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Chuck Todd And The Myth Of Liberal Media Bias

Reprinted with permission from Press Run

Surveying the media landscape and seeing a Beltway press corps that's constantly on the run from Republican attacks, Meet The Press moderator Chuck Todd this week urged his colleagues to stand up to the right-wing bullies, who have spent decades demonizing journalists.

"We should have fought back better in the mainstream media. We shouldn't [have] accepted the premise that there was liberal bias. We should have defended," Todd told The Verge. "We ended up in this both-sides trope. We bought into the idea that, 'Oh my God, we're perceived as having a liberal bias.'"

He added: "Where we did get lost in this, and this sort of happened to mainstream media in particular, is that we did let Republican critics get in our heads, right? The Republicans have been running on, "There's a liberal bias in the media." This has been a 45-year campaign."

Technically, it's been a 52-year campaign, with Vice President Spiro Agnew's "nattering nabobs of negativism" attack on the press in 1969 often cited as the launching point of the choreographed crusade.

The good news is that every 12 or 24 months Todd emerges and makes these types of welcomed, clear-eyed pronouncements about the press, calling out right-wing lies, and urging his colleagues to do better in fighting against dishonest GOP attacks.

The bad news is Todd then goes back to work at NBC and rarely follows his own advice. He makes no structural changes to the programs he oversees to make sure they don't fall prey to GOP tactics. It's easy to view his pronouncements as performative, directed at those who are concerned about journalism and about the state of our democracy in the face of a Republican Party that broke its pact with common sense and instead now worships at the altar of a Mar-a-Lago retiree.

Todd refuses to follow his own lead and produce consistently clear, aggressive journalism, while not fretting about potential GOP pushback.

A quick example.

During Trump's second impeachment trial, Todd introduced a Meet The Press segment in which voters from a toss-up district in Michigan were interviewed about the House proceedings. Touted as a way to take the temperature of everyday voters outside of the "Beltway," the sit-down with six voters from Kent County, Michigan, offered a chance to hear if heartland denizens "cared" about impeachment. Except there was a problem: Every voter interviewed was a Republican, and every voter interviewed opposed impeachment. ("I don't even care. It's just noise.")

This makes no sense. If you wanted anecdotal evidence of the nation's response to impeachment, you'd interview a wide cross-section of voters. Instead, Todd only talked to Republicans even though the Michigan district he focused on is evenly split among Democrats and Republicans. What would explain this type of illogical press behavior other than a fear of upsetting conservatives — of being tagged with the Liberal Media Bias charge?

Todd lamented to The Verge that the press has fallen into a "both sides trope," where journalists strain to place blame on Republicans and Democrats even when it should not be distributed that way. Yet earlier this year, after another deadly gun rampage in America, and after the Republican Party once again categorically refused to support any possible gun safety legislation, Todd went on Meet the Press and blamed Congress — Both Sides — for not doing anything to stop the deadly plague.

In response to my media critiques, PRESS RUN readers often ask, why? Why does the press behave the way it does? Why does it engage in Both Sides nonsense in an effort to water down irresponsible GOP behavior? Why does it view so many news cycles through the prism of Republican talking points? Without question, the overriding cultural reason is the fear of being hit with the Liberal Media Bias label.

I don't mean that's what's driving journalists on an hourly, granular level, or that before filing a story or going on the air they consciously think about GOP attacks. But it does remain the dominant ethos and it's been ingrained in newsrooms for decades. (Being the target of right-wing smear campaigns is no fun and it can damage journalism careers.) Consequently, the press spends an inordinate amount of time trying to prove it's not guilty of Liberal Media Bias.

That institutional fear helps explain the inexplicable, like why so many news organizations refused to call Trump a liar for four years, even as they documented his thousands of lies. That was a deliberate decision to turn away from the truth —and from accurate language — while covering the most dangerous president in American history. Afraid that calling Trump a "liar" in straight news reports would spark cries of Liberal Media Bias, the press capitulated. In the process, Trump used his avalanche of untruths to chip away at our democratic institutions.

Eric Alterman wrote an entire, must-read book in 2003 expertly debunking the bias myth, What Liberal Media? Conservatives "know mau-mauing the other side is just a good way to get their own ideas across–or perhaps prevent the other side from getting a fair hearing for theirs," he wrote. I made a similar effort with my book, Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush, where I focused on the media's failure during the run-up to the Iraq War: "To oppose the invasion vocally was to be outside the media mainstream and to invite scorn. Like some nervous Democratic members of Congress right before the war, mainstream media journalists seemed to scramble for political cover so as to not subject themselves to conservative catcalls."

Still, the Liberal Media Bias myth persists and remains a driving engine of the conservative movement. It's arguably more potent today because Trump made it a centerpiece of his political appeal to hate the press. It would be helpful if journalists like Chuck Todd actually took their own advice and combated the fiction head on.

Media Won't Face Truth About Republicans' Impeachment Cowardice

Reprinted with permission from Press Run

Following a day of gut-wrenching surveillance videos depicting a violent, deadly mob teeming into the U.S. Capitol on January 6, some journalists covering Trump's impeachment trial expressed bewilderment at how Republican senators serving as jurors would be able to vote to dismiss the charges.

"How will they justify acquitting the man who sent a mob for them to stop the counting of electoral votes?" asked CNN, wondering if, "Republican senators will find their conscience changed, or vote the way Trump wants them to"?

On NBC, Chuck Todd stressed that Republicans faced a difficult choice because, "History is not going to look kindly on this acquittal vote." Specifically, he mentioned how Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was an traditionalist who cares "about these institutions," and that he's "keeping an open mind" about impeachment.

This is GOP mythology. McConnell has already voted twice to stop the impeachment trial. The idea the Beltway press keeps pushing that he might suddenly turn on Trump with a dramatic flurry and vote to convict seems like pure fantasy. And McConnell supposedly cares so much about "institutions" that he rammed through a U.S. Supreme Court nominee days before the 2020 election, four years after refusing to even hold hearings on President Barack Obama's Court nominee, Merrick Garland.

McConnell is reportedly telling his GOP colleagues that the decision to convict or not should be a vote of conscience. But what if there's little or no conscience left inside the Republican caucus? How does the press adequately relate that defining feature in its impeachment news coverage?

Republicans who vote to acquit a remorseless Trump will sleep just fine at night. These are the same group of Republicans who advanced the Big Lie all winter that Trump may have won the election, after having lost by seven million votes. It's the same collection that stood by while the White House unleashed the most vicious and sustained attack on U.S. election integrity in the last century, and who said nothing while Trump demanded his political enemies be jailed, as well as pressured Georgia elections officials in January to go "find" him enough votes (11,780) to swing that state's election tally.

Why on earth do D.C. journalists think that voting "No" on impeachment would change the equation and create an ethical dilemma for Republicans? Why are reporters so committed to the myth that a GOP tipping point exists?

The wayward assumption continues to be, that of course Republicans support free and fair elections. Of course they oppose white supremacy. And of course they want to help families that have been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Those claims have no basis in fact today. Yet that remains the Beltway media's starting point. Specifically, that the GOP has been torn apart by Trump and there's a burning desire to "move on" from his erratic and hateful ways. That a "reckoning" awaits.

That's the story the Beltway press likes to tell. It's just not true.

I'm with Esquire's Charles Pierce: "The other state of being for which I no longer have time is mystification. As in, "How can Republicans still essentially vote in favor of the mob that came after the Congress with blood in its eyes?""

CNN reported this week, "For most Republican senators, Wednesday's presentation did not seem to affect how they'll vote." But why? Why after seeing intangible proof that the Trump mob set out to murder members of Congress, including Republicans, why are Republican senators overwhelmingly going to sign off on acquittal? In other words, what is wrong with the Republican Party? That's the simple, central question that does not get asked. Instead, we see punditry about how Trump still maintains political control over the party, and GOP members are concerned about a backlash.

Analyzing why Republican Florida senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott can't be swayed, Politico noted, "Rubio is on a clear path for re-election, but he would invite a GOP challenger if he doesn't stand with the former president…Scott, now running the campaign arm of Senate Republicans, remains on a track that could make him a contender in 2024."

That's how the GOP's radical, unethical nature continues to be normalized — empowering Trump's lawbreaking is presented as simply being smart politics.

When Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) did surprise the GOP this week by becoming the sixth member to vote in favor of the impeachment trial continuing, the New York Times headline read, "A Louisiana Senator's Turn Towards the Political Middle." That suggests that only players in the political middle (and on the left) are concerned by Trump's inciting of a mob. That framing absolves those on the right, despite the fact that anyone with a conscience ought to be concerned.

Remember that this is the same press corps that slow-walked Trump's months-long attempted coup, until it broke out into horrific violence on January 6, catching the media completely off guard.

Instead of accurately describing his post-election, authoritarian attempt to steal an election by invalidating millions of votes, for weeks and months we saw news updates about Trump's "tactics," his vague "moves" and "chicanery"; his legal "strategy" and "power play" while "sulking" and "brooding" inside the White House. Early on, Politico dismissed Trump's ongoing rampage as nothing more than "performance art" and "bad sportsmanship."

The Republican Party under Trump has morphed into something sinister and dangerous. The model that the press used for decades to cover the GOP is now clearly obsolete.

Trump Describes His Chaotic Decision-Making On Iran Airstrike

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

In a new interview with Chuck Todd of NBC News, President Donald Trump gave extensive details about the process that led him to abort airstrikes against Iran that were on the brink of being launched Thursday night.

Reports broke late Thursday night that Trump has ordered the attack in response to Iran’s destruction of a U.S. drone on Wednesday. Those reports indicated that Trump had given the go-ahead for the attack, but then changed his mind. In the interview with Todd, Trump suggested he had never officially given the order to go ahead.

“Nothing is green-lighted until the very end, because things change,” Trump said. “But we had something ready to go, subject to my approval. And they came in, they came in about a half an hour before, they said ‘Sir, we’re about ready to go.’ I said, ‘I want a better definition…’”

“Planes in the air?” asked Todd.

“No, no, we’re about ready to go,” Trump said. “No, but they would have been pretty soon. And things would have happened to a point where you wouldn’t turn back or couldn’t turn back, so they came and they said, ‘Sir, we’re ready to go, we’d like your decision.’ I said, “I want to know something before you go. How many people will be killed?’ In this case, Iranians. I said, ‘How many people are going to be killed?’ Uh, ‘Sir, I’d like to get back to you on that.’ Great people, these generals. They came back, said, ‘Sir, approximately 150.’ And I thought about it for a second, and I said, you know what, they shot down an unmanned drone, a plane, whatever you want to call it, and here we are sitting with 150 dead people that would have taken place probably within a half an hour after I said, ‘Go ahead.’ And I didn’t like it. I didn’t think it was proportionate.”

Now, since Trump is an unrepentant liar, it’s always important to treat his stories with high levels of skepticism. It’s hard to know how accurate this story is. And on the one hand, if it is relatively accurate, it shows welcome restraint and discretion from a president who genuinely does seem to want to avoid a disastrous war with Iran, despite his top advisers’ clear inclinations to escalate conflict.

But as national security lawyer Bradley Moss pointed out, the process Trump described sounds haphazard and reckless, leaving the ultimate momentous decision up to instinct or luck. So either Trump is overseeing an amazingly ill-conceived decision-making process, or he’s outright lying about a moment of global significance. Since the Pentagon is currently in transition between two unconfirmed acting secretaries of defense, and the country hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed defense secretary since the beginning of the year, it’s not hard to imagine that the military decision-making process is warped.

“That we were this close to the final ‘go order’ and Trump claims that he had never previously been told of an anticipated casualty figure reflects either a total breakdown in the briefing process or Trump is actively misleading people on what he knew and when,” Moss said on Twitter.

Watch the clip below:

SNL Cold Open Obliterates Graham, Collins, And McConnell

Staged as a parody of Meet The Press, this week’s SNL cold open is actually a shattering lampoon of leading Congressional Republicans. Bemused host Chuck Todd (Beck Bennett) questions Senators Mitch McConnell (a remarkably chinless Beck Bennett), Susan Collins (Cecily Strong), and “bad boy” Lindsey Graham (Kate McKinnon), trying to discover whether their abasement to Donald Trump has any limit.

In this sketch — and perhaps in real life — there is nothing Trump could do that would forfeit the support of these servile Republicans. But the script isn’t as devastating as the senatorial impressions. If you’re groveling Graham or pathetic Collins, it should be a little harder to show your face in public on Monday.

Here’s the video clip:

 

#EndorseThis: Senator Says Trump Insults Having Weird Effect On Congress

Happy Labor Day, National Memo readers. While #EndorseThis does its best to theme our clips to match whatever holiday is happening at the time, the news waits for no one. And there are bigger fish to fry than stories about people getting a much-deserved extra day off to start September.

Like Congress, for instance. In case anyone is curious about how the Senate is getting along while President Trump is in office, a Senator from Minnesota has the answer. In a word? Walking on eggshells.

In today’s clip, Sen. Amy Klobuchar is discussing John McCain’s funeral with Chuck Todd of NBC when the subject of Trump rears its ugly head. Klobuchar uses some surprisingly-salty language that will have you “laboring” to cover your kids’ ears.

Meet the unimpressed.

Chuck Todd Silent As Sen. John Cornyn Repeatedly Lies About Republican Bill Gutting Health Care

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.

 

On NBC’s Meet the Press, Chuck Todd failed to correct or contextualize Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-TX) multiple misleading statements about the GOP Senate’s bill, which would cost millions of Americans their health insurance.

On July 13, Senate Republicans released a revised version of their bill to dismantle the Affordable Care Act after the original version, which would have kicked 22 million Americans off of their health insurance, failed to secure enough votes. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delayed the vote for the revised version, planned for this week, after Sen. John McCain recently underwent surgery, and two GOP senators have so far said they will not vote for the revised bill, leaving its future uncertain.

On July 16, Cornyn appeared on Meet the Press to make the case for the GOP bill and made statements misrepresenting the bill, the current insurance market under the Affordable Care Act, and Democrats’ alternatives to improve the insurance market — and Todd let him.

When asked by Todd near the beginning of the interview what it says about the bill that the vote is so close that they need McCain’s vote to move forward, Cornyn decried that the bill has “become a partisan issue,” stating, “our Democratic friends are refusing to lift a finger to help their burdened constituents who are being hurt.” But Cornyn’s protestation rings hollow given the unprecedented secret process Senate Republicans used to draft the bill, which barred any Democratic input. And the process was designed from the start to pass with only Republican votes through the budget reconciliation process, without help from Democrats.

Later, Cornyn claimed Republicans are “offering a better alternative” to the current health insurance market, bemoaning that “we know millions of people are seeing sky-high premiums, [and] unaffordable deductibles, and fleeing insurance markets.” Yet the CBO predicted that if the BCRA passes, premiums would rise until 2020, and only decline after that because the insurance plans would cover fewer services, and thus would be worth less. And the bill would cause deductibles to climb even higher — in some cases, up to 24 times higher.

At the end of the interview, Cornyn claimed Republicans are “willing to do what we can to shore up the system now, to stabilize it to make health care available to people now” and asserted that Democrats don’t want to make any changes. Cornyn’s first claim here is just ludicrous on its face; Republicans have spent years sabotaging the the Affordable Care Act, from ending risk corridor payments to insurance companies, to obstructing efforts by both states and the federal government to create the health insurance exchange marketplaces, and of course to some Republican-controlled states declining to participate in the Medicaid expansion and leaving many of their constituents uninsured. Insurers have even admitted that they are raising premiums and pulling out of exchanges because of the uncertainty in the market created by Republicans.

Democratic senators offered back in March to work with Republicans to fix problems with the insurance market if they agreed to drop their efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And days ago, some House Democrats said they will introduce some fixes to the individual insurance market, which includes a reinsurance program to offset the costs of the sickest patients, removing uncertainty from the Trump administration’s threats to end some cost-sharing subsidies, moving the open enrollment season, and offering a Medicare buy-in for some older Americans.

Todd allowed Cornyn to make these statements without any pushback. Republicans have been repeatedly called out for their lies and deceptions regarding their efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act — both by media outlets and even other Republicans. With the insurance coverage of millions at stake, interviewers like Chuck Todd must be better prepared to confront Republican lawmakers when they make their case with lies and misrepresentations.

 

How NBC News Is Already Catering To Trump’s Presidency

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters for America.

A lot of attention in recent days has been paid to the Trump administration’s decision to freeze out CNN. Rather than focusing on why Trump is lashing out at CNN, a better question to ask is: Why does the Trump administration feel so comfortable with NBC and MSNBC?

It was clear back in early January that NBC was building a Trump normalization machine when the network brought on former Fox News host Megyn Kelly, MSNBC brought on former Fox host Greta Van Susteren, and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough started talking daily about his chats with the president. Two weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, it turns out that things are even worse than imagined.

Kelly has yet to start at NBC (and reportedly won’t for several months). Yet to make space for the former face of Fox News, NBC is removing Al Roker and Tamron Hall as co-hosts of the third hour of Today. Kelly, who, like Trump, built her name on racial demagoguery, is thus taking the space of two of the few people of color who host NBC news shows. Tamron Hall has since announced that she is leaving NBC. (Indeed, in recent years, Ann Curry, Alex Wagner, Karen Finney, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Michael Eric Dyson have all left NBC News shows, raising concerns that the network was marginalizing people of color). In short, maybe NBC should treat diversity as more than just a Twitter account.

As for Scarborough, Morning Joe of late is best understood as not just its own show but also a window into the heart of the Trump administration. Scarborough and co-host Mika Brzezinski are regularly meeting with and advising Trump. Scarborough defends some of Trump’s worst instincts. And, of course, there’s the obnoxious infighting with other advisers whom Scarborough blames when things go wrong. Trump himself watches the show. Even on the rare day when he criticizes Trump, Scarborough will say something apparently intended to protect his relationship with the president. If Trump’s administration is Apocalypse Now, Morning Joe is Hearts of Darkness.

Van Susteren, who debuted on the network with an effusive introduction from Rachel Maddow (“Greta Van Susteren is great!”) has continued her schtick of trading access for the type of softball questions and deferential approach you would expect from someone actually employed by the people she is interviewing. The show is clearly more concerned with booking big guests than with answering big questions. Van Susteren’s deferential interview with House Speaker Paul Ryan exemplified this approach, as was especially notable when she brought back the torture-substitute phrase “enhanced interrogation.” Somehow, the most newsworthy thing from a 22-minute interview with the speaker of the House was Ryan speculating about how Trump might eventually get Mexico to pay for the border wall.

Van Susteren’s interview with Trump aide Stephen Miller about the Muslim ban was even worse. Where to even begin? Van Susteren’s first question to Miller was literally, “Have at it!” It somehow managed to get worse from there.

The problem is not that Van Susteren is too far left or right. It’s that her style of access journalism itself enables misinformation. We are living in a post-truth era with an administration that lies even on routine matters. Giving deferential interviews to these liars only makes Van Susteren an accomplice. That she will do similar interviews with Democrats (or, one can imagine, with the few “Never Trump” Republicans left) is no defense. Journalism at its best speaks truth to power. Van Susteren’s show does the opposite.

NBC’s leading figures seem eager for politics to get back to some sort of “normal” — to the point that they sometimes seem in denial about who Trump really is. When the intelligence community briefed then-President Obama and then-President-elect Trump on alleged ties between Trump and Russia, leading figures at NBC and MSNBC united to downplay the claims.

Andrea Mitchell praised the “reboot” of Sean Spicer’s first press conference (following his bizarre harangue directed at the media about inauguration size two days before), as if the Trump camp’s years-long war on the press was just a Hollywood franchise that needed a new beginning:

Chuck Todd bizarrely claimed during the inauguration that former Breitbart chief Stephen Bannon was “not ideological.” When Trump organized a reality TV-style circus to announce a Supreme Court nomination, Todd gushed over the presentation, saying Neil Gorsuch made “an incredible first impression.”

This is not to say that everyone at NBC and MSNBC is uniformly problematic. There are good reports coming from people working there.

When NBC News chairman Andrew Lack began to make changes at MSNBC in late 2015, at first he was understandably putting more emphasis on breaking news capability. But things slowly began to change. Lack then touted extensive coverage of Trump on MSNBC even as the network was under fire for running a ridiculous number of Trump rallies. He also offered an assessment of geopolitics that was far more in line with Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric than with reality. When Matt Lauer interviewed both candidates during a widely panned forum, two of the very few people who praised Lauer were Lack and Trump himself. The network botched coverage of Trump on tape bragging about sexual assault, even though it owned the footage. And just yesterday, NBC News president Deborah Turness was spotted in the West Wing.

It looks to a lot of people like NBC and MSNBC are shifting right in order to compete for the GOP audience and appeal to Trump himself. The Trump administration’s increasing comfort with MSNBC and NBC only reinforces this theory. But as Fox News could tell them, once you start giving in and moving to the right, you may have a hard time stopping.

IMAGE: Media Matters / Sarah Wasko

Tax Transparency: Sanders Again Promises Full Disclosure

In a column for the New York Daily News, I criticize the failure of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Bernie Sanders to release their full tax returns – a fundamental standard for presidential candidates, as David Cay Johnston recently explained here. Noting that there is no reason to suspect Sanders, in particular, of having anything to hide, I describe his non-disclosure in the Daily News as “bewildering.”

Yesterday, on NBC’s Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd braced Sanders on the issue quite directly:

TODD: Where are your tax returns? And wouldn’t that put you on a higher ground in calling for Hillary Clinton to say release these speech transcripts?

SANDERS: We are going to — we are going to release. I think we’ve talked about it before. Actually, you know, my wife works on our taxes. We’ve been busy. We are going to get out — all of our taxes out. Trust me, there is nothing that is going to surprise anybody.

TODD: Are you going to — but are you going to do seven, 10, 15 years’ worth of tax returns? So far you have done one [Form 1040].

SANDERS: We will do the best that we can. But, yes, we will get our tax returns out.

It’s good that he promised to disclose, although he didn’t say when. He made the same promise to Jake Tapper on CNN more than a week ago. And the Vermont senator didn’t explain why disclosure is so difficult for him and his wife. If there’s “nothing that is going to surprise anybody,” why is he stalling?

It is also puzzling to me that the media generally and the top newspaper editorial pages in particular remain so tolerant of stonewalling on taxes by all the candidates. (On February 26, by contrast, the Times published a scathing editorial demanding that Clinton release transcripts of her paid speeches to banks.) That wasn’t the attitude of the New York Times and Washington Post editorial boards toward tax disclosure four years ago, when Mitt Romney tried that strategy.

The Post raked Romney on January 12, 2012, blasting his “determined lack of transparency” as “a striking and disturbing departure from the past practice of presidential candidates of both parties:

Asking candidates to make their tax returns public is undoubtedly an invasion of privacy. But it is one that comes with the territory of a presidential campaign. Such disclosure is not required by law but, as with the voluntary release of tax filings by the president and vice president, it has become routine, if at times grudging and belated.

A few days later, on January 17, 2012, the Times published “Taxes and Transparency,” an editorial that described Romney’s “insistence on secrecy” as “impossible to defend,” and put the issue plainly:

It is not too much to ask someone seeking the nation’s highest office to sacrifice some personal privacy to reassure voters that they have no hidden entanglements.

Two days later, when Romney attempted to get away with very limited disclosure, the Times thundered again:

Let’s be clear: despite Mr. Romney’s claim that ”people will want to see the most recent year,” his 2011 taxes would not be enough. Voters have a right to know how presidential aspirants made their money — not just in the year before the election.

To date, Sanders has posted only the first two pages of his 2014 tax return, nothing more. Cruz and Kasich have done the same, except for more than one year. Trump has disclosed zero, of course, while spouting his usual bombastic nonsense. So in 2016, the flouting of norms is even worse than 2012, except for one candidate – Hillary Clinton — who disclosed her complete returns dating back to 2000 and beyond last summer.  I would hate to think that’s why the Post and the Times are allowing all the other candidates escape scrutiny on this issue.