How the Trump Era Broke the Sunday-Morning News Show

How the Trump Era Broke the Sunday-Morning News Show

02/11/2021

On the Sunday after Joe Biden’s inauguration, Rand Paul appeared on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” to make baseless claims of election fraud and to lecture the host on how to do his job. “Hey, George, George, George!” the Republican senator from Kentucky sputtered at Stephanopoulos, who had repeatedly tried — and failed — to get Paul to acknowledge that Biden had not “stolen” November’s election. “Where you make a mistake,” Paul continued, “is that people coming from the liberal side like you, you immediately say everything’s a lie instead of saying there are two sides to everything. Historically what would happen is if I said that I thought that there was fraud, you would interview someone else who said there wasn’t. But now you insert yourself in the middle and say that the absolute fact is that everything that I’m saying is a lie.”

Paul was not necessarily wrong in his criticism. Ever since Tim Russert became the host of NBC’s “Meet the Press” in 1991 and began subjecting Democrats and Republicans to his “tough but fair” questions, the contemporary Sunday-​morning public-affairs show anchors have cast themselves as facilitators of a point-counterpoint format. “It’s not my job to express my opinions,” Stephanopoulos told The Hartford Courant upon being handed the reins of “This Week” in 2002. “It’s my job to ask the right questions, to make sure that people learn something from the program, to present all sides of the story and let people make up their own minds.”

But nearly two decades later, Stephanopoulos’s approach was untenable. “Senator Paul, let me begin with a threshold question for you,” he said at the interview’s outset. “This election was not stolen, do you accept that fact?” Paul dodged the question to claim that there were “people who voted twice” and “dead people who voted” and “illegal aliens who voted.” Stephanopoulos repeated, “Can’t you just say the words ‘The election was not stolen’?” Paul could not; instead he gave Stephanopoulos his history lesson about Sunday shows. “You’re forgetting who you are as a journalist if you think there’s only one side,” Paul taunted.

The interview was barely an hour old before Paul posted a link on Twitter. “Partisan Democrats in the media think they can get away with just calling Republicans liars because they don’t agree with us,” he wrote. “Watch me stand up to one here.” Three days later, The Federalist ran a story headlined: “Rand Paul’s Cage Match With George Stephanopoulos Is a Pattern Everyone on the Right Should Follow.”

The Donald Trump years have broken any number of hallowed political and media institutions, so why should the most hallowed political-media institution of them all, the Sunday show, escape unscathed? Yes, those self-important shows with their self-important anchors have never been as crucial to our constitutional system as they like to imagine. But they have at least provided a refuge from the soft-focused fecklessness of the networks’ evening news and the shrieking of the prime-time carnival barkers on cable.

That changed during Trump’s presidency. In some instances, the shows were less about educating the viewing audience than flattering an audience of one. “The reality is that the president is a political genius,” Stephen Miller told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union” during a contentious interview in 2018. “I’m sure he’s watching and is happy you said that,” Tapper told Miller. (Trump soon tweeted a link to the segment, praising Miller.)

Even worse, the shows became platforms for disinformation. In October 2019, Chuck Todd invited Ron Johnson, a Republican senator from Wisconsin, on “Meet the Press” to discuss the revelation that Trump had withheld military aid to Ukraine unless the country’s president agreed to investigate the business dealings of Hunter Biden. Johnson previously told The Wall Street Journal that he “winced” when he learned those two issues were connected. But when Todd asked about that report — “What made you wince?” — Johnson launched into a conspiracy theory about the origins of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. “I have no idea why we’re going here,” Todd complained.

Two months later, Ted Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas, reached out to “Meet the Press” to discuss the Ukraine scandal. As Todd later told Rolling Stone, he assumed that Cruz, an avowed Russia hawk, wanted to push back against a Russian disinformation campaign. But when Todd asked Cruz whether he thought Ukraine tried to sway the 2016 elections, Cruz replied, “I do.” “You do?” Todd asked in disbelief. “Here’s the game the media is playing,” Cruz said. “Because Russia interfered, the media pretends nobody else did.” Looking back on the interview, Todd told Rolling Stone: “He wants to use this for some sort of appeasement of the right. I didn’t know what else to think.”

Todd appears to have done a good deal of thinking about the plight of the Sunday show. In 2018, he wrote a cri de coeur for The Atlantic about “a nearly 50-year campaign to delegitimize the press,” imploring his colleagues to fight back: “It means not allowing ourselves to be spun, and not giving guests or sources a platform to spin our readers and viewers, even if that angers them.” A few months later, Todd hosted an episode of “Meet the Press” dedicated to climate change and made a point of not inviting any climate-change deniers.

But should climate denialism be the only verboten point of view on Sunday shows? Last month, more than three dozen progressive groups wrote an open letter to members of the media calling on them to interview only those elected officials who “publicly concede that the 2020 presidential election was free and fair, and that claims to the contrary are false.” In other words, the groups wanted journalists to give Republicans who lie about election fraud the same treatment Twitter and Facebook gave Trump: deplatforming them.

It’s hard to imagine, however, the Sunday shows ever taking such a step. There are, of course, the financial incentives: The trade associations and defense contractors that sponsor the Sunday shows presumably expect bipartisan bang for their advertising bucks. But the bigger impediment is the shows’ self-conception. If “This Week” and “Meet the Press” were to deplatform Republicans who won’t acknowledge, without caveats, that Biden won, then their guests would consist almost entirely of Democrats — and the Sunday shows would resemble prime-time programs on MSNBC and CNN. No self-respecting Sunday show wants that.

In January, Todd beseeched what he called “sober-minded” Republicans to appear on his show. “Stop helping to reinforce the incorrect notion that the mainstream news media isn’t interested in your side of the debate,” he wrote in Politico.

In the meantime, the Sunday shows are making do with those Republicans who will show up. Earlier that same month, Todd again hosted Ron Johnson, who again used the opportunity to spew nonsense, boasting about a recent hearing he had held to look into allegations of voter fraud. “The fact of the matter is that we have an unsustainable state of affairs in this country where we have tens of millions of people that do not view this election result as legitimate,” Johnson said at one point.

“Then why don’t you hold hearings about the 9/11 truthers?” Todd asked. “How about the moon landing? Are you going to hold hearings on that?”

It was a good line, and Todd seemed pleased with himself. It did not occur to Todd, however, that the same question could be asked of him. If “Meet the Press” is going to have guests like Johnson, why doesn’t it host 9/11 truthers and moon-landing conspiracists as well?

Source photographs by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images; Andrew Toth/FilmMagic, via Getty Images.

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