Media Critics Agree: Stop Interviewing the Bad People!

Donald Trump waving in front of a superimposed logo of Meet the Press.
Lex Villena
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On Sunday, NBC's Meet the Press, which has been interviewing notable politicians for the past 75 years, brought in for questioning the runaway favorite for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination: Donald Trump.

Media critics were—predictably by now—livid. Not just at new MTP host Kristin Welker's inability to corral Washington's most slippery fish, but at the very notion that a politician-interviewing show should even interview this particular politician, after all that he has done.

"It's arguable that, at this juncture, there is really no need to interview Trump," posited CNN media writer Oliver Darcy. "Just a colossal mistake to showcase this sociopath," tweeted American Enterprise Institute emeritus scholar and Atlantic contributing editor Norman Ornstein. "Downright dangerous journalism to legitimize this guy—in the name of having a 'talked about' premiere," charged former New York Times media reporter Bill Carter. "Is it possible," an exasperated former Chicago Tribune editor Mark Jacob wondered, "that journalists who platform lying fascists don't know they're undermining democracy?"

It may seem counterintuitive that protecting democracy requires refusing to talk with a primary-frontrunning former president who more than 74 million Americans voted for in 2020. But not if you think that Trump is uniquely awful and dangerous, that his fact-tethered interlocutors are helpless against his firehose of lies, and that there are no meaningfully compensatory benefits to be gleaned from the traditional journalistic practice of interrogating a candidate for high office.

"Interviewing Trump does not work," declared NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen. "No accountability moment ever comes." Welker's effort "proved once again that interviewing the 45th president is an impossible task," averred Vanity Fair's Molly Jong-Fast. The Bulwark's Jonathan Last made the bold comportmental assertion that the "media's job—and particularly broadcast media—is to think deeply about how to avoid helping Trump with its coverage….It would be nice if the folks in broadcast media could lend us—and democracy—a hand. Or, at the very least, stop giving aid and comfort to the authoritarian just because you want to pull a ratings number."

Such sentiments were rarely heard in the mainstream media 25 years ago. Back then one might sporadically encounter a Committee of Concerned Journalists member clucking about the need to hold firm on traditional, nonpartisan journalistic values of verification, particularly in the face of such debasing new ideologically tainted Web phenomena as The Drudge Report. It was mostly on the political margins—the Nation left, the Free Republic right—where you'd find critics chipping away at the unconscious or unacknowledged biases in the aspirationally neutral and still-potent MSM. Progressives would complain that the right had learned to successfully "work the refs"; conservatives would charge that newsrooms nursed a secret agenda to tip elections toward Democrats.

Now the agenda is no longer secret, and the ref-working is coming from inside the house.

"Be truthful, not neutral," is the catchphrase longtime CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour has been drawing industry-wide praise for this season, including back in May when she deployed it to criticize her own network for holding a live town hall interview with the former and would-be future president.

"We know Trump and his tendencies. Everyone does. He just seizes the stage and dominates. No matter how much flack the moderator tries to aim at the incoming, it doesn't often work," Amanpour told an audience of Columbia Journalism School grads, adding: "Maybe we should revert back to the newspaper editors and TV chiefs of the 1950s, who in the end refused to allow McCarthyism onto their pages, unless his foul lies, his witch hunts, and his rants reached the basic evidence level required in a court of law."

This is a wild, if instructive, misreading of history. It wasn't journalistic non-platforming that trimmed back the Red Scare excesses of Sen. Joe McCarthy; it was something closer to the opposite. Live gavel-to-gavel television broadcasts of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, evidence-free "rants" and all, gave Americans a visceral view of an increasingly deranged populist steamrolling individual due process. His reputation never recovered.

When CBS titan Edward R. Murrow famously denounced Tailgunner Joe just prior to those hearings, he did so mostly by using McCarthy's own previously broadcast words (edited for maximally villainous effect, to be sure). Then he invited the senator back for a follow-up show to respond.

The contemporary journalistic fad of trying to deplatform problematic political figures—whether it's Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.) from The New York Times, Trump-whisperer Steve Bannon from a New Yorker festival, 2020 "election deniers" from CNN, conservative writer Kevin Williamson from The Atlantic, and so on—is based on a mixture of elitism and defeatism. Elitism in the sense that these outlets are treated as elevated, nearly sacrosanct spaces—platforms!—to be guarded zealously against conservative contamination, and also that the type of political media consumers who stubbornly continue to support Trump are impervious to fact-based persuasion and therefore better written off.

"The public is well familiar with Trump and already knows that he is a man estranged with the truth," Oliver Darcy argued. "As Trump once infamously bragged, he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still maintain support from his loyal base of fans. Trump's supporters are choosing to stand behind him because of his blustering personality and style. They lock arms with him because they believe he is boldly standing up for them and taking the fight to the elites. Not because of his position on Taiwan." (Emphases in original.)

This is where the defeatism comes in. Since Trump voters are unreachable, and since Trump himself is basically undefeated in one-on-one interviews, why bother? Particularly if (in the recent words of Guardian media critic Margaret Sullivan) "his re-election would bring extreme anti-democratic results."

Accepting for the moment the provocative premise that preventing Trump's re-election is a core journalistic value, refusing to interview the guy is like taking away the rope with which he is always ready to hang himself. Given that he is unlikely to testify at his four upcoming criminal trials, interviews are a critical venue for hearing Trump's legally germane rationalizations for engaging in facially illegal conduct.

At the industry-derided CNN town hall, for example, Trump claimed that "I had the absolute right to do whatever I want with" the presidential records that he retained after leaving office, in statutory violation of the Presidential Records Act. And during a recent sit-down with Megyn Kelly, when presented with the fact that he had no right to defy a subpoena for those documents, Trump dissembled that "I just don't know the timing." As Jacob Sullum pointed out, "Trump is suggesting he did not have to comply with a subpoena he claimed to be obeying. This does not seem like a winning legal strategy."

So there are potential benefits to interviewing Trump when viewed through the narrow lens of impacting his ability to regain the White House. But even as someone who wrote an essay under the headline "The Case Against Trump: Donald Trump Is an Enemy of Freedom," I would suggest that subjecting political journalism to the instrumental test of how it impacts electoral outcomes will likely be effective neither politically nor journalistically.

Voters and news consumers are smart enough to know they are being sneered at and will discount content from the sneerers accordingly. They may also have a better-trained nose for the media's ideological blind spots, such as when The Daily Beast's Corbin Bolies this week suggested that President Joe Biden—yes, this Joe Biden—"would have been a better interview subject for her first episode as Meet the Press moderator, as they at least would have been able to start from the same set of facts."

The "pro-democracy" beat thus far does not have a great track record of truthiness. Eleven months ago, the "truthful, not neutral" crowd was warning us, despite a glaring paucity of evidence, that a GOP win in the midterms would result in the deliberate tanking of the international economy so that Republicans could force through cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Margaret Sullivan's 2022 memoir/manifesto was inaccurately maligning Republicans by the second paragraph. Applied "moral clarity" seems more about policing adjectives in news organizations' tweets and headlines, and yelling "false equivalence!" every time someone mentions that Biden's aging is a political problem.

Interviewing Donald Trump is a difficult assignment, no doubt. And some of us who are opposed to journalistic deplatforming otherwise share in some of the deplatformers' unhappiness with Trump's influence on the Republican Party and the American body politic. But both journalism and basic civic participation require a certain perseverance, and perhaps a certain faith that the effort can and will be worth it in the end. Are you a political journalist who does not like Donald Trump? Maybe do some convincing and truthful journalism capable of reaching people who don't share your political priors. Trying to rope off a former U.S. president from the institution of media will likely make the institution weaker, and the politician stronger.

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