In an effort to keep them in good stead, reporters have coddled Republicans who claim that legacy media is biased against them. It's only served to push coverage further to the right.
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With the midterm elections just days away, I’ve been thinking a lot about access—how to get it, how to lose it, how it factors into a healthy democracy, and why old strategies to fend off demands for an obsequious media may no longer work. But first, let’s talk about good journalism.
In June 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump sat for an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. In the days leading up to his conversation with Tapper, Trump had been in the headlines for making repeated attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was hearing a fraud case involving Trump University. Trump had asserted that Curiel, who was born in Indiana, could not be trusted to be impartial because Curiel “happens to be, we believe, Mexican.”
Tapper questioned Trump about the issue for more than five and a half minutes. Trump tried to change the subject to the lawsuit or Hillary Clinton’s emails, but Tapper stood his ground. It was a tried and true tactic that Trump had used before (and since); thankfully, Tapper wasn’t having it. Trump would dodge, and Tapper would re-center the question, following up a remarkable 23 times. It was a tense, remarkable interview.
As Callum Borchers of The Washington Post wrote at the time, “Tapper presumably had other subjects he would have liked to get to. Trump likely figured as much and assumed he could stall long enough for his interviewer to move on. That’s usually how it goes. But Tapper refused to drop the subject until Trump offered a yes-or-no answer. It was clearly an exhausting effort. But it showed that even Donald J. Trump can be worn down by a journalist who never gives up.”
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that interview in the more than six years since it aired. It was so simple, so basic. It was everything that journalism should strive to be. Still, it’s understandable why such interviews seem to be so rare these days.
Though Tapper has questioned a number of Trump surrogates and administration officials since, that 2016 interview marked the last time Trump would agree to sit down with CNN’s top newsman. According to a CNN source, Tapper was informed months later by a source close to Trump that it was going to be his last interview with Trump. Ever.
The segmentation of the press and the rise of social media have made it less necessary for candidates to sit down with interviewers who will challenge politicians on their statements and stances. A politician may no longer need legacy media to get their messages out to voters, which, in turn, creates perverse anti-journalism incentives for outlets and reporters to handle candidates with kid gloves. When journalists deviate from politicians’ preferred interview trajectory, they risk having their access to candidates cut off.
Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has made a habit of providing exclusive access to what would ordinarily be public events like bill signings to friendly media outlets like Fox News. Earlier this year, DeSantis blocked mainstream outlets from attending the Republican Party of Florida’s annual Sunshine Summit conference.
“We in the state of Florida are not going to allow legacy media outlets to be involved in our primaries,” said DeSantis during the event’s opening remarks. “I’m not going to have a bunch of left-wing media people asking our candidates gotcha questions.”
Just last month, DeSantis campaign rapid response director Christina Pushaw delivered a fiery speech in which she called on Republicans to block mainstream media outlets they deem insufficiently deferential to their beliefs. Calling journalists “media activists,” Pushaw urged the crowd to “cut them off.”
“You’re on a campaign helping a Republican candidate get elected. Would you allow a Democrat tracker that you recognize into a private campaign event? I would hope not,” she said. “That’s how you should view mainstream media activists. They are Democrat trackers, they are Democrat activists. They are not there to report fairly on you.”
Obviously, this is bad. Yes, Republicans have spent the better part of the past 50 or so years screaming about the “liberal media” and trying to work the refs into giving them more favorable coverage. By constantly arguing that the press is biased against them, Republicans have successfully moved the media to the right. On an individual level, the Right’s goal is to get journalists to pull punches, to opt for euphemisms like “racially charged” over terms like “racist,” and to go out of their way to ensure that every interview they conduct and every article they write makes Republicans look good (or at least not too bad). On an organizational level, their goal is to get media companies to show outright favoritism.
When CBS News hired former Trump administration official Mick Mulvaney earlier this year, there was confusion. Mulvaney is the man who, in February 2020, called media coverage of the novel coronavirus the “hoax of the day.” Mulvaney is the man who openly admitted that Trump tried to work out a quid pro quo with Ukraine in which they would open a sham investigation into Joe Biden and his family in exchange for congressionally allocated funds, telling reporters to “get over it.” Mulvaney is the man who wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal titled, “If He Loses, Trump Will Concede Gracefully.” Why on Earth would CBS News, a respectable source of journalism, hire someone who has been so wildly wrong about so many things? Access.
The Washington Post obtained a recording of CBS News co-president Neeraj Khemlani’s explanation for Mulvaney’s hiring.
“If you look at some of the people that we’ve been hiring on a contributor basis, being able to make sure that we are getting access to both sides of the aisle is a priority because we know the Republicans are going to take over, most likely, in the midterms,” said Khemlani. “A lot of the people that we’re bringing in are helping us in terms of access to that side of the equation.”
Access. It’s bad for journalism. It’s bad for democracy. In the past, politicians’ attempts to play hardball with the media could be met by a united front of news organizations willing to forgo their own access as a matter of principle. In fact, that’s the origin story of the White House Correspondents’ Association, which was formed in part as a response to President Woodrow Wilson’s threat to cut off access to “certain evening newspapers.”
I worry about what happens when mainstream media outlets find themselves taking the approach CBS utilized when it hired Mulvaney. It’s not that Republicans are ever going to go, “Oh, actually, the press is totally fair now.” No, and why would they? Why not keep pushing for more favorable coverage under the guise of a demand for “neutrality”? Why not test the limits of how far respectable news organizations will go to curry favor with their party?
News outlets that preserve access as CBS News has are not only doing their industry a disservice, but they’re helping to accelerate their own credibility death spiral. And all of this is in exchange for what? A handful of interviews? A couple years of access? At a certain point, these outlets will need to worry about what happens when the general public no longer trusts them. There will always be an outlet further to the right, always an outlet more willing to regurgitate right-wing propaganda.
On December 17, 2020, right-wing news outlet Newsmax tweeted, “Electoral college confirms Biden’s win while Trump still fighting the results.” Despite this admission coming weeks after reputable outlets were willing to acknowledge that Biden was the president-elect, and despite the tweet hardly reading as an endorsement of Biden, Newsmax viewers were outraged. Immediately, the outlet’s followers began turning on them, accusing them of “showing their true colors,” that they “sold out,” tweeting that Newsmax had been “added to the naughty list,” and writing that they were “losing your new subscribers quickly acting like Fox News now” (many on the far-right had decided that Fox was no longer sufficiently to the right following the channel’s acknowledgment that Biden won). This is the credibility death spiral. There’s no escaping it, and mainstream outlets would do well to avoid falling into this trap.
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