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TV News Needs to Do Better in Covering the Far Right and Its Apologists

On Sunday’s shows, a disappointing parade of spin and false equivalence.

October 29, 2018

I was a talking head on network television for nearly two decades, and I know a little something about booking guests. I can tell you that, in the wake of Saturday’s massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue, there is no excuse for the dubious choices network and cable hosts and producers keep making by inviting onto their shows white supremacists or their apologists in public office. All it would take would be a measure of journalistic courage, and a lot less institutional laziness, and the American people would be spared the worthless parade of cynical spin we got this past Sunday.

On a day the network needed brutal honesty to confront the anti-Semitism in our midst, we got instead the same old kabuki dance from the same old guests asked the same old questions by their hosts. If ever there were a time for journalists to alter their tired old ways of doing things, of ending the days of false equivalence and the pretense that invited political guests come onto television to opine in good faith, now is it. We live today in an age when racists have been emboldened to speak and act out their age-old bigotry against the Jewish people under an administration that, with a wink and a nod, pretends to decry anti-Semitism while at the same time bashing Jews through code words like “globalism.”

Television news has to do better. For example, Americans have heard enough already from Erick Erickson, a conservative conspiratorialist who cleans up well on Sunday. He should not have been invited onto “Meet the Press” yesterday. And, once he was, he should have been challenged, not coddled, by host Chuck Todd for his despicable views about the origins and support for the group of migrants making their way north from Central America to seek asylum from violence in their native lands. Just days after tweeting that it’s “not a coincidence” that the caravan is coming two weeks before the election, Erickson told Todd that conservatives have to abandon conspiracy theories when confronted by facts. Erickson isn’t some smart voice suggesting solutions. He’s part of the problem. 

It’s not complicated. We all know what and who Erickson is, just as we all know what and who all the other dividers are. The time for them to get free airtime is over. Sunday was a day to devote that airtime to honest chronicles of racism and anti-Semitism. To paraphrase Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and great writer who would have been mortified but not surprised by the mainstreaming of anti-Semitism in his adopted land, this place, the nation’s airwaves, is not the place now for men like Erickson or others who circulate and then give cover to dark political instincts.

There also should no longer be a place on mainstream television, or in a major political party for that matter, for Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican, whose intensifying embrace of anti-Semitic tropes and neo-Nazism has burgeoned since Donald Trump was elected. Only last week King said he wanted to hear the “Polish perspective” on Auschwitz, in addition to the “Jewish perspective,” the implication being there are two sides to the story of the Holocaust. Over the weekend, he acknowledged that members of a neo-Nazi party in Austria would be members of the Republican party if those folks lived here. To amplify his views on national news is not to present some sort of studious objectivity. It is not an ode to balanced journalism. It is instead a means to cleanse the use of racism by a vessel of white resentment. This is true even if King still has solid Republican support in his home district.

Over at CBS News, my old network, John Dickerson, the host of “Face the Nation,” fared just as badly Sunday. He invited onto his show Sen. James Lankford, the Oklahoma Republican who just last week pushed the unfounded and destructive theory that the migrant caravan heading north from Central America has been “infiltrated” by Middle Eastern terrorists. But Dickerson didn’t ask Lankford about his own conspiracy theory about the caravan and the migrants. Or press him on President Trump’s attacks on George Soros. Instead, Dickerson called those attacks “the case the President has been making” as though there were any evidence supporting such a case.* And when Lankford said the problem of domestic terrorism is that it’s hard for law enforcement to spot white supremacist terrorists in America, Dickerson didn’t note that the Trump administration, endorsed by congressional Republicans, has decreased funding to identify and fight right-wing extremism even as its danger here increases.

That’s just not acceptable as journalistic practice. Nor was Dickerson’s soft-touch approach to an interview with outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who has enabled President Trump’s worst excesses at almost every step of the way. Dickerson asked Ryan about tribalism and then allowed the lawmaker to make the patently absurd assertion that the president can be a unifier. The host never asked Ryan about the role the speaker’s super PAC is playing in fostering tribalism this campaign season. America doesn’t need to hear any more from Paul Ryan on his way out the door. He’s done enough damage.

The story Sunday morning was obvious; two sides of the same coin. First, how the modern Republican party has embraced racism, white supremacy, and anti-semitism in such a consistent and relentless way as to encourage men like the Pittsburgh shooter, or the pipe bomber arrested Friday, to come out from the shadows. The other story Sunday was the way in which some GOP lawmakers were scrambling to scrub their social media profiles of odious links to far-right causes and personalities so they wouldn’t have to answer fully for their embrace of the hate that comes from those sourcesLankford wasn’t going to shed light on any of that. Neither was Erick Erickson.

In planning the Sunday shows each week, earnest hosts and producers are supposed to meet to discuss how best to cover the most significant news of the week with the most informed and connected guests. What happens in practice, especially when news breaks on a Saturday or early Sunday, is that hosts and guests scramble to book the most convenient guests they can track down. Guests they know will show up sober and ready to spin. Guests they’ve had on before. Guests they know from cocktail parties or book events in Washington. Guests who bring a helping of false equivalence with them along with a morning coffee. Guests who get to filibuster through their answers because their hosts don’t want to offend or undermine the “access” they get, or don’t want to jeopardize their chances of the “get” the next time a Sunday invitation is made.

Bringing Erick Erickson on television Sunday was not journalism. Bringing Lankford and then not asking the right questions was not journalism. Far too often, and we saw it in full Sunday, these shows are propaganda opportunities disguised as journalism. That wasn’t good enough in simpler times, when authoritarianism wasn’t on the march all over the world and the president wasn’t adopting dishonesty as a media strategy. And it clearly isn’t good enough now.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

*This sentence has been clarified from an earlier version.

(Image: Jeff Swensen/Getty)