Politics 2020: J.J. Abrams, Ava DuVernay, among 100 Top Hollywood Players Protesting NBC’s Trump Town Hall

J.J. Abrams, Ava DuVernay, among 100 Top Hollywood Players Protesting NBC’s Trump Town Hall

J.J. Abrams, Ava Duvernay and Mariska Hargitay

Bill Watters/WireImage; Adam Burrell; Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

J.J. Abrams, Ava DuVernay and Mariska Hargitay

More than 100 top showrunners, producers and stars have sent a petition to Comcast and NBCUniversal executives protesting the timing of tonight’s town hall with President Donald Trump, which is set to air across the company’s platforms opposite ABC’s town hall with Democratic nominee Joe Biden. The list of heavyweights who signed the letter of protest includes J.J. Abrams; Law & Order: SVU star Mariska Hargitay, This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman and Ava DuVernay, among others.

The petition — sent to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, NBCUniversal chairman Jeff Shell and NBCUniversal News Group chairman Cesar Conde — told the execs, “you are enabling the president’s bad behavior while undercutting the Presidential Debate Commission and doing a disservice to the American public.” They continued: “This is not a partisan issue. This is about the political health of our democracy.” The group includes such current top NBC talent as Chris Meloni and This Is Us star Sterling K. Brown as well as heavyweights Aaron Sorkin, Greg Berlanti, Ryan Murphy and Seth MacFarlane.

The hourlong Trump event is scheduled to air tonight on NBC, MSNBC and CNBC at 8 p.m. Eastern, a direct conflict with the first hour or Biden’s 90-minute town hall on Disney-owned ABC. Biden’s ABC town hall will originate from Philadelphia, while Trump will be in Miami, where the two candidates were originally scheduled to appear together in person for a town hall that was to be carried on C-SPAN. (Biden’s NBC town hall was in Miami last week.)

That plan changed after Trump contracted coronavirus and the Commission on Presidential Debates decided to make the event virtual. Trump declined to participate and hours later, Biden set his town hall on ABC, with George Stephanopoulos moderating. NBC leadership then offered Trump a town hall, ultimately insisting on two conditions: Trump had to provide evidence that he would not present a safety risk to others who would be present and he had to allow the network to select the moderator. He agreed and the network set Today co-anchor Savannah Guthrie to moderate.

NBC also provided a statement from Dr. H. Clifford Lane, a clinical director of the National Institute of Health, in which he said that he and Dr. Anthony Fauci had reviewed Trump’s medical data and concluded “with a high degree of confidence” that the president was “not shedding infectious virus.” The information that Lane and Fauci assessed was provided by White House Dr. Sean Conley. NBC had said it would not rely solely on Conley’s assurances regarding Trump’s condition. Trump has been dismissive of COVID-19 safety protocols and his family and associates declined to wear masks at his Sept. 29 debate with Biden.

Even before the petition was drafted, numerous current and former NBCUniversal staff members had expressed anger and disdain for the network’s decision to schedule Trump’s event at the same time as ABC’s event with Biden. “I don’t think many of us are proud of this moment,” one current NBC exec said.

Former NBC News exec Vivian Schiller tweeted: “The point of a news organization is to serve the public. This is the opposite. @NBCNews could literally run this any other day, or any other time. Shameful.”

Former NBC anchor Katie Couric also tweeted: “This is a bad decision.”

NBC has a history with Trump, with many critics arguing that a carefully curated image of him as a savvy billionaire on The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice helped boost his profile and prepare voters to believe he was a capable businessman.

In 2011, then-NBCUni CEO Steve Burke persuaded Trump not to run in the 2012 campaign, making a $500,000 donation to the Trump Foundation. (The foundation was dissolved last year after the New York attorney general alleged “a shocking pattern of illegality.”)

Here’s the full letter:

To Brian Roberts, Jeff Shell and Cesar Conde:  

We are a group of writers, actors, directors and producers. Many of us have been lucky enough to work for NBCUniversal at some point in our careers. Some of us are currently employed at your studio. We have always thought of NBCUniversal as both a terrific creative home and a brand that stands for the best in entertainment and broadcast journalism.  

This is why we have been devastated to learn that you have chosen to air President Trump’s town hall this Thursday night at 8 p.m., directly opposite Vice President Biden’s town hall.  

This is not a partisan issue. This is about the political health of our democracy.  

President Trump refused to participate in the virtual debate scheduled for Thursday night by the Presidential Debate Commission. By agreeing to air his town hall as counterprogramming opposite Vice President Biden’s town hall on ABC, you are enabling the President’s bad behavior while undercutting the Presidential Debate Commission and doing a disservice to the American public.  

We believe this kind of indifference to the norms and rules of our democracy are what have brought our country to this perilous state.  

We are simply asking that NBC air the President’s town hall either before or after Vice President Biden’s so that American voters can have the opportunity to watch both.  

We understand the necessities of business, especially in this difficult time. But we believe there are larger issues of civic responsibility at stake here.  

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