MSNBC probably went into Wednesday night's televised town hall meeting with Donald Trump in high hopes that they'd be able to produce the commodity that cable news networks prize above all others -- snippy press releases describing the way they'd bested their rivals in televised journalism's tallest-hobbit contest. Alas, despite the efforts of "Morning Joe" co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, it was not to be.
As CNN media reporter Brian Stelter noted on Twitter, it was bronze medals all around for MSNBC.
Stelter pointed out some important caveats. First, this was a smash-and-grab job from MSNBC, who essentially threw this pseudo-event together at the last moment. What's more, those are still pretty good numbers for MSNBC at 8 p.m. -- the last time the network posted notable numbers in that time block was the night of the New Hampshire primary. (MSNBC had 1.75 million total viewers and scored 494,000 viewers in the 25-54 demo that night.)
So hey, they pulled big numbers out of thin air. Still, they lost to an Anderson Cooper interview with Ben Carson!
And perhaps they deserved to lose out to an actual interview, because this Trump event wasn't so much a town hall as it was an infomercial. Slate's Isaac Chotiner dismissed it as a "disgraceful" display of softball journalism, heavy petting with kid gloves:
Scarborough began the evening by noting that he and his co-host were prepared to debrief Trump and ask him important questions; instead, the questions were mild, and the follow-ups nonexistent. It remains shocking that after months of bigoted comments and almost pathological dishonesty, Trump still lands these types of interviews. Wednesday night, there was no mention of his racist comments toward Mexicans; his praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin; or his stigmatization of Muslims. He wasn't pressed hard for any policy details, nor challenged about his well-catalogued dislike of the truth.
The transcript tells the tale of a solid hour of pulled punches and absent inquisitiveness on the parts of ersatz moderators Scarborough and Brzezinski, who came into the night on a wave of criticism for their perceived chumminess with reality television's angriest clementine and proceeded to disabuse no one of those suspicions. Right from the first exchange, it was clear that the evening's interrogators didn't really think that much of their questions:
SCARBOROUGH: A lot of questions about your general philosophy. Why is it that you feel it's necessary to attack Jeb Bush, to attack John McCain, to attack all these people?
TRUMP: I don't attack John McCain, actually. I do attack people when I'm attacked. I have -- I don't care too much about Jeb except he spent $22 million on negative ads. Every time I turn on a television I see a negative ad. He's got money from all of the different donors and special interests and lobbyists. And they put a lot of negative ads and that's Jeb more so than anybody else.
Trump went on to describe Bush as someone whom he enjoys attacking because Bush is "sort of easy to hit" and also to criticize Ted Cruz for "lies." Scarborough's response to all of this, including the very first thing Trump uttered about Sen. McCain -- a demonstrable lie -- was to say, "Right." From there, he moved on, seeking to get Trump's reaction to how well he's doing in the polls. "Those are great poll results," Scarborough said.
Things didn't get much better once our brave journalists had finally put to bed the critical issue of whether Trump likes leading in the polls or not. Trump was continually allowed to substitute platitudes ("I do tremendous health care") for plans and policies, and to dodge on specifics.
Asked whether either side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide deserved more blame for the lack of resolution to their conflict, Trump demurred, saying, "I don't want to get into it for a different reason, Joe. Because if I do win, there has to be a certain amount of surprise, unpredictability. Our country has no unpredictability." When he was asked whom he'd consult on foreign policy, Trump excused himself, saying that he wanted to "keep it a little bit secret" for the sake of a forthcoming announcement. This all seemed perfectly reasonable to his interlocutors.
Even when Scarborough gave chase, it proved to be a waste of time. His attempts to pin Trump down on what he'd replace Obamacare with led to Trump insisting that he gets lots of standing ovations when he talks about -- you know -- "doing tremendous health care" and promising that "human decency" would do a better job serving the needs of the uninsured than any health care policy. This segment ended with Trump essentially describing the president's role in health care as one in which the chief executive negotiates prices at the point of sale with health care providers, which is ... well, let's call it a fairly unique vision of the presidency.
But one exchange in particular exemplified the evening. Scarborough came into the evening amped up to talk about this past weekend's debate, at which Trump challenged Republican orthodoxy on the 9/11 attacks and his competitors' belief that President George W. Bush "kept us safe."
BRZEZINSKI: Harkening back to that debate performance though. Jeb Bush was attacking you and you were attacking back. And you started talking faulty intelligence and 9/11. And then the war in Iraq and I thought, "My God. He's speaking to me. I don't disagree with him." But I'm not --
SCARBOROUGH: That's not a good thing in a Republican primary --
TRUMP: No, I understand.
SCARBOROUGH: That's a very bad thing in a Republican primary, Donald --
TRUMP: I'm really speaking to the American people.
Right from the outset, Scarborough gave away the game by signaling to Trump that he had no intention of vigorously pushing back on the merits of Trump's premise. Instead, he was going to challenge him on the grounds that it was a bad thing to say to a room -- and by extension a state -- full of Republicans. This isn't journalism, it's advising. And what's more: It's really bad advice! Trump hasn't been hurt, at all, for saying these things in a Republican primary. If anything, it's helping him.
But that's basically how the night went. Trump dodged and weaved and made vague promises, Scarborough and Brzezinski never seemed to have the upper hand (it's not clear they even wanted it), every line of questioning ended with everyone knowing less about Trump's policy preferences than they did when it began, and no one escaped the experience looking smart.
Which is pretty much "cable news" in a nutshell, to be honest.
Jason Linkins edits "Eat The Press" for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast, "So, That Happened." Subscribe here. Listen to the latest episode below.