of people and politicians wanting press coverage that reflects their worldview.”
Moving on to Kristen Welker, remember that she frequently covers the White House for NBC News. She once asked President Trump if he worked for Russia. She was as immersed in the Russia, Russia, Russia hoax as the rest of the reporters hyping the phony story. I look forward to hearing her ask Joe Biden if he works for China. In the mind of the Vogue reporter, though, Welker is on the level of Murrow and Cronkite. Sure, they, too were liberals but, really? And, the color of her skin is super-important.
With the gravitas of Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite and poise all her own, Welker coolly restored order and civility after the disastrous first debate moderated by Fox News’s Chris Wallace. “There’s no doubt I was dealt a different deck of cards,” she said. But her purposeful energy and firm direction made all the difference. (Even Wallace later admitted, “I’m jealous.”) Welker barely blinked when Trump paused to praise her: “I respect very much the way you’re handling this.”
The president wasn’t alone. Welker won plaudits for asking Trump and Biden about oft-overlooked topics like the disproportionate impact of climate change on communities of color and the more than 500 migrant children still separated from their parents due to the Trump administration’s policy. But the most striking moment came when Welker asked Biden and Trump about “the talk”: that Black and brown families often “feel they have no choice but to prepare their children for the chance that they could be targeted, including by the police, for no reason other than the color of their skin,” Welker explained during the debate. “Do you understand why these parents fear for their children?” It was the first question Welker wrote after being chosen by the debate commission, and one that immediately conveyed what she called “the core of the pain that so many families are feeling.” Welker told me, “It’s impossible to separate myself from the substance of that question. It was just within me.”
Identity politics is important to Joe Biden and to the press that will be covering his administration. I use the word “covering” lightly. We all know to prepare for a four-year nap from the White Houe press corps and their cohorts in network news. These two ladies are being given the star treatment for trashing Trump when almost every other journalist does it on a daily basis. They are described as “pillars of the fourth estate” and fighting against Trump’s attacks on the media. No mention, though, of Biden’s attacks on individual reporters bold enough to ask him something tougher than which flavor of ice cream he chose for his cone.