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Commentary

There was no winner of the dueling town halls. But there were losers, lots of them: voters

Top moments from Biden's presidential town hall
Joe Biden answered questions from voters during his town hall forum at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia Thursday night.

There’s no single takeaway from Thursday’s dueling televised town halls, but we did learn that Joe Biden wants to pelletize chicken manure. And President Trump won’t condemn those crazy QAnon people because, he claims, he doesn’t know anything about their conspiracy theories.

On a night when the candidates for president were supposed to debate for a second time, they instead appeared simultaneously on different TV networks — Trump, looking alternately angry and uncomfortable, for an hour on NBC, and Biden, so subdued you wondered if he even knew he was on live television, for 90 minutes on ABC.

Top moments from Trump's presidential town hall
Trump participated in a town hall event on NBC News opposite a similar event with Joe Biden on ABC.

The second debate had been canceled after Trump balked at organizers' plans to hold the faceoff virtually following the president’s coronavirus diagnosis.

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The loser, of course, was the rest of us. For anyone who felt some sense of civic duty to hear what both candidates had to say, this wasn’t easy. I felt no such duty — none — but my editor asked if I’d switch back and forth and take a few notes, and I said yes, reluctantly.

Am I glad I did? No. Just when Biden was beginning to opine on fracking, I turned to hear Trump call coronavirus “a thing that came into our country.”

I’ll say it did.

The tenor of the town halls was very different. At the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Biden was sitting casually in an armchair socially-distanced from moderator George Stephanopoulos. He appeared relaxed. Mellow, you might say. His answers were often cogent, even nuanced.

Did he flub a few things? Yes. He’s grandfatherly. Biden can seem faraway sometimes, but not feeble. Numbers trip him up and, occasionally, names. The reporter who Trump was talking to in early February when he called the coronavirus “deadly stuff” was Bob Woodward, not, as Biden said Thursday, George Woodward.

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Trump, meanwhile, was in Miami, crouched on a high stool, glaring the whole time at moderator Savannah Guthrie, who asked him a lot of questions he didn’t like. She inquired as to why he retweeted a QAnon-linked conspiracy theory related to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

“I put it out there and people can decide,” the president said.

“You’re not, like, someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever,” Guthrie replied.

On Twitter, the president’s niece, Mary Trump, promptly chimed in: “Actually...”

Pressed on QAnon, Trump would not condemn the group or their bananas beliefs.

“I just don’t know about QAnon,” he said. “What I do hear about it is they’re very strongly against pedophilia.”

More interesting than either town hall, apparently, was all the behind-the-scenes bile at NBC, where news boss Noah Oppenheim was chided for putting the president on the air opposite Biden, over the objections of many of his network colleagues.

Twitter was aflame Thursday afternoon with critics of the decision, with some calling for viewers to boycott NBC’s event with Trump.

“Having dueling town halls is bad for democracy,” tweeted former “Today” co-host Katie Couric. “Voters should be able to watch both and I don’t think many will. This will be good for Trump because people like to watch his unpredictability. This is a bad decision.”

Even Trump attacked NBC earlier Thursday, calling the network that once paid him tens of millions of dollars to host a reality show “the worst.”

“I’m doing this town hall with Concast, C-O-N, con, cause it’s a con job,” the president said, explaining the stale joke to supporters at a rally in North Carolina. “It’s NBC, the worst...I figured, what the hell, we get a free hour on television.”

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In a statement, NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde said he understood people’s frustration, but insisted “our decision is motivated only by fairness, not business considerations.”


Mark Shanahan can be reached at mark.shanahan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.