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NBC's "Meet the Press" is an American institution. It has been on the air for 76 years and is thus the longest-running show in American television history. I fondly remember hearing the show's iconic theme music blaring every Sunday morning from the television in the kitchen of my childhood home. My mother used "Meet the Press" as a type of household alarm clock. She would shout out the name of that week's important guest, urging me to come watch it. I usually ignored her and went back to sleep — unless the guest was Black. To see a Black person as a featured guest on the "serious" Sunday morning news programs was a major happening in the 1980s and even into the early 1990s. Although Black and brown faces now appear more frequently on those news programs, they are still a relative novelty.
Now, "Meet the Press", like other legacy news media programs (and networks), is struggling. The show's viewership has declined, in large part because of changing demographics. Its core viewers are getting older and younger viewers are not replacing them. The right-wing media echo chamber and its disinformation lie that the mainstream news media such as NBC, ABC, CBS, the New York Times and the Washington Post have a liberal bias has also helped to create a highly polarized and fragmented media environment. As a result, fewer Americans now watch (and trust) the same news programs and outlets. This means that the American people do not have a common frame of reference for politics and truth.
In the Age of Trump, NBC and other legacy news media have tried to remain relevant (and profitable) by obsessively focusing on Donald Trump and his MAGA movement. On Sunday, "Meet the Press" decided to do business — with an emphasis on business —with Donald Trump by providing him a platform for an interview.
As Hannah Arendt famously warned in her seminal book "The Origins of Totalitarianism", "the ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction.....true and false.....no longer exist." During his Sunday morning "interview" on "Meet the Press", ex-president Donald Trump personified Arendt's warnings. Trump lied, bragged about his crimes, acted like a political strongman and a bully, and wallowed in conspiracy theories. Trump received little to no substantive resistance from host Kristen Welker.
Here are the facts: Donald Trump is an enemy of democracy. He is a fascist. A dictator in waiting who with his Agenda 47 and Plan 2025 has publicly detailed his plans to end multiracial pluralistic democracy and replace it with a Christofascist plutocracy. A court of law has determined that Trump is a sexual predator. Trump is now facing four criminal trials where he could potentially be sentenced to hundreds of years in prison. The American news media cannot assume that "everyone knows" these facts and then use that incorrect conclusion as a reason to stop repeating them. Trump's perfidy and danger to American democracy and society must be emphasized at every opportunity.
If "Meet the Press" once occupied hallowed ground among the American news media, it has fully lost that distinction by hosting Trump last Sunday.
As mental health experts have repeatedly warned, Trump is a sociopath if not a psychopath. He has most certainly shown himself to be a megalomaniac, a fabulist, a malignant narcissist, and a pathological liar. Instead of denying Donald Trump a platform to spew his poison, "Meet the Press" and NBC were collaborators in normalizing his fascist demagoguery.
As I watched Trump's interview after the fact, I kept thinking of the type of relationship that I was watching between the ex-president, the host, "Meet the Press" and NBC, and what it all reveals about the American news media in this moment of worsening democracy crisis. Initially, I thought of how this is all a "work," as they say in professional wrestling, where there is cooperation between the two parties to achieve a shared goal (money and attention) even while they pretend to fight it out before the public. Conflict creates cash; Trump and the American news media know this, and as seen on Sunday they are following that script very closely. But upon deeper thinking, I decided that this spectacle was better described as being a public political BDSM sex show.
Trump, like other fascists and fake right-wing populists and authoritarians, is a political sadist. The American news media are increasingly desperate to remain relevant. As such, they are willing to be masochists and submissives for Donald Trump and the American right-wing if they believe that it will make them money, get the public's attention, and preserve their cherished access to the powerful.
Even to describe the things Donald Trump says as "opinions" or "positions" that justify debate or discussion is once again to fall into the Heffalump trap the media has constructed for itself, in the impossibly naive belief that this time it will outsmart its quarry. (If you've forgotten the source of this metaphor, Pooh and Piglet build a trap to capture a mythical beast, then follow their own footprints in a circle and tumble into it themselves. Too perfect, right?) Every journalist, it would seem, not-so-secretly believes that in an interview with Trump, their integrity and independence of mind will lead them to triumph where all others have bitten the dust. That kind of hero's-journey arrogance is virtually a professional requirement; I will not claim that I or any other journalist I know would turn down the opportunity.
If we conceive of Donald Trump as a dark enchanter whose power to warp the texture of reality and cloud men's minds must be resisted or overcome, we've already gotten it backward. As every parable about the devil and every horror movie about teenagers who find a forbidden book make clear, the real adversary is human pride and human vanity, not some demonic entity. Trump is a mind parasite, who only has the power we willfully allow him to drain from us. He feeds on the vanity of the media, which believes it can capture and study him; the vanity of Republican leaders who believed they could ride him into a new era of political hegemony and then cast him aside; the vanity of his millions of supporters who believe they're in on the joke and that Trump's nihilistic fantasies of revenge against the privileged classes can never hurt them.
A chorus of voices also condemned "Meet the Press" on social media.
Journalist and author Wajahat Ali intervened:
Meet the Press...I really hoped for the best. But it serves as proof that most corporate media isn't built for this fight against fascism, not made for this moment, and they just don't have the skill set to take on right-wing authoritarianism & lies. They haven't learned a thing….
Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat warned:
Ego stroker & supplier of openings for him to tell his lies and depict himself as a victim. Every interview given to this skilled propagandist is a chance for him to indoctrinate and cultivate more followers. People who don't normally watch Fox.
Anticipating the backlash it would receive for the interview, NBC News hosted a panel discussion that tried to explain the necessity of providing Trump, a former president and likely 2024 presidential nominee, a platform. The network also posted a fact check online of Trump's lies. Such efforts, however, were weak camouflage for an attempt to normalize Donald Trump and make money from his outrageousness and dangerousness.
Meet the Press
Former President Trump made a spate of false and misleading comments about immigration, foreign policy, abortion and more in a wide-ranging interview with #MTP moderator Kristen Welker. Here's an @NBCNews fact check of the interview. https://nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/meet-the-press/fact-checking-trump-meet-press-interview-rcna105297
To this former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann responded, "And Kristen Welker failed to identify any of them as false or misleading, and thus by the standards of your own tweet, should be relieved of her job."
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But like those who have tried before, her inherent skills as an interviewer were no match for a chaotic interview subject like Trump.
The framing of her questions was also puzzling. Welker introduced some subjects to Trump like a writer would script a pilot episode of a television show. "Tell me how you watched all this unfold," she asked about Jan. 6. There would be some merit if an item was a fresh development, as was the case with Hunter Biden's criminal indictment, but Americans have heard Trump ramble on the issues of Jan. 6, abortion, Vladimir Putin, and immigration for years. A new platform for Welker should not be a reason to treat these ongoing stories—and Trump's position on them—as new, as it permits Trump to challenge the basis of fact in the question while regurgitating false information.
Welker herself attempted to head off the inevitable criticism during the broadcast. "He is the former president," she noted to a panelist. "He's facing four indictments, as journalists just set the scene, the backdrop why there is still news value and value for the public to hear from him."
What if TV news interviewers told their upcoming political guests: "Don't come on my show and lie. If you do, I'll end the interview immediately and inform you on camera that you'll never appear on my show again."
That won't happen, of course.
But it should.
Taking a firm stand for the truth would prevent abominations like Kristen Welker's interview of Donald Trump in her debut as host of NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. It was a shameful piece of journalism in which Welker cleared the street for Trump's parade of lies, pushing back only occasionally and ineffectively….
When NBC announced that the Trump interview would not be shown live, some naive observers thought NBC chose to tape it in order to fact-check Trump's comments before airing them. But the main motive was obvious: NBC taped the interview so it could market it more successfully, producing sneak-peek news stories and video clips for days before the "Meet the Press" broadcast…
NBC's apparent strategy was to let Trump con the audience while Welker postured that she was being tough on him. She asked him repeatedly whether he thought a fetus had constitutional rights. But she never demanded an answer nor stipulated for the audience that he didn't answer. When journalists ask tough questions but allow the guest to ignore them, that's not being tough. That's being a performer.
The whole interview was an assault on the truth and a triumph for Trump – another disappointing performance by mainstream news media.
So, no—on matters like these, both sides absolutely cannot be treated equally. One side lies all the time, and with specific intent. On the other side, lies and exaggerations are sometimes told to gain advantage or gild a lily (by the way, this used to describe the Republican Party as well as the Democrats, but no longer). But for the right, lies are a weapon. The media must recognize the difference, and they must point it out, over and over and over….
Simple rule: When fairness and the truth are in conflict, journalism has to choose the truth. If it doesn't, there goes democracy—killed off, in part, by the free press that is supposed to be its frontline defender….
What matters is that the mainstream media, as a machine, loves Trump. Or at least, the machine loves how useful he is. He seeks constant attention, he provokes, he's self-centered, he's bombastic; he and the media beast feed off each other. Biden, on the other hand, is none of those things, and he has qualities that the media beast finds uncompelling. He's serious, knowledgeable, not flashy, not attention-seeking, and empathetic. It's just not a fair fight.
So that's where we are. What should the mainstream media do? I don't have all the answers, but here are a few thoughts.
Call a lie a lie.
Don't seek to create false equivalencies in the name of "balance."
Don't be afraid to say that one side lies constantly and with the specific intent of muddying facts, while the other side lies far less frequently or maliciously.
Remember that we are not just in the "news" business. We're in the information business. We're in the preservation of the civic fabric business. And we're in the business of people: Wherever people need the intervention of journalists, we don't check to see how they voted first. It's our responsibility to try to build an informed public. This means for example reminding voters of the lies Trump told as president and the norm-crushing actions he took. That's not "news" per se, but it's information the electorate tends to forget and will need in order to make an informed decision.
In a much discussed (and deservedly so) essay at the Guardian, Margaret Sullivan said the following about the "Meet the Press" spectacle and how the American news media is continuing to fail in its responsibilities as supposed guardians of democracy:
I identified what I called the big problem and the big solution.
The big problem is that the mainstream media wants to be seen as non-partisan – a reasonable goal – and bends over backwards to accomplish this. If this means equalizing an anti-democratic candidate with a pro-democracy candidate, then so be it.
Add to this the obsession with the "horse race" aspect of the campaign, and the profit-driven desire to increase the potential news audience to include Trump voters, and you've got the kind of problematic coverage discussed above.
It's fearful, it's defensive, it's entertainment – and click-focused, and it's mired in the washed-up practices of an earlier era.
The big solution? Remember at all times what our core mission is: to communicate truthfully, keeping top of mind that we have a public service mission to inform the electorate and hold powerful people to account. If that's our north star, as it should be, every editorial judgment will reflect that.
Headlines will include context, not just deliver political messaging. Overall politics coverage will reflect "not the odds, but the stakes", as NYU's Jay Rosen elegantly put it. Lies and liars won't get a platform and a megaphone.
And media leaders will think hard about the big picture of what they are getting across to the public, and whether it is fair and truthful. Imagine if the New York Times, among others, had stopped and done a course correction on their over-the-top coverage of Clinton's emails during the 2016 campaign. We might be living in a different world….
Donald Trump has called the news media "the enemy of the people". He has incited his followers to commit acts of violence against reporters and journalists and his other "enemies". Trump has also used fascist eliminationist Nazi language such as "lugenpresse" (which translates to "lying press") to describe the news media. If Trump returns to power, he has plans to limit the First Amendment and other rights of the free press – and the American people en masse.
As an institution, the American news media must and can do much better in how it defends democracy by speaking truth to power and shining a light on Trump. Instead, the American news media believes that it can somehow accommodate or moderate Trumpism and the neofascists by being fair and balanced and objective. Such an approach is to de facto surrender. Trump and his anti-democracy movement are transparent and direct, they are consistently announcing what they plan to do to their "enemies" if they take back the White House. Denial of this reality is no salvation.