The ‘60 Minutes’ report on DeSantis is an unusually clear case of liberal media bias

It’s a rare day when we encounter as blatant an example of liberal media bias as in the “60 Minutes” report last Sunday on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. It’s not that the mainstream media aren’t broadly liberal — they are. But such bias normally affects things like story selection and tone, and does not interfere with a fair presentation of the facts. Unfortunately, the botched story on DeSantis, a Republican, will be cited by conservatives for a long time as evidence that you just can’t trust the media.

So what happened? “60 Minutes” reported that DeSantis awarded a contract to the supermarket chain Publix to distribute COVID vaccines after Publix had made a $100,000 campaign donation to the governor’s political action committee. The governor refused to give “60 Minutes” an interview. But in a confrontation at a DeSantis news conference, “60 Minutes” reporter Sharyn Alfonsi asserted that the vaccine contract was a “reward” and asked him: “How is that not pay to play?”

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There are two problems here. First, the story accurately describes the quid but never manages to nail down the quo. It would be strange indeed if Publix did not make campaign contributions to DeSantis, as he is a major political figure. Large businesses do what they have to do to get along. Moreover, Publix stores would be obvious, logical places for administering vaccines.

The system was far from perfect. The report points out that, in some cases, Publix markets are far from communities of color, requiring two bus rides in one example. But that doesn’t prove DeSantis acted as he did because Publix had given him money. As media ethics expert Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute puts it:

In the story, there was a direct line between the campaign contribution and the rewarding. And they never proved that. I think they owe it to everybody — they owe it to the governor, they owe it to Publix, they owe it to the public — to explain to us how they came to that conclusion.

Second, having watched the news conference confrontation as edited for broadcast and compared it to the full, unedited version (above), I think it’s clear that DeSantis’ remarks were edited to cast him in the worst possible light. Journalists are free to use as little or as much as they like of an interview or, in this case, remarks at a news conference. But they are not free to edit those remarks in a way that changes their meaning or leaves out important context.

Among the people who have come to DeSantis’ defense, according to The Palm Beach Post, is Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner, a Democrat. “They are hellbent on dividing us for cheap views and clicks,” Kerner said in a written statement. “‘60 Minutes’ should be ashamed.” (Not every elected Democrat agrees with Kerner, including County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay.)

I doubt the problems with this story were the result of liberal bias in the sense of deliberately making things up in order to make DeSantis look bad. Nor do I think it was the only form of bias at work. There is the bias for confrontation and controversy, which is the most pervasive type of media bias that there is. There is the bias in favor of producing a “gotcha” story.

As for how liberal bias figures into this, I would say — and this is only guesswork, of course — that “60 Minutes” decided DeSantis had done a bad job of managing the COVID pandemic in Florida, and that he had been getting undeserved praise for reopening the state at a time when numbers are continuing to rise. So when Alfonsi confronted DeSantis with the revelation about Publix’s campaign contribution, she and her crew had already come to a conclusion and were simply looking for some good video to go with it.

Which brings us to another form of bias. As one of my graduate students said, the story also looks like an example of confirmation bias. “60 Minutes” didn’t take the necessary steps to verify its story because no one could see any problems with it. And that may be the most pernicious effect of all when it comes to having a newsroom that is populated almost exclusively by liberals.

Trust in the media is scraping the bottom, especially among Republicans. The “60 Minutes” report on DeSantis certainly doesn’t help.

The Stormy Daniels interview moves her story to center stage. How will Trump react?

Stormy Daniels and Anderson Cooper. Photo via CBS News.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

For those of us who follow this stuff obsessively, there was little new information in the “60 Minutes” interview with porn star Stormy Daniels. The alleged physical threat against Daniels if she told anyone about her alleged 2006 dalliance with Donald Trump? Her lawyer leveled that charge on CNN more than a week ago. The possibility that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s $130,000 payment to Daniels just before the 2016 election violated campaign-finance laws? That had already been reported by The Washington Post, among others. For that matter, many of the details we heard Sunday go back to The Wall Street Journal’s original story of Jan. 12.

But that doesn’t mean there was no news value in Daniels’ sitdown with Anderson Cooper. For one thing, there was the simple fact that we were hearing all this for the first time from Daniels herself. For another, in an era when it is increasingly difficult to be heard above the media din, “60 Minutes” remains one of the few outlets in which it is still possible to reach a mass audience. Viewers who knew little about this before learned a lot. Daniels’ story has now moved to center stage.

The question now is whether the Stormy Daniels affair will eclipse all the other ugliness surrounding and involving President Trump — or if it should. Even given Daniels’ allegation that she was physically threatened, her one-time consensual encounter with Trump — still denied by the president — hardly rises to the seriousness of the numerous credible claims by women that Trump sexually assaulted them. Then, too, there is special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, which appears to be moving ever closer to the president. A possible $130,000 campaign-finance violation is trivial when seen in that light.

CBS News posted the transcript of the interview while we were all waiting for the basketball game to end, so I had a chance to read it and then watch. Several aspects of the interview struck me as worth pondering, and we’ll see how they play out in the days ahead.

• Daniels said Trump told her she reminded him of his daughter Ivanka. Trump’s sexualized talk about Ivanka has been remarked upon for years, but repetition makes it no less vile. In 2004, Trump said to Howard Stern that it was all right for Stern to call Ivanka “a piece of ass.” The future president assessed the quality of his daughter’s breasts, too. There are other examples I could cite, but I’ll simply note that, just last week, Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who says she had sex with Trump, told Anderson Cooper in a CNN interview that Trump said she was “beautiful like her” — that is, like Ivanka. This is deeply disturbing behavior if true.

• Daniels has some serious credibility issues. I found Daniels to be believable — articulate and composed, with no obvious holes in her story. But that’s not the same thing as being credible. Cooper bore in on her and her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, noting that she had signed a nondisclosure form Cohen gave her and took the $130,000, and had signed statements on other occasions saying she’s never had sex with Trump. “How do we know you’re telling the truth?,” Cooper asked Daniels. Her response: “’Cause I have no reason to lie. I’m opening myself up for, you know, possible danger and definitely a whole lot of s***.” Avenatti, speaking of his client’s past denials, conceded: “I think there’s no question that it calls into question her credibility.”

• Anderson Cooper is a first-rate interviewer. It’s too bad that Cooper’s CNN gig has been reduced to presiding over panels of empty — sorry, I mean talking — heads. He’s a fine journalist, and he did a calm, professional, and thorough job on Sunday. He managed the difficult task of letting Daniels tell her story without seeming to endorse it in any way. As I said, he pressed Daniels and Avenatti hard on the credibility issue. He also questioned Avenatti on his (distant) past as a Democratic operative. Cooper got experts to discuss the possible campaign-finance violation, and viewers came away understanding that it’s not at all clear whether that aspect of the story is especially important — although it could be.

Daniels was a tease on perhaps the most titillating question of the night — whether she has videos, photos, or other records that would prove embarrassing to Trump. Under the nondisclosure agreement, she was supposed to turn over any such documents. But she’s already violated the agreement (she and Avenatti say there is no agreement because Trump never signed it), so who knows what might come next? As The New York Times noted over the weekend, Trump has never tweeted about Daniels. We may speculate on the reasons for that.

The most likely effect of the Daniels interview is that it will feed into Trump’s towering rage and the utter chaos that is surrounding him, as reported in another Times article on Saturday. If nothing else, Daniels’ decision to wage a public battle with Trump could very well lead the president to lash out in other directions. It’s a frightening prospect, but we live in dark times.

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Lara Logan’s fair and balanced future

I give it six months before Lara Logan is hosting a talk show on Fox News and whining that she was done in by liberals. (See this New York Times report.)

The day Mike Wallace called me a “bastard”

Mike Wallace in 1957

This commentary has also been published at the Huffington Post.

In late 1997 I heard that Mike Wallace, the legendary “60 Minutes” reporter, had been in town to do a critical story on the Boston Globe’s reporting about Ray Flynn’s relationship with alcohol. So I called him up.

Flynn, the former Boston mayor who was by this time the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, was believed to harbor further political ambitions. And a Globe team headed by Walter Robinson, now a  Northeastern colleague, traveled to Rome and produced a front-page story claiming that Flynn was spending an inordinate amount of time in the city’s Irish pubs. Robinson also reported seeing Flynn stagger out of a North End bar in the middle of the day. (The story is not on the open Web, but you can look it up.)

The Globe article provoked a controversy, and I had written about it for the Boston Phoenix, mainly defending the Globe on the grounds that Flynn had run afoul of cultural changes about politicians’ drinking habits, and that Flynn was widely thought to harbor further political ambitions. (In fact, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress the following year.)

Wallace was having none of it.

“As far as I’m concerned, the Globe never showed the connection between his public performance and his drinking,” Wallace told me. “How were the vital interests of the United States of America damaged? Was it worth two-and-a-half pages above the fold in the Boston Globe?” He then shifted his attention to me. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

“Jesus Christ, did they really have to do this to poor old Ray Flynn?” Wallace asked. “And you, you bastard … ” He proceeded to read an excerpt in which I wrote that Flynn was preparing to run for governor because “he can’t think of anything better to do.”

“Is that a fact?” Wallace demanded.

I mumbled something about its being an opinion piece. If I’d been a little quicker on my feet, I might have added that my opinion of Flynn’s motive is shared by a broad cross section of media and political insiders. Still, Wallace had a point.

And he was equally unimpressed with my contention that Flynn ran afoul of cultural changes surrounding alcohol and public drunkenness — that behavior once viewed as acceptable is now condemned, and that journalists, as a result, are less inclined to look the other way.

“You yuppies aren’t telling me that things have changed,” Wallace sneered. “Things haven’t changed at all.” He recalled the case of Wilbur Mills, an Arkansas Democrat who, in the early 1970s, was chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Mills, an alcoholic, became publicly involved with a stripper; among other misadventures, he was photographed groping her drunkenly at a Boston club. Mills lost his chairmanship and ultimately left Congress.

“When Wilbur Mills got drunk on duty, so to speak, they ran him out of office. And that was a long, long time ago,” Wallace said.

At one point, he interrupted the interview to interject: “You’re writing this all down so you can make me out to be a horse’s ass.”

In fact, I think what I wrote about Wallace that day was fair and respectful, which you can judge for yourself. I was also impressed with Flynn’s reaction — he was never anything but gentlemanly in my future encounters with him, and he’s gone on to lead a useful and interesting post-political life.

As for Wallace, for many years he was the face and voice of “60 Minutes,” one of the most successful news programs in television history. You could observe that there’s no such thing as a golden age, but I really do think there was a golden age of television news, and Wallace was right in the middle of it. It’s remarkable to think that he made it to 93, and only did his last interview — with Roger Clemens — in 2008.

Like so many others we’ve lost in the last few years, Mike Wallace will be missed.

Photo (cc) via Wikimedia Commons.

Remembering Andy Rooney

One day maybe eight or 10 years ago, I was sitting at my desk at the Boston Phoenix when the phone rang. “This is Andy Rooney,” the caller said in what seemed like an exaggerated attempt at imitating the legendary “60 Minutes” commentator. “Yeah, right,” I responded, wondering who was really on the other end of the line.

It was Rooney. While we were taping “Beat the Press” one Friday afternoon, his daughter Emily, the host, mentioned the name of someone who had been bugging her father over some perceived offense. It turned out that I had heard from the same person a few times as well. She told her father, and he decided to give me a call. I can’t remember what I told him — it was all I could do to recover from my inauspicious opening. Now that Rooney has died, I wish I could recall exactly what he said that day.

Andy Rooney was rooted firmly in CBS News’ golden era. He was friends with Walter Cronkite, he wrote for Harry Reasoner and it was “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt who came up with the idea of having Rooney deliver a monologue at the end of each episode. It was a master stroke, as Rooney’s essay quickly became the most popular part of the program.

Rooney’s death follows his retirement by such a short stretch that “60 Minutes” last night simply recycled the Morley Safer piece (above) that first aired in early October. That’s all right. It was really good and worth seeing again. CBS has posted other Rooney material as well, including video of some of his classic commentaries.

As is well known, Rooney considered himself a writer first, and indeed he rarely found himself in front of a camera until near the end of his career. He wrote for Stars and Stripes, for Arthur Godfrey and for Reasoner before he ever wrote for himself. Yet his curmudgeonly commentaries worked as well as they did not only because they were written by a craftsman, but because he was a first-rate performer as well.

By all accounts, his crankiness was not an act. That he was able to take that crankiness and use it to inform and entertain millions was his gift to us. Andy Rooney was such a skillful writer that he would have been able to find a way to avoid ending with a cliché such as “he’ll be missed.” I lack his skill, and I don’t want to close without acknowledging the obvious.

Steve Kroft’s stunning omission

Anwar al-Awlaki

I wasn’t expecting much in the way of tough questioning last night when I sat down to watch President Obama’s interview with “60 Minutes.” The idea was to revel in the killing of Osama bin Laden. Steve Kroft’s questions — all of which were a variation on “Mr. President, why are you so wonderful?” — were no surprise.

Even so, I was startled when, toward the end of the interview, Kroft asked Obama, “Is this the first time that you’ve ever ordered someone killed?” The president blandly answered that every time he orders a military action, he does so with the understand that someone will be killed.

But what was missing from Kroft’s question and Obama’s answer was the name of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American whom the president ordered killed last year. Al-Awlaki survived a U.S. drone attack on his headquarters in Yemen on Saturday, after the “60 Minutes” interview was recorded. But the targeting of al-Awlaki was hardly a secret — it was even the subject of an unsuccessful lawsuit brought by his father. If Kroft didn’t know that, then he had no business sitting down with the president. If he did, well, why didn’t he say something?

The targeting of al-Awlaki, an American-born radical Islamist, was an extraordinary measure. As Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU, which helped with the lawsuit, has observed:

[T]he United States is not at war in Yemen, and the government doesn’t have a blank check to kill terrorism suspects wherever they are in the world. Among the arguments we’ll be making is that, outside actual war zones, the authority to use lethal force is narrowly circumscribed, and preserving the rule of law depends on keeping this authority narrow.

Should the United States be trying to kill al-Awlaki? According to this extensively footnoted Wikipedia article, al-Awlaki’s fiery rhetoric was the inspiration for a number of terrorist attacks. In addition, some say he has been involved in planning acts of terrorism and had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. He may, in fact, be a legitimate target.

What troubles me is that it is not widely known that our government has targeted an American-born citizen for death. It’s something that ought to be debated openly, not relegated to an occasional mention in the media. So it’s an opportunity lost when a journalist like Kroft asks a question that is either ignorant or disingenuous, and then allows the president to dissemble without so much as a follow-up.

Did Kroft genuinely not know better, or had he and the folks at CBS News already decided not to press Obama? Either way, it was shocking omission. We could have learned something if only Kroft had bothered to do his job.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.