NBC News agreed to put President Donald Trump before voters in a town hall event on Thursday after the president submitted to an independent coronavirus test with the results reviewed by Dr. Anthony Fauci.
The announcement Wednesday sets up duelling town halls with Democratic opponent Joe Biden on a night the two candidates were supposed to meet for their second debate. Biden is appearing on a similar town hall event in Philadelphia, televised by ABC.
It also subjected NBC News to a sharp backlash on social media, where a call to boycott the network was a trending topic on Twitter.
NBC said Trump would be at least 3.66 metres from moderator Savannah Guthrie and the audience.
Trump, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 2 and spent three days at the Walter Reed military hospital, took a coronavirus test Tuesday administered by the National Institutes of Health, NBC said.
Both NIH clinical director Dr. Clifford Lane and Fauci reviewed Trump’s medical records and said they had a high degree of confidence that the president is “not shedding infectious virus.”
Trump’s ability to reach a national television audience on Thursday was in part dependent on Fauci, who had expressed anger at the Trump campaign in recent days for using one of his statements in a campaign ad. The coronavirus task force member said a quote used in the campaign ad was taken out of context.
A formal matchup between the Republican president and Biden that was scheduled for Thursday in Miami by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debate was cancelled. In light of the president’s infection, the commission shifted the format to a virtual meeting, and Trump declined to participate.
Both town halls will begin at 8 p.m. Eastern, but Biden will have the last word. The ABC event, moderated by George Stephanopoulos, will last 90 minutes with an additional half hour of analysis. Trump’s town hall on NBC is scheduled for an hour.
Critics of NBC questioned why the network scheduled Trump for the same time, making viewers have to choose if they were interested in seeing both candidates react live in a similar format.
Veteran journalist Jeff Greenfield called it “indefensible” in a Twitter post.
“They rewarded Trump by giving him this time,” Greenfield said in an interview.
He questioned whether NBC acceded to a demand by the president, but the network said in a statement that “the Trump campaign did not dictate or request the time slot nor express any preference.”
NBC considered it important that Trump be given the same format, day of the week and length of time that Biden had last week — although he will have a different moderator. Lester Holt hosted the Biden event.
In addition to preventing viewers from getting a side-by-side comparison of the two men, the duelling events will likely be seen by far fewer people.
The first debate between the two men last month was watched by an estimated 73.1 million people, the Nielsen company said.
An estimated 6.7 million people saw Biden at an NBC News-sponsored town hall last week. Like the Trump event on Thursday will be, it was simulcast on MSNBC, CNBC and streamed online.
Trump’s town hall with Stephanopoulos on Sept. 15 was seen by 3.8 million people, Nielsen said.
Thursday’s Trump town hall on NBC will be held outdoors at the Perez Art Museum in Miami. Audience members will be socially distanced, required to wear a mask and submit to a temperature check before entering the venue, NBC said.