While NPR throws softballs, the ‘PBS NewsHour’ is showing some spine

Liz Cheney takes the oath of office in 2017. Photo in the public domain.

It wasn’t too many years ago when NPR was a bold, truth-telling news organization and the “PBS NewsHour” was a bastion of timidity. But at some point during the Trump era, their roles reversed. “NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff and the program’s two most prominent reporters, White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor and congressional correspondent Lisa Desjardins, became much more assertive, challenging the powerful and demonstrating a willingness to call a lie a lie.

Rarely, though, do you get as clear-cut an example of what I’m talking about as what played out on Wednesday following U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney’s removal from the House Republican leadership. NPR anchor Mary Louise Kelly, a journalist I respect, never pressed two young Republicans she interviewed. Woodruff, meanwhile, pinned Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, up against a wall and wouldn’t let go until it was clear that he wasn’t going to answer her questions.

Kelly’s guests were Republican strategist Antonia Ferrier and Hoover Institution fellow Lanhee Chen, both of whom were intent on pretending that the elephant in the room — the implosion of their party into a tangle of lies and conspiracy theories — didn’t actually exist. Here, for instance, is how Chen responded to Kelly’s question about what it all means:

Well, I think it’s about alternate visions, maybe not alternate, but certainly two different visions of what the future of the Republican Party looks like. Will the party be a party that is fundamentally about ideas, about concepts? Or is it going to be an idea — a party focused on one personality? And I think, you know, Liz Cheney is articulating one pathway, and others are articulating another. It’s not mutually exclusive necessarily to the extent that there are some who might believe, for example, that former President Trump should have some role or some who believe that there ought to be more of a focus on policy.

But I think what Cheney is doing is setting out a very clear contrast, and, you know, that’s sure to irk some of her colleagues. But it is, I think, an important question that Republicans need to ask, which is, what is the direction that those of us who are self-identified Republicans want to see the party go in? And what’s the best way to get there?

No, what Cheney is doing is pointing out, over and over, that Joe Biden won the November election and that Donald Trump helped incite violence on Jan. 6 in an attempt to reverse the results. That has nothing to do with “two different visions of what the future of the Republican Party looks like.”

And how did Kelly respond? “Well,” she said, “it has very clearly irked more than a few of her colleagues.” It went no better with Ferrier, who talked around the real issue at length — again, never mentioning Trump’s big lie or the insurrection. Kelly reacted by telling Ferrier that “it’s a complicated subject with a lot of nuance there. So I appreciate your laying some of that out for us.”

Meanwhile, Woodruff was politely laying into Portman, who started off by saying that “Republicans here in the House and the Senate do not question the legitimacy of Joe Biden as president.” Woodruff’s response:

Senator, as you know, there’s a contradiction, because I hear what you’re saying and I hear what Kevin McCarthy is saying about, yes, we accept Joe Biden.

But, as we all know, former President Trump does not accept that the election was held legitimately. And Liz Cheney was saying that out loud, and she’s being punished for it. So, the message is that it’s fealty to President Trump, rather than issues, that are driving the Republican Party.

Is that the right message for the future?

“No,” Portman replied before dissembling some more. Woodruff also challenged him on Republican opposition to tax hikes and to include child care and elder care in President Biden’s infrastructure bill.

Now, I will grant that there’s always a problem in trying to draw these comparisons. No doubt NPR could point to plenty of examples when they’ve been much tougher than Kelly was on Wednesday. As I said, I respect her, and maybe she’ll take a completely different tack the next time I hear her. Maybe she didn’t want to badger two young, relatively powerless interview subjects — though I hardly think that asking them the most pressing questions of the day constitutes badgering.

Overall, though, I think Wednesday’s interviews fit into what I’ve observed — that NPR and the “NewsHour” have switched roles over the past few years.

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With Trump gone and his allies in revolt, what’s next for the media?

Photo (cc) 2020 by Geoff Livingston

Previously published at GBH News.

Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, his detractors have complained bitterly that he was being enabled, or “normalized,” by the mainstream media. For the extremely online Resistance in particular, Twitter became a place to rail against the press for failing to point out that Trump’s every utterance, gesture and action was an outrage against decency and a threat to the republic.

“Trump has been at war with an unraveling America for years,” wrote the liberal press critic Eric Boehlert a day after Trump supporters staged a deadly riot inside the Capitol. “The parallel reality has been that the American press corps has not figured out how to deal with that frightening scenario. It hasn’t properly grappled with the idea that our commander-in-chief would purposefully try to harm America’s security and undo its democratic traditions.”

Boehlert’s not wrong. A year into Trump’s presidency, I took The New York Times to task for what I saw as its overly passive, both-sides approach, which I contrasted with The Washington Post’s sure-footedness.

And yet I find that I’ve grown impatient with these complaints, mainly because I can’t see how a different, harsher approach would have changed the course of the last four years. Never mind the 2016 campaign, which was a travesty of anti-Hillary Clinton bias that helped propel Trump into office. Overall, mainstream coverage of Trump’s time in the White House has been good enough, which is the most we can expect of a diverse, flawed institution.

Trump has been historically unpopular, yet a weirdly large minority continues to say he’s doing a good job no matter what. Take FiveThirtyEight’s average of approval ratings. The Battle of Capitol Hill sent Trump’s ratings sharply downward. But as of Tuesday afternoon, he was still at nearly 41% — pretty much where he always is.

Politically, at least, the story of the Trump years has been simple: He’s detested by a majority of the public, and they voted him out by a decisive margin the first chance they got. Explaining this isn’t rocket science.

Does anyone really believe that the mainstream media haven’t been largely negative in their coverage? Yes, there have been moments when The Times has been overly deferential, as befits a news organization that still thinks of itself as the nation’s paper of record and the presidency as an august institution. But investigative reporting by The Times, The Post and The Wall Street Journal have kept Trump back on his heels continuously for the past four years.

There have been a few exceptions — The Times on occasion and, sadly, NPR consistently. All too often I’ve turned on NPR and thought President George H.W. Bush was still in office and that the Democrats were working to stymie his legislative agenda. Last fall, NPR’s mild-mannered public editor, Kelly McBride, went so far as to complain that “there are moments, like the coverage of the first presidential debate, when NPR’s presentation is so understated that some in the audience feel they’ve been handed a distorted picture.” No kidding.

And yet another public media outlet that I had long criticized as a bastion of false equivalence, the “PBS NewsHour,” somehow managed to find its voice during the Trump presidency. Anchor Judy Woodruff, White House reporter Yamiche Alcindor and congressional reporter Lisa Desjardins rose to the moment, chronicling each day’s events with a calm but pointed devotion to seeking the truth and reporting it.

Through the Mueller investigation, Ukraine, impeachment, COVID-19, Trump’s blizzard of lies about the election results and now what looks very much like a failed coup attempt, mainstream coverage has, for the most part, been appropriately critical.

The one massive media failure has been something the mainstream can’t do anything about — the weaponized pro-Trump propaganda put out every day and night by Fox News, which more than anything has kept Trump’s approval rating from cratering. Fox now seems determined to get its mojo back after losing some of its audience to the likes of Newsmax and OANN, as it has switched from news to opinion at 7 p.m.

And let’s not overlook the role of Facebook and Twitter in amplifying Trumpist lies — a role with which the social-media giants are now rather ineptly coming to grips.

Longtime media observer Jay Rosen of New York University recently gave the media some credit for asserting themselves in recent months and warned that a slide back into the old paradigm of giving weight and authority to both political parties would prove disastrous.

“Trump screwed with the ‘both sides’ system by busting norms and lying all the time, but that has only increased the longing to have the old constructs back,” he wrote, adding that the press “will have to find a way to become pro-truth, pro-voting, anti-racist and aggressively pro-democracy. It will have to cast its lot with those in both parties who are reality-based. It will have to learn to distinguish bad actors with propagandistic intent from normal speakers making their case.”

The rise of what may become a sustained right-wing resistance — a Tea Party armed with guns and brainwashed by QAnon — pretty much guarantees that the media won’t be able to slide back into their old habits once Trump is gone and the exceedingly normal President-elect Joe Biden takes his place.

As for whether the media are up to the challenge, I think we ought to take heart from the Trump era. Much of the press did what it could to hold Trump accountable and to shine a light on his repulsive words and actions. I’m hopeful that they’ll bring the same energy and sense of mission to covering whatever is coming next.