Who’s Really Trying to Control Editorial Content of Journalists? There’s No Debate About It…
The Cable Gamer watched some Thomas Roberts today, because somebody has to. She didn’t expect any surprises, and sure enough it was two hours of Lean Forward style news:
- Analysis by Huffington Post‘s Howard Fineman (everything is going great for the Dems)
- “Reporting” by ex-opinionizer, Salon scribe Steve Kornacki.
- Political guest: Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D).
- “Reporting” by ex-Howard-Dean staffer Jacob Soboroff.
- Insights from Chuck Todd (he’s a straight newsman, though that came after he worked to elect Tom Harkin, running for President to the left of Bill Clinton).
- A clip from the big Lester Holt interview of Obama (we’re going to come back to this).
- More Kornacki, chewing over a clip from Morning Joe‘s Koch interview.
- Political guest: Steve Israel (D), to tell viewers that Republicans want to stop people from voting.
We hope you didn’t expect any pushback on that last one from Mr. Roberts. After all, he’s said the same thing himself! It hardly seems necessary to point out the lack of any conservative or Republican representation. That, after all, is how Lean Forward news works. But something in that Obama clip did spin the tumblers of The Cable Gamer’s mind.
The producers chose a soundbite where the President ridiculed the GOP complaints over the CNBC debate. Har har, they’re afraid of CNBC moderators! This echoes the meme that has been spreading among mainstream media voices that it’s outrageous, even “delusional,” for Republicans to push back on moderators, even ones as clumsy and incompetent as the CNBC hosts. Candidates shouldn’t be permitted to exert influence on questioning, graphics, moderators, or anything else. At least they shouldn’t when they’re Republicans.
Does anyone in the media have any institutional memory? Is it so hard to remember all the way back to 2007? That’s when the Democratic party went far beyond trying to influence the questioning or the choice of moderators. They completely cancelled a debate, because it was on Fox News. And Barack Obama was one of the angry villagers who demanded it be shut down. As is so often the case, the push to destroy the Fox Democratic debate was based on a shameless, thoroughly dishonest torrent of outright lies, capped by a fabrication about a Roger Ailes joke. (It poked fun at Bush, but was deliberately misrepresented as an insult to Mr. Obama in order to further the narrative.) And now here’s Rachel Maddow in 2015 going after the GOP because they’re “attacking the media,” as if that isn’t exactly what the Democrats did in 2007.
In fact, they’re still doing it. As Bret Baier has noted multiple times, Fox has repeatedly asked to host a Democratic primary debate but have been rebuffed at every turn. The Dems are exerting the ultimate control over the Fox News moderators—they’re not just nitpicking their questions but silencing them entirely by denying them the forum to ask anything. Yet we don’t see Ryan Lizza or James Warren writing lengthy pieces about the “outrageous, delusional” Democratic stonewalling of Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace. And Ms. Maddow has not expressed any of her uniquely clownish outrage.
Why do you suppose that is?
What Will Brian Williams Make of MSNBC’s Concept of “Hard News”?
The Cable Gamer spotted a post at Newsbusters involving José Diaz-Balart, one of the alleged “hard news anchors” at MSNBC. This involved the sad story of Cecil the Lion, and in typical fashion he was exploring the relevant issues with one guest: a Democrat. Sure enough, Mr. Diaz-Balart had no hesitancy in opining about how to “focus our outrage” and “support things that are trying to control this.” Still, even with the newsman adding “animal rights” into the laundry list of things he was supporting, this was small potatoes for Diaz-Balart, compared with the more systematic bias that is a staple of Rundown.
This is the real problem Andy Lack faces as he claims an intent to bring more “hard news” to MSNBC daytime. It sure isn’t capital-J “journalism” now, as anyone who watches the preposterously one-sided Thomas Roberts show can attest. Yet while bubble-heads like Krystal Ball and Ed Schultz have been deservedly shown the door, others, like Alex Wagner, are sticking around. For what purpose?
I just knew Wagner wasn’t going anywhere when her husband joined NBC. It’ll be very interesting to see what that “key role” will manifest itself as given how she went opinion on her show. It will be difficult to successfully recast her as a neutral after that. You can’t un-ring that bell.
Spud at Inside Cable News makes a valid point, but what makes him think MSNBC cares? We’ve already seen opinion host Joy Reid transformed overnight into MSNBC’s “national correspondent,” appearing on “hard news” programs masquerading as an unbiased journalist. MSNBC uses “political reporter” Alex Seitz-Wald to cover Hillary Clinton; his previous experience included writing lefty screeds for Salon and Think Progress (where he was one of the site’s editors!). NBC News has people covering national news in general, and the Hillary campaign in particular. But MSNBC doesn’t use them, preferring its own stable of “journalists” who just happen to be (undisclosed) leftist opinionizers.
What’s going to happen when Brian Williams can’t put it off any longer and has to lower himself into this tangle of activist anchors, agendas, and agit-prop? Will he too start spouting off on every subject that strikes his fancy? Will he agree to let MSNBC ideologues pose as reporters and correspondents? Will he just outsource the bias to them while he plays impartial father figure? Or will he demand that MSNBC clean up its act before he assumes control in his glass-walled booth? (That is, assuming he has the authority to do so.) The Cable Game will be watching, so you don’t have to.
Late Developments at MSNBC May Trump Long-Standing Ethical Issues
Players in The Cable Game know there are rules…and there are rules. Some of the former are more observed in the breach, and some of the latter are just not spoken of. Things better left unsaid.
You’ve heard the rules about conflicts of interest, and every once in a while somebody will be forced to rattle off a “disclosure.” Chris Matthews spouts a few words about his wife running for the US House, and he can go right back to “covering” the elections as if he didn’t have a personal interest in seeing the Democrats take back the majority. But when dealing with one of the rules, it’s not necessary for the journalist to say anything at all. He can cover the topic, flip a switch and do commentary, go out and advocate for it, even become an outright activist. And not only can he skip making any disclosures, but nobody else will call him on it. That’s how you know you’re dealing not just with one of the rules, but one of the rules.
Today Thomas Roberts spent hours “covering” (i.e. supporting) the Supreme Court decision on marriage. It’s a perfectly defensible ruling, and one The Cable Gamer may even agree with. But we don’t recall that J-school class explaining the rules about “marriage equality” permitting journalists who ordinarily feign neutrality to openly support it, slant their coverage to favor it, and even lobby for it on and off the air. Yet here’s Thomas Roberts rallying the troops by telling them “we” still have work to do, and dismissing any questions of impartiality with a wave of his hand:
I’ve been confronted with issues with how to control any bias for a long time, but when it comes to discrimination or issues of inequality, I’ve always been a fan of shining bright lights in dark places.
Translation: there are rules for this topic, and the “media critics” all agree with me so I can be as one-sided as I please. Howard Kurtz noted today how the coverage on MSNBC was one supporter of the ruling after another, but even he avoided mention of the elephant in the room: the obvious, flagrant bias of the anchor.
But Thomas Roberts’ ethical issues are nothing new. And now there’s a new development on MSNBC’s plate: The Donald. NBC has decided to distance itself from Mr. Trump:
NBC is evaluating its commitment to the upcoming Miss USA pageant hours after Univision’s decision to drop the program over comments made by Donald Trump, a source tells The Hollywood Reporter.
CNN’s Brian Stelter goes into more detail:
For now, NBC’s only comment is a statement that distances itself from Trump, but doesn’t sever any relationship with him.
So as of now, the pageant is still on and NBC will carry it. And yet Mr. Stelter oddly leaves out the detail that gives this controversy particular relevance to The Cable Game:
MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts and “Dancing with the Stars” dancer Cheryl Burke will host this year’s pageant.
Yes, that’s our Thomas Roberts, fearless crusader on issues of bias, discrimination, and inequality. Hosting a Donald Trump pageant, even as his parent network seeks to distance itself from the event, while his MSNBC colleagues rip the businessman nightly, if not hourly. Assuming the NBC broadcast goes forward (that’s The Cable Gamer’s best guess at this point) does Thomas Roberts intend to stay on as a host? If so, will NBC—or MSNBC—permit him to do so? Will his Lean Forward colleagues and assorted media critics excoriate him for giving credibility to Evil Donald Trump? Or just look the other way?
The Cable Gamer finds it strange that nobody has raised any of these issues. That’s fine for Thomas Roberts—he hardly needs to answers questions nobody is asking. It’s just funny how nicely that works out for him.
MSNBC’s “Lean Forward” News: Is It News at All?
“Spud” over at Inside Cable News made some interesting points yesterday about MSNBC’s replacing Ronan Farrow with Thomas Roberts:
The problem is Phil Griffin still hasn’t thrown in the towel on POV [Point-of-View] analysis and using progressive programming in its rundown and the viewers know it…or at the very least still believe it to be true. MSNBC has not yet been able to claw back the meme that dayside is for news. These things take time. A lot of time…especially when MSNBC’s programming is still schizoid as it puts non-news people in positions traditionally held by news people.
Just this week, partisan pundit Amy Holmes has been filling in on Way Too Early, a position that previously had been anchored by people from the news division. So the mixed messages are still being sent out by Team Griffin.
Good points, but they don’t go far enough. Fiddling around with Way Too Early is chump change compared to installing Thomas Roberts (who famously warned viewers about voting for Republicans) as an unbiased news anchor for two hours. Any time someone can do ten hours of news in a week and not interview one Republican—let alone conservative—you’re stretching the definition of “hard news” into rhetorical taffy. The Cable Gamer can’t think of any straight news program on FNC or CNN that one-sided.
We took a look at another of MSNBC’s so-called “news coverage” programs today: NewsNation with Tamron Hall. One of the top stories was the resignation of the police officer in McKinney TX. And that report came from “MSNBC national correspondent” Joy Reid. Yes, the same Joy Reid whose previous role on MSNBC was as a progressive opinion show host; now she’s masquerading as an unbiased MSNBC “correspondent” (something we’ve seen before at MSNBC).
There was also a heavy political tilt in a segment on hospital costs, where the guest was Jean Ross of National Nurses United, “a union and professional organization” according to Ms. Hall. The news anchor served up a series of softballs, as in expressing “surprise” that we don’t have more “laws and regulations” in this area, so the guest could express instant agreement. Left unsaid was that the National Nurses United isn’t just a “professional organization.” It boasts that it was formed out of “three of the most active, progressive organizations in the U.S.” They’ve lobbied for health care reform, taxes on the wealthy and Wall Street, while welcoming socialist Bernie Sanders to their rallies. Yet Tamron calls them merely “a professional organization,” agrees with their points, and presents no opposing point of view. Just to put a bow on this, Tamron Hall also had a political report from NBC’s Mark Murray—who’s married to an Obama appointee, another fact not disclosed to the Lean Forward viewers.
The Cable Gamer has said all along that MSNBC isn’t moving away from opinion; it’s just dressing it up as news coverage. This deception is unseemly, and somehow unworthy of the NBC brand, which used to be associated with names like David Brinkley. Maybe Brian Williams got out while the getting was good.
Thomas Roberts Invokes “The Name of God”–Yes, “Lean Forward” Lives On
After wading through the morass that is MSNBC and what they are presenting publicly as their roadmap back to respectability, it seemed to me that a second look was in order. Maybe I was being too cynical; maybe they really are trying to right the ship’s course to some extent. So we sat down to spend another two hours with their latest non-opinion news broadcast, MSNBC Live with Thomas Roberts. This show’s premiere week had all the ideological diversity of Radio Havana, but things might be better now, right?
In case you didn’t know what Monday’s biggest news story was, Thomas Roberts was ready to tell you: the religious freedom law passed in Indiana. And in case you didn’t understand its importance, Thomas Roberts was ready to convince you. Segment after segment addressed the case. The first hour spent 8 minutes of the first block on the Indiana law. After the break the entire second block was all about the Indiana law. This time a guest appeared: Chad Griffin, a representative of the Human Rights Campaign which has been opposing the law. He got Thomas Roberts so worked up that the non-opinion news anchor blurted out:
People need to be honest when they’re doing things in the name of God!
It was all the way to the half-hour mark before another segment on the Indiana law, this time with Emma Margolin, an MSNBC “reporter.” As we have seen in the past, MSNBC “reporters” are usually such blatant opinionizers that even the mothership NBC News won’t label them as journalists, so it falls to MSNBC to do so. And Emma is no exception. Just for a change of pace at 49 minutes after the hour the segment was about HIV with MSNBC “reporter” Anthony Terrell.
The first block of the second hour featured another segment on—what else?—the Indiana law, and Thomas Roberts got riled up again:
There’s a financial issue if you’re not being honest in the name of God!
As they broke for a commercial I was afraid the ads would somehow morph into a bonus segment on the Indiana law. But that came after the commercial break, and then was followed by another guest opinionizer: Dave Zirin of The Nation. Guess what position he took on the Indiana law. By some programming oversight they didn’t have anything about the Indiana law in the last half-hour, though we did get to see MSNBC “reporter” Alex Seitz-Wald (alum of Salon, Think Progress, etc) once again.
Somehow, with all those discussions, reports, and analysis segments on the Indiana law, every opinion/commentary guest happened to have the same point of view: against the law. Not one guest spoke in favor of the law or defended it. In fact, just like all the previous installments of this show we’ve seen, there were zero guests giving a right-of-center view on anything.
Can you imagine the shock if somehow a regular Thomas Roberts viewer mistakenly tuned to Fox News on Monday and happened to see David Avella and Julie Roginsky doing a pro-and-con debate on this piece of legislation? What, there are two sides to this story? They let that sort of thing on the air?
So this non-opinion MSNBC newscast isn’t much different now than it was in its premiere week. Leftist ideologues masquerading as “reporters.” No opposing viewpoints whatsoever. Everything is one way. Those who feared their progressive paradise might be losing its soul can relax. “Lean Forward” isn’t going away any time soon.
That Was the Week That Was
Back when MSNBC Live with Thomas Roberts was announced, I went out on a limb to suggest that this wasn’t a move away from opinion at MSNBC. Rather, it was a new way to package opinion: by disguising it as a straight newscast. The seeds were planted on Monday, and they began to sprout on Tuesday. After a week of Thomas Roberts, I’d say the weeds are in full bloom. Let’s look at the rest of the week:
Wednesday: The big guest of the day was David Brock, who was given a largely follow-up-free soapbox to mislead viewers about Hillary Clinton’s emails. John Ridley appeared later to talk about the meaning of genius. And we got interviews with Ari Melber and Steve Kornacki, both part of the channel’s progressive opinion line-up. I missed parts of this show but the online segments don’t show any right-of-center opinion or analysis guests.
Thursday: A lot of breaking news and yet Roberts found a way to shoe-horn Ed Schultz in the stuck airplane coverage. Is he an aeronautics expert? Here’s a secret about how The Cable Game is played. When a guest has been booked, it’s a lot easier to put him on the air even when his segment has been cancelled than to find an actual expert. So Schultz, who was almost certainly intended to speak on some political issue, possibly the Hillary emails, instead feigned expertise on airplane matters. At least that way they can still plug his failing show. And how many viewers will realize that he was actually booked to inject progressive opinion into the non-opinion Thomas Roberts newscast?
Also on Thursday: MSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald to opine on Hillary’s emails. He is a self-described “MSNBC political reporter,” a first-rate bit of camouflage. Alex’s pedigree in journalism includes writing for Salon and Think Progress, where he was one of the site’s editors. But at MSNBC, he’s just another reporter! See, they’re moving away from opinion.
Come Friday, and it’s more of the same. This time we get three MSNBC opinionizers: Chris Hayes, Steve Kornacki, and a return visit from aeronautics expert Ed Schultz. All from the left. Plus a representative of the Urban League (left). And then another “MSNBC reporter:” Michele Richinick, an anti-gun advocate masquerading as a journalist. Are you starting to see a pattern?
Unless there was someone I missed, in an entire week of MSNBC’s non-opinion newscast every commenter and/or analyst was someone from the left. No conservative or Republican viewpoints were represented. When that happens five days in a row, on premiere week no less, that’s not an accident. It’s their blueprint. Just like the Lean Forward slogan that still appears on the screen during MSNBC’s “non-opinion” news hours.
Opposite Thomas Roberts, Fox News managed to find time for two Democratic guests in just a single broadcast hour. That one hour on FNC had more opposing viewpoints than ten hours of Thomas Roberts. And Fox didn’t disguise their opinion guests by calling them “reporters.” Think about that the next time you hear the disingenuous Maddow or other MSNBC flacks deride Fox as a PR arm for a political party. Freud had a term for that.
I wasn’t planning to do another post about Thomas Roberts, but there is a story to tell about today’s installment of MSNBC Live. You will recall this is being hailed as a move away from opinion programming, a view TCG viewed with skepticism. Today things became clearer.
The story of the day was Netanyahu’s speech, and after a series of brief reports on that and other topics du jour Roberts brought in his guest, Chris Matthews. The Hardball host went on a five-minute unchallenged rant about a “foreign” leader trying to “take over” foreign policy from an American president. It would be mild to call this hyperbole, but Roberts’ reaction was to agree:
Chris, as you say, it was stunning.
Roberts then went on to mention the $30 billion a year in “taxpayer’s money” that goes to Israel (why does that sound familiar?), this time casually name-dropping President Bush as the person who locked taxpayers into this obligation. Nobody appeared to give any sort of counterpoint to Matthews.
Meanwhile, during the same hour on Fox News, Democrats Jim Walsh and Rep John Yarmuth both appeared and spoke critically about the Netanyahu speech, providing balance to the viewpoints expressed by others. Which network was behaving like the arm of a political party, and which was “fair and balanced?”
Later in the hour Roberts turned to the Hillary emails and introduced his guest, Krystal Ball (a failed Democratic candidate herself, though that was not disclosed). Roberts read “bullet points” provided by the Clinton camp and asked his expert how much of an issue will this be if Hillary should run. Ball’s response:
If there’s a sense that she’s being forthcoming, that she’s providing all the information that people are wanting to see, that she’s not overly defensive about it, then I think it’s frankly a non-issue. I mean, how many voters in Iowa are really thinking deeply about which email account certain emails came from?
Needless to say no challenge from Roberts, who went on to tell viewers not to miss Ball’s “coverage” of the Emily’s List gala. And with that MSNBC completed another hour of its dayside non-opinion hard news coverage.
When it was announced that Thomas Roberts was returning to MSNBC dayside to anchor a straight newscast, TCG was dubious. The anchor doesn’t have an especially good record of sublimating his political views. Today’s debut clearly positioned itself as traditional news rather than opinion. There was a fair amount of apolitical content: a lengthy package on road rage (that might have been borrowed from NBC broadcast), and several lighter segments dealing with pop culture matters and the like.
Among the more serious topics, the upcoming Netanyahu speech got the most attention. In the first hour Roberts had State Department spokesman Marie Harf on to give the administration’s side of the controversy. Then in the second hour, Texas Congressman Lloyd Doggett was brought in to give the administration’s side of the controversy. Neither was particularly challenged on any points, let alone interrupted. In both instances Roberts made it a point to bring up the $13.1 billion of “taypayers’ money” set to go to Israel, and in the Doggett segment he phrased his reference in a particularly revealing fashion:
Explain how diplomacy, vs taxpayer dollars, really adds up to a mess in what we’re seeing with this invitation and speech before Congress.
The most-promoted aspect of the premiere was a one-on-one with Donald Trump, which turned out to be a phoner like the ones he does every Monday (today included) on Fox & Friends. Unlike the typical Fox segment, a good chunk of Roberts’ discussion dealt with marriage equality, with the anchor accusing Trump of “evolving backwards.” The Donald did not agree with that characterization. Roberts recovered by expounding on the feasibility of Trump besting Einstein in an IQ contest, or something.
The production was blandly professional (the occasional glitch notwithstanding); if the premiere gets any social media talk it will probably center around the host repeatedly donning, then removing his spectacles. The bias will be mostly overlooked, but that’s what The Cable Game is here for.
Back to the Future, Again
TV Newser’s Chris Ariens scoops that MSNBC is dumping their Joy Reid and Ronan Farrow hours, and installing Thomas Roberts to anchor a two-hour afternoon news block:
At the same time, “Way Too Early” anchor Thomas Roberts heads back to dayside, as the network returns to a more traditional news day.
Thomas anchored a “more traditional” newscast on MSNBC before being shunted off to the pre-dawn hour. But don’t be fooled by his return. What you may think of as straight news isn’t what MSNBC has in mind. Because Thomas Roberts has always had free reign to push any point of view he likes, whether by story/guest selection or flat-out campaigning.
Can you picture Walter Cronkite, or Bret Baier for that matter, telling his viewers “you’re a chicken-eating Judas” if you patronize Chick-Fil-A? That’s Thomas Roberts. Does an impartial news anchor look into the camera and tell viewers how “dirty” and “ugly” a political committee is? That’s Thomas Roberts. How about tweeting insults at political figures he doesn’t agree with? That’s Thomas Roberts. And then, as election-day approaches, warning his audience that Republicans are trying to keep you from voting? That’s Thomas Roberts.
MSNBC may want you to think they are planning to emphasize news over opinion with this move, but the choice of Roberts means just the opposite. It will be merely the appearance of journalism. That’s how The Cable Game is played by Thomas Roberts.