The president’s nightly coronavirus task force briefings are increasingly coming to resemble campaign rallies without the crowds: excuses for Donald Trump to showboat in front of TV cameras, praise his own managerial brilliance, and gratuitously insult reporters. So why are they still being taken seriously by cable news? Veteran broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien joins Mehdi Hasan to discuss whether the media is repeating the mistakes of 2016.
Soledad O’Brien: If you’re both running a Chiron that says “Hey, this is propaganda” but also running the propaganda, that’s a basic fail. You clearly understand that this is bad information. Why would you possibly air it?
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Mehdi Hasan, coming to you, still, from my home, as the coronavirus lockdown here in the DC Metro area continues. On today’s show:
SO: White House correspondents are frequently just unable to break out of the mold that they’re in. They can’t think about “How could we do this differently”?
MH: That’s my guest, the award-winning journalist, former news anchor and now Twitter star Soledad O’Brien, who like me, thinks the U.S. media have really dropped the ball when it comes to the Trump administration in general, and this mismanaged coronavirus crisis in particular.
So, in this election year of all years, is there a way to help make media coverage of this uniquely awful president any better? Or is it just too late?
The only thing perhaps more depressing and more frustrating than getting the daily U.S. death toll from the coronavirus, which is now at around two thousand deaths a day, is watching the man most responsible for those deaths praise himself on live television every evening:
Donald J. Trump: Everybody’s amazed at the job we’re doing… And you have doctors saying that we’ve done an incredible job… The governors are very thankful. They know we’ve done a great job, not a good job, a great job… People can’t even believe the job we’ve done. They can’t even believe it.
MH: Yes, the Trump coronavirus White House press briefing, which is less of a press briefing and more of a campaign rally, at which he blusters and bloviates and mugs for the cameras. At which he plays to his MAGA base and, as he did on Monday night, just runs clips straight off of Sean Hannity’s Fox New show — at an official, supposedly nonpartisan, taxpayer-funded government briefing about a public health crisis.
But we know from reporting by the New York Times and others that Trump misses doing his regular rallies in front of his adoring fans and the live TV cameras and so he sees these briefings not as a way of educating or informing the public, or holding himself accountable, but to quote one of his associates speaking to the Times just last week, to regain his “swagger” and to “rewrite the history of the past several months.”
Perhaps the number one way these ‘briefings’ resemble one of his campaign rallies is that he spends most of his time viciously attacking the reporters who turn up to them:
Peter Alexander: What do you say to Americans watching you right now who are scared?
DJT: I’d say that you’re a terrible reporter. That’s what I say.
DJT: Be nice. Don’t be threatening.
Yamiche Alcindor: Mr. President, my question is —
DJT: Don’t be threatening. Be nice.
DJT: You’re a third-rate reporter and what you just said is a disgrace, okay. The same with NBC and Con-cast, — I don’t call it Comcast, I call it Con-cast.
DJT: And you should say “Congratulations, great job” instead of being so horrid in the way you ask a question.
Kaitlin Collins: You said “When someone is president of the United States, their authority is total.” Who told you the president has total authority?
DJT: Enough, please.
MH: In recent days, there does seem to be a sense, finally, from some White House reporters that they need to push back harder against the bully at the bully pulpit. Here’s Paula Reid of CBS on Monday evening doing, credit to her, just that:
Paula Reid: The argument is that you bought yourself some time and you didn’t use it to prepare hospitals, you didn’t use it to ramp up testing —
DJT: You’re so disgraceful. It’s so disgraceful the way you say that.
PR: But what did you do with the time that you bought? The month of February —
DJT: What do you do when you have no case in the whole United States —
PR: You had cases in February.
DJT: Excuse me, you reported it. You know you’re a fake. You know that your whole network, the way you cover it is fake.
MH: So, as I asked on Twitter recently, given Trump’s non-stop attacks on the press, why do reporters turn up every day for this joke of a briefing? Why do they play their role as props for him, as punching bags for this president?
There’s a school of thought that says: well, what the president says is news, and news is what the president says. Therefore you have to go to these briefings. You have to take them seriously as news events. There’s another school of thought — perhaps best exemplified by Jay Rosen, the media critic and professor in New. York — that you should not get sucked into these calculated distractions by Trump and Co., that you don’t waste time sending your best journalists to these briefings. You watch them at home on CSPAN and instead you dig deep into what the Trump administration is doing, or failing to do — the chaos on the frontlines, the lack of PPE, the failure to test, and the rest.
Now, personally, I’m torn, I see merits in both of those arguments, in both of those schools of thought. And look, if everyone in that briefing could be like Paula Reid of CBS was on Monday evening, if they could all do that, every day, make Trump lose his shit, make sure viewers are seeing that this emperor has no clothes on, then yeah, maybe there’d be a case for going and participating regularly. But we know most of those reporters are just not up to it, are just not willing to go there. Whether it’s the deferential media culture in this country, whether it’s the need for access, whether it’s the fear of not looking ‘neutral’ enough — who knows?
People often ask me what I’d ask if I was in that briefing room and I was able to put a question direct to Trump on live TV, and the answer is 1) “Mr. President, given almost everything you say from that podium every day turns out not to be true, not to be accurate, not to be correct, why should anyone at this point believe a damn word that you say?” And Number 2) “Mr President, what’s your response to the President of Wakanda who has criticized your handling of this coronavirus crisis?” Because you know he’d go off on T’Challa, don’t you? So, one question to expose his dishonesty, one question to expose his ignorance. I think that’s only fair, right?
Look, whether or not you think these reporters should go to the briefing or not, there is no case, however, none, for news networks airing these so-called briefings, airing his propaganda, his misinformation, his party political attacks on the Democrats, his ridiculous and dangerous attacks on the media, live, in real time: un-factchecked, un-filtered, un-interrupted. Especially in an election year where he gets to suck up all the media oxygen, again! And the opposition party has no equivalent airtime. By the way, why aren’t the Democrats doing a daily briefing of their own, offering actual scientific information and rebutting Trump’s lies every night? Why don’t they do that? I guess the Democrats’ desire to always be their own worst enemy is a bigger topic for another show.
But back to the media: Regular listeners of this podcast, and regular readers of my Intercept column, will know by now that I think the U.S. media is awful, awful when it comes to holding the powerful to account, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. They don’t do tough interviews and when it comes to Trump in particular, they’ve normalized an abnormal president with their tolerance for his lies and his everyday craziness, and their ‘both sides’ coverage of a fascist in the Oval Office.
Back at the end of 2018 I went on Seth Meyers’ Late Night show on NBC and pointed out what I thought was wrong with the whole media culture in this country, especially compared to the way other countries approach their elected leaders:
Seth Meyers: What are the differences that you’ve seen in how the UK press and the US press deals with power?
MH: It’s a very good question and I think you guys — Definitely, there’s a cultural issue. You guys had your revolution, war of independence, you kicked the Brits out. And yet, weirdly you’re more differential to power, I would argue than we are. The president walks into the East Room of the White House and the White House press corps stands up which I find weird. British journalists for all their sins would not stand up if the Prime Minister comes into the room. They’d be lucky to even pay attention sometimes.
You guys have this thing where it’s kind of Banana Republic-esque where you allow your politicians to have their job titles for life. So remember in 2012, it was Governor Romney, Governor Romney. Governor of what? His backyard? He hadn’t been governor of Massachusetts for five years. Secretary Albright, Secretary Clinton, Mayor Giuliani, Ambassador Bolton, if anyone here lost their job, they wouldn’t get to keep the title the next day. Why do you do that? Why do you do that with your politicians? It’s weird. I just don’t get it.
MH: That was December 2018. But things have only gotten worse since then. As we fast approach another presidential election, with Donald Trump’s name on the ballot, this time as the sitting president, you have journalists dropping the ball day after day, normalizing this president again and again, hiding behind euphemisms and both sides rhetoric; refusing to call him racist when he says racist things, refusing to call him a liar when he’s lying to them, refusing to call him insane when he’s having insane meltdowns in front of our eyes on an almost daily basis. There’s always this weird, naive, child-like desire to give him another chance, to pretend he isn’t the thin-skinned, maniacal, fraudulent con man that he so clearly is and always will be.
So just during this coronavirus crisis alone, you had reporters falling over themselves to announce a “new tone” from the president, you had Dana Bash of CNN say:
Dana Bash: This was remarkable from the president of the United States. This is a non-partisan, this is an important thing to note and to applaud from an American standpoint, from a human standpoint. He is being the kind of leader that people need at least in tone, today and yesterday.
MH: Within hours of that, the president was back to being his crazy, partisan self. Surprise! You had her fellow CNN reporter Jim Acosta, who’s normally pretty good on Trump, say this:
Jim Acosta: This was a different Donald Trump tonight. I think he gets it.
MH: Again, within hours of that, the president was back to making clear he doesn’t get it and hasn’t changed. Won’t change! Fool me once, shame on you, fool me all the time shame on fricking me.
But maybe they’re not being fooled. Maybe they know what they’re doing and agreeing to. Jonathan Karl of ABC News who you heard earlier getting personally attacked by the president the other day:
DJT: See, there’s a typical fake news deal.
Jonathan Karl: You asked me when he was appointed. I told you when he was appointed by you.
DJT: You’re a third rate reporter and what you just said is a disgrace, okay.
MH: When he was recently asked about the president’s attacks on him, he just blithely accepted them. Karl said, and I quote: “We shouldn’t take offense. I don’t think he even means it. So you have to constantly remind yourself it doesn’t matter.” What? What? Are you kidding me? Is he a White House correspondent for a major news network or is he suffering from battered spouse syndrome?
I’m sorry it’s because of reporters like this, it’s because of a cowardly, deferential, spineless media mindset like this, that Donald Trump is president today and maybe president again, come next January.
MH: My guest today spent more than three decades working for NBC, MSNBC and, most famously, for CNN. She’s an award-winning iconic former news anchor who even played herself in Batman vs. Superman and she’s currently the head of her own media production company and host of the syndicated talk show Matter of Fact.
But the reason I’m most delighted to be joined by Soledad O’Brien today is because she has become, especially on Twitter, one of the most blunt, ferocious and much-needed critics of the U.S. media. In particular, the U.S. media’s failure to properly hold this kakistocratic Trump administration to account. And she joins me now.
Soledad thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
SO: The pleasure is mine. Thank you for having me.
MH: Let’s just cut to the chase, get to the point on one of the big media debates we’re having right now. Should cable news be airing these often two hour long press briefings or campaign rallies as they more are from the White House live every night? Where do you stand on that debate?
SO: It’s a pretty simple answer. And the answer is no, not live. Yes, the content should be available somewhere. But I think when they’re carried live, and people are unable to provide any context for what everyone I think would admit is an almost two hour long slew of misinformation and disinformation and just often just full on crazy, crazy. I don’t know that you can be a network whose job is to inform people with factual information and then say, “Well, you know, this two hour long rant, but now we have to do a fact check and give context to everything.” I think that’s hugely problematic. So I would say absolutely not, not live. Definitely that content should be available. And certainly, you know, you can take chunks of what the president has said and give them context and framing and accuracy and challenge them. Otherwise, it’s just purely propaganda, I think.
MH: One of the things you called out on Twitter recently was all these CNN Chirons on Monday evening that were bluntly calling out Trump for dishing out propaganda for rewriting history. And CNN were getting praised for saying this stuff on screen in the text at the bottom of the screen. And you said, “Well, why are you airing them then?”
SO: Well, exactly. And I mean, I think if you’re both running a Chiron that says, “Hey, this is propaganda,” but also running the propaganda like that’s a basic fail.
MH: Yeah, you’re complicit in it.
SO: And it actually is an indication that everybody understands it’s propaganda, but there’s an entertainment value to it. And so they’re gonna run these Chirons and kind of elevate the drama if you will of the moment because it almost looks like the Chiron guy is fighting with what the president is saying versus you clearly understand that this is bad information, why would you possibly air it? Why would you do that?
MH: You and I have been critical of some of the reporters who cover the president on a daily basis, White House correspondents. Do you think we’re seeing any kind of improvements in recent weeks as a result of this crisis, at least in terms of questioning? Paula Reid of CBS News on Monday evening, got a lot of plaudits for persisting with some pretty pointed questioning of the President. Others from PBS, from CNN have gotten under Trump’s skin on more than one occasion in recent weeks. Are we seeing a change or no?
SO: I don’t exactly know. Sort of, right, I mean, it was only how many days ago that people were telling us about the changed tone.
MH: Yes, the new tone.
SO: Jay Rosen predicted it, remember he’s like “And countdown to the changed tone of the president.” And that was not six months ago. That was I think, last week, so if you’re asking in the macro, no, I don’t think there’s been some huge shift. I think you have some individual reporters. I thought Paula Reid did a great job. Yamiche has done a fantastic job for PBS. Brian Karem is very aggressive. And there’s a handful of people who’ve done a really good job jumping in, but it’s a handful. And it’s not particularly consistent.
MH: It’s the exception, not the rule.
SO: Yeah, well, I think the fact that we’re applauding them is an indication that every so often it pops up. I mean, it’s not consistent. And so I think that’s hugely problematic, because what is consistent is, listen, COVID-19 is the great equalizer. It is not. The President has a new tone today. He became presidential. If he could just, you know, harness this moment, he’ll be able to x, y, and z.
MH: It’s even people like Jim Acosta, who’s been very good in criticizing the president and calling out his lies in real time. Even Jim Acosta goes on there and says he finally gets it tonight, which he didn’t get it of course. He hasn’t gotten it.
SO: I think because there’s a lot of wishful thinking and I think for White House correspondents, there’s a dream of a narrative, right, which is — and I see this all the time — which is something was said and that person learned their lesson over time. It’s sort of the Susan Collins-ization, right, this idea of like, this thing happened, forces were acted upon this person and this person because in their heart, ultimately, they could learn and change their ways, right. And I think for Jim Acosta, who’s a very solid reporter, and who always has been — I’ve known him for a long time. I think he’s wishful and The Wall Street Journal reporters, you know, are wishful and they really do just wish and hope that this thing is going to happen. And when you watch the State of the Union and when Van Jones said a million years ago, tonight’s the night he became presidential, it was this idea of, that there’s a hope, that he’ll get it.
MH: And things will go back to normal. The irony is people think that reporters are loving this moment. In fact, I’m sure most of these correspondents would love to get back to an old state of affairs where everyone just got along and there was a kind of, you know, rules of the game that everyone followed and they didn’t have to do this.
SO: Sort of, right? The chaos is an interesting story. And the White House correspondents are in the middle of it. And so one of the reasons —
MH: But they don’t like being the story. I think that’s very clear. They don’t, they wish they didn’t have to call things out.
SO: I don’t know. I think that’s how you make your career honestly, right.
MH: Well then more of them would be doing it. I mean, if that was the case, I wish more of them would do it then because they’re not.
SO: No, I think they like — Listen, Mehdi, having their, like to talk about how the president dissed them, right. I mean, it does elevate you to be in some kind of a conflictual sort of kind of, relationship sometimes. It does and if you’ve ever been to the White House Correspondents Dinner or you’ve been to the White House Christmas party, right, there is a real joy in being able for the White House Correspondents — and for me too. I went one year — be able to walk around and be like, wow, this is a celebration of me. It’s one of the reasons I stopped going to the White House Correspondents Dinner, because I just thought like, this is weird. It shouldn’t be that challenging the president is kind of a punchline of a thing. It’s why I think the White House Correspondents Association sucks in so many, many ways. It’s just bad, right? And then they invite boldface names, who are kind of in the media for salacious reasons frequently. It’s just become a real hot mess.
MH: And then when someone like Michelle Wolf actually speaks truth to power, they throw her under the bus, not the White House.
SO: And very quickly are able to say things like it’s amazing how lies will roll off someone’s tongue, somebody who’s been hesitant to write the word lies in their column suddenly finds their voice to be able to say, you know, this is what happened, this is my take on it.
MH: And ironically, the Sarah Sanders — That was a great, that was a moment for me, a real defining moment that dinner where they just threw the comedian under the bus and took the side of Sarah Sanders who slams them every day. And even when she had her leaving do last year, they all had a party for her, White House Correspondents all attended a leaving party for a woman who has done more to kind of smear them and demonize them than any other person, aside from Donald Trump perhaps.
SO: Right, which makes me then say I don’t think that they really truly believe that their organization has been maligned. Politico, actually a reporter from Politico, I can’t remember her name. She was relatively new for Politico. She was the one who was pulling together the going away shindig right for someone who has undermined you. And listen, I think it’s perfectly fine to say listen, good luck on your next thing, bye, but this is a person who has literally undermined what you do for the American people day in and day out. It seems bizarre, but of course, it’s not.
MH: Robert Mueller documented her lies to the press in his report. And the day after the presidential election in November 2016, David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker wrote a piece warning that the media, the commentariat would try and “normalize” this deeply abnormal president his win, his presidency. They have, haven’t they? It’s been normalization all the way.
SO: Constantly, listen, when you say, “I think he’s going to turn around or I think he gets it or today’s the day he became president or you know, a new somber tone,” it’s not a new somber tone. And it is so insane to me how and it really is an indication of sort of this privilege of being able to have people just give you chance after chance after chance with no evidence at all, that you actually, you know, go back and forth between a somber tone or that there’s any sort of — There’s no indication that the president really even understands to a large degree, what he’s doing. So I don’t know how you can imbue him with the sense of today, he’s got a somber tone, it’s just silly. But it happens so frequently, that I don’t know I begin to just get frustrated with my own criticism because it’s like, oh, my God, I’m shouting into the wind again today about bullshit.
MH: It’s the same, the same. People say how many times are you going to point that out?
Because it has to be pointed out. I wish I didn’t have to point out the obvious. And as you point out, you know, this is a president who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Even if you put aside his mental state just in terms of his knowledge of the job or the real world around him. Daniel Dale of CNN, who used to be with a Canadian newspaper often points out and he said it on this show a while back before he joined CNN, that why don’t reporters just ask him a factual question. You know, he doesn’t actually know anything. Why not ask a question that reveals that rather than ask him opinion questions —
SO: Imagine if you said, “Well, where is Ukraine? Point to it on the map.” I mean, no one ever does. It is amazing to me. So I do —
MH: Which is what Mike Pompeo tried to do to an NPR reporter, of course, maybe he should do it with his boss.
SO: Right, I really do think that the White House Correspondents have done a poor job and listen, the assessment will be that they did a poor job. But I think there was an assessment that post-2016, the political reporters did a bad job in many ways, and there’s no hell to pay. There’s no, you know, here’s what it does. It helps elevate your name recognition so you can sell your book. Everybody has written a book about President Trump, right? You’re like, if you spent more time working on your lame-ass questions, and less time working on your book about your experiences, you know, Trump is so nice to me says Jon Carl, you know in person and then when we get into these things. Like, okay, then learn your lesson.
MH: Yes, that’s the problem.
MH: They haven’t learned their lesson is the problem and that’s what’s worrying as November approaches.
SO: But there’s no incentive to, right? So when people don’t learn their lesson, you have to say, “Well, one, is everybody stupid?” No, they’re not. They’re very, very bright, talented people. So then, part of it is there’s no incentive to learn the lesson. And what is the lesson? The lesson is more face time, the lesson is you become well-known. The lesson is you get to have a reputation. I mean, would you know about any of the White House Correspondents in the middle of a very boring year about you know, transportation week? You would not. You would not. So in many cases people are making their names on the chaos.
MH: I totally agree with every word you just said. But I would just add to it and say I think it’s even worse than that because there is the kind of cynical making of names and then there is the broader culture, which just accepts all of this as normal, which accepts the rules of the game that don’t apply at a time like this. You look at the New York Times as a whole from its editor in chief downwards and their coverage of this president. I mean, you have some excellent reporting, investigative journalism for the New York Times that has genuinely informed and educated us. For example, last week, their big piece showing how Trump dropped the ball at every stage of this coronavirus crisis, very good article —
SO: Yes, very well reported and fascinating.
MH: Yes, and then on the other hand, you have New York Times reporters who then write pieces about Trump in real time which basically euphemize his, you know, use euphemisms to cover up the fact that he’s said he doesn’t know what he’s doing. So, you know, for example, on Monday evening, after Trump ran that propaganda video pulled off of Fox News at the start of his briefing, after he had his meltdown with Paula Reid of CBS and with Kaitlan Collins of CNN, he ranted, he raved. I just want to read out to you what the New York Times wrote in their report on that briefing on Tuesday morning: “President Trump turned Monday’s daily task force briefing into an aggressive defense of his own halting response and used a campaign-style video to denounce criticism. For nearly an hour Mr. Trump vented his frustration.” That’s normalizing on a level I’ve never seen. Anyone who watched that, in real time would not recognize that description of the event.
SO: This is where I think the New York Times has just failed and failed and failed while doing some really remarkable reporting. They literally cannot bring themselves to capture the actual tone of what’s happening. Because if you read that, and you didn’t listen to the press conference — and sometimes it’s a press conference where no press asks any questions, so it’s not really a press conference — then you’d say, “Well, that’s not what I watched. What I watched was unhinged and insane and crazy,” and they have failed and they consistently fail to do that. And this is the thing that I have found truly disappointing about the New York Times and I am, as I always tell them, a double subscriber. I get a copy to my office and a copy to my home. You know, they just really lack the ability for introspection, they don’t know, and occasionally they’ll answer you back on Twitter and it’s always, you know, back off, shush. You don’t know what you’re talking about. They just never say.
MH: Defensive to the point of arrogant.
SO: And listen, as a journalist, I’ve had a zillion people say they disagree with something I’ve done. And usually you’ll say, “Well, you know, here’s why I disagree with you or tell me why you think what I said was wrong.” But what they do is they just are so defensive. And it’s many of them, right? They circle the wagons. They criticize one, you suddenly find everybody —
MH: Soledad, you know this, one of the worst things that journalists can do, and you and I have been working in the media for a while, is to say, “Oh, I’m getting attacked from the left and the right, I must be doing something correct.”
SO: I must be straight down the middle.
MH: Yeah, it might just mean that you’re really bad.
SO: Exactly, it’s actually a sign that you suck and this particular thing was particularly bad. I mean, it’s true. And so it’s disappointing because there’s so many things in the New York Times that are fantastic. And then some days you’re like, “verifiably untrue” is a phrase that Maggie Haberman used. I’m like, what the hell is verifiably untrue?
MH: Oh, no, the euphemisms for lying are astonishing and for racism, racially tainted, racially tinged, racially coded, just say racist it’s fewer letters —
SO: And it’s a very good indication of who’s there, right? Whenever you read the New York Times and you read that you’re like wow, these are people who are not people of color for the most part. They don’t have a voice and a seat around the table for the most part. They’re not pushing back and challenging some of this very overt bullshit, and they cannot help themselves. And so, I mean, we already know the New York Times is not particularly diverse, but they just are not open to another point of view that says, “What does racially tinged mean?”
I mean, one of the things I liked best about being in newsrooms and that I miss actually because I’m not in a newsroom now, is this idea that you could argue a point and call people out, just say, I don’t know what that means. You know, I used to have a guy, great guy and he used to like to write “army regulars”. I’m like, what’s an “army regular”? Like, what does that mean? It’s not a phrase that anybody knows what you’re trying to say and our job is to communicate with people and they do the same thing and no one ever says racially tinged, what the actual hell is that? They can’t do it.
MH: I think they know that it’s a way of not saying racist and what’s interesting is it can be done. Just to finish off our briefing conversation, The Guardian, British newspaper, their White House correspondent opened his news report with these words of Monday night, “A toddler threw a self-pitying tantrum on live television on Monday night. Unfortunately, he was 73 years old, wearing a long red tie and running the world’s most powerful country.” Now, I don’t think any American paper would have ever allowed their White House correspondent to open a news story in that way, but it needs to be done. We’re not in normal times. Let me ask you this, Soledad, what would you say to a conservative who just laughs his head off at this idea that the liberal media is soft on Trump, who would say no way the media is full of hardcore liberals who are always attacking Trump?
SO: You know, honestly, if someone says that I just don’t really argue with people about that. I would just say I think you’re wrong. I mean, I don’t think engaging people on something where they’re clearly not there to have a thoughtful conversation about it because there’s tons of evidence to the contrary. I think, you know, there’s no point in having that discussion.
MH: But sadly, a lot of liberals believe that they will say defensively “No, no, the media is very anti-Trump. We’re actually too anti-Trump.”
SO: I think the journalists often are afraid of being called liberals. And I often will say to people, like, what does that mean? I don’t even know when you say like, what are you — Are you asking me am I for equal rights for human beings? Yes, I am. So I don’t know. Does that definition — I would have said that that’s, you know, and so I often think this idea of like liberal, conservative, what does that even mean about something? I know a range of people who don’t fall in, you know, easily in any category. And so I think I would just push back on what are we even talking about? Give me, define all these terms.
MH: You’re someone who spent more than two decades working at NBC and CNN as a reporter —
SO: Three decades, can you believe it? Oh my gosh.
MH: Three decades as a reporter and anchor, how did you become, recently there I put it, this outspoken, no holds barred, no holding back, mainstream media critic, especially on Twitter. I mean, you don’t spare anyone, whether it’s CNN, The Washington Post, even us at The Intercept.
SO: You know, I don’t really think of it as recent, partly social media has enabled us to have that conversation. And I think certainly under Trump, I felt like things had to be said that journalists, who would, by the way, text me and reach out to me behind the scenes, and lament what they had to do, but felt they had to keep their job and do it. So, I felt like well, I can do this because I’m self-employed. I run a production company and I have my opinions and I think Twitter is a very good platform for your opinions and mine are informed because I’ve been in the business 31 years. But when I was at CNN, for example, I often was the one in a meeting who would say I just disagree with this, and I had a decent amount of power. I was the anchor of a show. I ran the documentary division. You know, and so I think part of the obligation is to say like, yeah, I think that is a bad idea or oh, I think this is wrong. And sometimes you bite your lip and you suck it up and you do it but part of the value of a bunch of smart people around the table is that they challenge you, that they say, you know, Soledad, I think that idea is not very good. I think that’s been done.
MH: But today, Soledad, are you able to get away with what you get away with because you don’t care about access anymore or having to anchor that show or not having to worry about being a guest on Meet the Press or Morning Joe?
SO: Oh, 100% I mean, I think one thing that has been very clear is what the content that they’re creating is so uninteresting to me, and I have zero interest in. Being a guest is a pain in the ass. You have to put makeup on and drive into a place like it’s never been my dream. So, it’s just, I don’t have a dream to do that. And I’ve had friends who have texted me and said you know, “You’re so right but I’d like to be a guest on Meet the Press so I can’t say this.”
MH: Have you had texts from — You mentioned people who lamented the coverage and have privately said to you know, people still working within these organizations. I wonder do you have former colleagues reach out to you and say “Come on, Soledad, give us a break. We’re trying our best. Tone it down”?
MH: Oh, interesting.
SO: Never, I think people will say that to you on Twitter. I think the New York Times people will be like, I think you’re not being fair to whoever, you know, not being fair to. I much more frequently get someone who texts me or DMs me and says, “Oh, my God, you’re totally right about that. I’m just so embarrassed to be working here.”
MH: Who is the MSM, mainstream media journalist, print or broadcast who has disappointed you most, frustrated you most in this age of Trumpian misinformation?
SO: I don’t have one. I think some people do a great job sometimes and a poor job another time. I think part of the New York Times challenges are that I think Dean, the guy who’s the head of it, Dean Baquet does a bad job running his — You know, some of it is leadership, right? You can’t really blame the journalist and certainly some of the headlines are problematic, but they’re not technically the journalists’ fault.
MH: The headlines and the tweets are often worse than the pieces.
SO: Frequently, yes. But you know, I think that, I don’t really blame an individual because I think it’s a bigger systemic problem.
SO: Listen, the decisions that put stuff on the air on CNN are not the anchors’ decision. I mean, Brian Stelter sometimes will say, “Well, an executive producer there” — You know, let me promise you there is no EP who’s making the decision to take Trump or not. It is a decision that is being made at the very highest levels. It’s a huge decision. So there’s no person on the show who says, “You know what, here’s what I think my show will be.” They just don’t have that kind of autonomy. You can tell because you watch the shows. They’re told, and when I did a show, you know, here’s kind of who you can work with, here’s kind of who you’re thinking about booking and we’re gonna run it up the chain so that everybody knows.
MH: What’s the one thing — and you know, we haven’t had time to get into the whole corporate side of things. A lot of these are big corporations owning these companies that don’t want to rock the boat too much, either in terms of the wider economy or the wider politics, what’s the one thing that within the corporate constraints that we have, that media organizations you think could do to improve their coverage of politics of Trump right now in this election year? One thing you’d like to see change?
SO: You know, I think it’s almost a lack of imagination. It’s this idea of, you know, you could just think about it differently. And when you go into scenarios — What I always loved about covering breaking news usually overseas somewhere, is that a lot of stuff is failing, right? So the satellite doesn’t work, this doesn’t work. You can’t have that, that story fell apart, this thing, there’s no phone service, whatever. And you have to think on your feet. Like, we’re gonna have to tell the story this way. And it seems when people especially these White House Correspondents are frequently just unable to break out of the mold that they’re in. They can’t think about how could we do this differently?
An amazing thing about being in a great news organization, and I liked working for big companies. I really did. I loved direct deposit. I loved organizations that had money so you could go and report and we did a lot of great reporting and a lot is still being done. But you do need to push people to like we could do this differently. Let’s throw everything out the window and talk about how should we think about this strategy? And I don’t think that happens very frequently. I don’t think anybody’s saying, “Okay, this is a new day. What should, if anything is possible, how could we do this? When I worked early on at CNN, I remember, or even before that, even in local news, I remember you’d have like a Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard running for office, right? So that became, how do we cover a guy who’s in the KKK without giving him a giant platform to basically be a KKK member? How do we think about doing this? And a bunch of smart people getting around to strategize about how do we serve our audience —
MH: Which doesn’t seem to be happening now,
SO: — While still covering a story is really kind of would be a useful conversation. I don’t think that’s happening today.
MH: I worry that all the same mistakes of 2016 and then some are going to be made in 2020.
SO: Absolutely, listen, no one’s sorry. No one is sorry. No one. The only person who — There’s only one reporter from CNN who has, Toobin, Jeff Toobin, who said, I did a bad job covering Hillary Clinton’s emails. Nobody else. Nobody, not anyone from the New York Times. And I would love to know and I should go through this, who wrote the most? Who were the bylines? Who were the individuals? Like, that’s a really good question for them. Do you in the moment — I have stories I regret. I have things that I approached wrong and Hurricane Katrina, we took the police chief’s word for the number of dead. He was wrong. He was going through a traumatic incident himself like everybody else in the town was, in the city was so we were wrong. And we came back and talked about like, wow, how could we do this better the next time? No one has done that.
MH: You don’t even have to go back to 2016. We’ve had three and a half years of Trump given he’s lied to them so many times and they keep accepting his lies. It’s amazing that no White House correspondent stands up and says why should we believe a word you say, Mr. President? I would love to have one reporter say that even once in a briefing.
SO: It won’t happen and it won’t happen because they’ll lose the gig and it won’t happen because they’ll lose their seat.
MH: Let me ask you this on 2020 before we finish, one last thing, something you and I very much agree on is Trump’s awfulness and the media’s awful coverage of Trump. Something we very much disagree on is Bernie Sanders, you’ve been very hard on Bernie Sanders and on some of his online supporters. Let me ask you this: What did you make of his endorsement of Joe Biden this week?
SO: You know, I thought it was very gracious, maybe more gracious than he had to be. And I thought that it signaled that he understands that getting Trump out of office is the primary goal, and that if you divide the vote, you’re going to maybe hand the election to Trump so I thought it was an incredibly gracious statement that he made.
MH: And just from a media perspective, you have Joe Biden now as the presumptive Democratic nominee. One of the reasons why I always thought Bernie Sanders would be a better candidate to take on Trump than the rest of the Democrats is because Trump is going to suck all the oxygen out of the room media-wise this year and very few Democrats can match him on a national platform in terms of media coverage. I thought Bernie was one of the few. Do you think Joe Biden can match him in terms of media coverage and getting attention and dealing with some of these structural problems that you and I have discussed over the past half hour?
SO: Possibly, but I think, one, I think one of the things that I thought was really unhelpful about Bernie Sanders is that he had a lot of a similar angry tone, and a lot of his followers had a similar thing, like a sense of annoyance —
MH: About the media, you mean?
SO: In general, I mean, and I think people have a right of course, to be mad.
MH: Oh, yeah, there’s lots to be mad about.
SO: But I think it’s exhausting. Absolutely, I say that as I’m trapped in my bedroom.
MH: But just on Biden though, do you think Biden has what it takes to run a media campaign, knowing what you know about media coverage of presidential candidates and Trump and what we’ve discussed about Trump? Can Biden beat him at the media game? I worry.
SO: Yeah, you know, he probably can for two reasons. One, I think the media game of punching back is exhausting for people. So the media will play that game, but I actually think your suburban voter lady in wherever is exhausted by it, and if you look at some of the, you know — So I think that Biden’s tone is actually — he was not my candidate at all. But I think his tone is going to be fine because I don’t think people want the person who’s going to punch back. I think people are tired of the punching. I think people are tired, and they want compassion and they want generosity and they want that stuff, number one. And number two, I think the more airtime Trump gets and Adam Serwer wrote something about that this morning — I love him. He’s the greatest.
MH: He was on the show a couple of weeks ago. Very good. He’s very good.
SO: He’s amazing and one of the things that he said that I truly believed is this idea that like Trump signing all these checks is genius. I don’t know that that’s necessarily true. He said that he thought that it might not be true that you know, you end up sticking your name on a thing that people are angry about. People are frustrated about, like you, kind of own it now. And they’re not going to say “Oh my gosh, a $1,200 windfall. Oh, amazing.” They’re gonna say, “$1,200 dollars doesn’t come close to what I need. Oh my god, this is a crisis.” And you know, so I don’t know that the more, the only upside of these bizarre pressers has been, Trump is revealing himself to be nutty. Even if the New York Times doesn’t frame it that way, if you watch it, you think he has lost his shit completely.
MH: The problem is most people don’t watch it, they see the sanitized, compartmentalized versions on their local news or evening news and that’s the worry.
SO: Sure, yeah, possibly. So I don’t know. I don’t think giving him more airtime necessarily is always going to be helpful for him.
MH: Soledad, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for taking time out to join us on Deconstructed.
SO: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thank you.
MH: Take care of yourself.
SO: Take care, bye.
MH: That was Soledad O’Brien, host of Matter of Fact and former CNN News anchor. We need more high-profile voices like hers, people who have worked at the highest levels in the news media, but who are willing to call out media failures, willing to call out the horrifically weak coverage of this far-right, incompetent, corrupt, reckless administration, who aren’t willing to go along with the media’s normalization of the abnormal. The problem is, as she rightly points out, no top journalists today are willing to accept that they got it wrong in 2016, and that they’re getting it wrong again in 2020. Trump is a lucky guy — despite being the worst president in modern American history by a country mile, he has a good chance of getting re-elected and, sadly, he can partly thank the U.S. media for that. Oh, the irony.
That’s our show! Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps new people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks so much! Stay safe! Stay indoors! See you next week.