U.S. political media on life support after NBC Matt Lauer forum

NBC's Matt Lauer with former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders

NBC’s Matt Lauer with former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders

Wednesday night’s NBC News “Commander-in-Chief Forum” has been roundly criticized. In particular, moderator Matt Lauer is taking the heat for his biased, amateurish performance. However, the NBC forum is just one of many examples of the U.S. Beltway media tipping the scales against Hillary Clinton and for Donald Trump in this election, and failing to do their job. One Twitter user even started the hashtag “#LaueringTheBar” to describe this trend. With the first presidential debate just days away, time is quickly running out to cure the problem.

The issue of inadequate and biased media coverage in the 2016 elections isn’t new. This chart shows that Clinton has been receiving by far the most negative coverage, not just between herself and Trump, but also among their chief rivals Bernie Sanders and Rafael “Ted” Cruz during the primaries. Even at supposedly more “liberal” media like the New York Times, folks like Patrick Healy and Maureen Dowd have been on an anti-Clinton tear for years.

At the same time, Donald Trump is essentially getting a free pass from the national news media. Numerous legal issues and scandals that go directly to his judgment, character and fitness, including Trump’s refusal to provide his tax returns, his phony doctor’s note, his child rape allegations, his Trump University fraud trial, his Florida and Texas bribery scandals, his numerous business bankruptcies, his multiple Vietnam War draft deferments, illegal immigration charges against his modeling agency and even against his wife, receive little or no coverage from the mainstream media. CNN‘s Dana Bash even admitted recently that the media’s “expectations are higher for” Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump in this election.

Moreover, the choice of moderators for the upcoming presidential and vice-presidential debates provides little comfort. Chris Wallace of Fox News said that, when it’s his turn to moderate the third presidential debate on October 19:

I do not believe that it’s my job to be a truth squad. It’s up to the other person to catch them on that.

The problem with Wallace’s abdication of the journalistic function is that the candidates are left simply to disagree with each other (and we all know who’s been caught telling lies most the time), turning the debate into a false equivalence of “he said, she said” that is already too prevalent in the media, with no objective truths or facts being pointed out by the referee.

There are occasional glimmers of hope. For example, Joy Reid at MSNBC has been a one-woman truth squad, calling out guests on her show when they don’t tell the truth. Likewise, in a rare moment, Chris Matthews of MSNBC fact-checked Rudolph Giuliani on a charge that Matthews had an inkling Giuliani was going to make, i.e., that Donald Trump’s birtherism against Barack Obama somehow began with Hillary Clinton. Matthews was able to say, live to Giuliani:

Let me tell you, there’s no record at all of that. We checked this before you came on because one of our senior producers thought you might say this, There is absolutely no record ever of Hillary Clinton or anyone in her campaign ever saying that President Obama is not legitimate.

CNN also has run some fact-checking graphics on its screen in live time along the lines of “Trump Calls Obama Founder of ISIS (He’s Not).”

These few examples can serve as a model for what the Beltway media interviewers and presidential debate moderators should do, starting immediately. They should have tape ready to roll (for example, this recording of Donald Trump’s call-in to the Howard Stern Show in September 2002, where Trump stated that he supported a new Bush Iraq War) to fact-check the candidates in live time. Where there isn’t tape (for instance, in the case of the Matthews/Giuliani interview cited above), the moderators should be prepared with advance fact-checking, and should be ready to correct lies or blatant misstatements by the candidates. It’s not enough to leave that job to the opposing candidate, who can’t play a video or audio tape during the debate anyway.

Will our national news media interviewers and presidential and vice-presidential debate moderators step up to this challenge of checking the facts and stating them in live time to correct the record? It’s possible that the NBC News forum was a tipping point that will cause the mainstream media to be more conscientious. Based on what we’ve seen thus far, however, it’s difficult to be that hopeful, but we as viewers, readers and voters must pressure the Beltway media to do their jobs.

Photo by Max Goldberg, used under Creative Commons license. https://is.gd/nRTwOj


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