NEW YORK — NBC News faced a sharp backlash to its decision to host President Donald Trump for a town hall Thursday in direct competition with ABC's event with Democrat Joe Biden, including a social media call to boycott the network.
MSNBC's biggest star, Rachel Maddow, made two oblique references to the matter on her show Wednesday. During an interview with Biden's running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, Maddow asked whether she was "as mad as everybody else" about the Trump town hall.
"I'm not touching that," Harris replied.
In a second reference to the town hall as her show ended, Maddow spoke as the words "Apparently They Are Not Kidding" were shown on the screen behind her.
NBC said it agreed to set up the dueling town hall after Trump was administered a coronavirus test Tuesday by the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Anthony Fauci and NIH clinical director Dr. Clifford Lane reviewed the test and Trump's medical records, concluding with a "high degree of confidence" that the president was not shedding infectious virus.
Trump tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 2 and spent three days at the Walter Reed military hospital. NBC would not say whether Trump was still testing positive Tuesday.
The president and Biden were supposed to meet Thursday for their second debate hosted by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. Following the president's diagnosis, the commission switched it to a virtual meeting, but Trump declined to participate. Biden then agreed to appear on ABC.
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" on Twitter, where a call to boycott NBC was a trending topic.
"They rewarded Trump by giving him this time," Greenfield said in an interview.
Katie Couric, former host of NBC's "Today" show, said on Twitter that NBC's decision was "bad for democracy." NBC actress Shakina Nayfack, whose comedy series "Connecting" will be preempted Thursday by the Trump town hall, criticized her employer.
"Y'all sign my checks of late but I'm disgusted by my home network giving Trump a platform for fear mongering, bigotry and disinformation," she wrote on Twitter.
NBC said in a statement that "the Trump campaign did not dictate or request the time slot nor express any preference."
The network considered it important that Trump be given the same format, day of the week and length of time that Biden had on NBC last week — although he will have a different moderator. Savannah Guthrie will be Trump's host after Lester Holt moderated the Biden event.
NBC said Trump would be at least 12 feet (3.66 meters) from Guthrie and the audience.
Trump's ability to reach a national television audience 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.
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.
In addition to preventing viewers from getting a side-by-side comparison of the two men, the dueling 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 ABC town hall with Stephanopoulos on Sept. 15 was seen by 3.8 million people, Nielsen said.