On Chuck Todd, Roger Ailes, and the Press

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A lot of people are reacting to Chuck Todd’s piece in The Atlantic (full disclosure: I know and like Chuck and appear occasionally on Meet the Press, including this coming week). It seems a lot of those commenting on his piece are reacting to the picture and subtitle about Roger Ailes than they are the substance of his piece and preferred solution.

When Roger Ailes hired me at Fox, he took me to dinner in New York and said I’d been put on his radar by some friends because I regularly defended Fox while at CNN. He said he wanted me at Fox because he did not like having people defending Fox at CNN. If there were no defenders of Fox at CNN, it was easier to make them appear unfair and liberal. Let’s not dismiss Chuck’s point on Roger Ailes off hand.

It was not that Roger wanted to make the press appear liberal, per se. He really believed they were and they were just using people like me to paper over their biases. By moving people like me to Fox, Roger believed he was exposing their biases.

And that’s one thing I think Chuck gets wrong in his piece. Roger didn’t want to build Fox as a marketing alternative that would cast doubt on other networks. He really believed the other networks were out to get the right and I think he more or less was right.

When I first got started in the media, I was recruited by MSNBC to blog the election in 2004. I remember election night in the newsroom. One of the producers was on the verge of tears that her sixteen year old daughter could be shipped off to fight George W. Bush’s war. I wish I were kidding. The atmosphere at MSNBC that night — before that network had made a conscious decision to go hard left in response to Fox — was of a funeral.

When I was at CNN, where I was for three years, I saw reporters doing what Chuck offers up as the solution — they tried to get it right. They did not always get it right and when they got it wrong, they gave Roger Ailes more ammunition to fire against them. CNN was and is a professional organization of professional reporters.

But I also have to tell you that more than once while I was at CNN I had producers stop me in the hallway and whisper that they loved RedState, where I was at the time. They knew not to say it very loudly. In three years at CNN, I can only remember two times where I was asked to come on and talk about a story that originated at a conservative publication. I lost count of the number of times I had stuff from leftwing outlets in the stack of stuff related to topics. I saw pieces from really great left of center journalistic enterprises like Talking Points Memo and the occasional well researched Mother Jones piece. But I also time and time again saw stuff from Daily Kos, FireDogLake, and other aggressive, left leaning activist sites. There’d be no comparable stuff from RedState, HotAir, Townhall, etc. even when those sites were doing original reporting on the subject and the others were not.

Conservatives believe in a left-leaning pervasive media bias not because Roger Ailes marketed it to them, but Roger Ailes marketed it to them because we already know it is true and he claimed to provide an alternative.

I cannot tell you the number of times I have made presentations to right-of-center groups showing them how many supposedly objective reporters left reporting to work for the Obama Administration or Democrat groups. In fact, I used to include Chuck in the presentation till I realized he had taken a job working for Tom Harkin’s Presidential campaign not because the guy was a Democrat, but because Chuck is a political nerd and wanted a job in politics. He wasn’t there long before he departed to prepare the daily Bible of American politics, the Hotline (still, as an aside, the gold standard in daily political newsletters).

One of the reporters who jumped ship to the Obama Administration was Shailagh Murray, who was a Wall Street Journal correspondent. She left to work for Joe Biden and then Barack Obama. Her husband, Neil King who also worked for the Journal, took issue with me when I pointed it out and suggested there may be some undisclosed biases that affected their reporting. He now works for Fusion GPS, the left-leaning oppo research firm that prepared the Christopher Steele dossier.

Then there was Linda Douglass of ABC News. She worked for ABC News when I was growing up. She jumped ship after a long media career to work for Obama selling Obamacare. Remember, she’s the one who wanted you to turn in your neighbors if they were lying about Obamacare. She went on to work for The Atlantic and is now at Bloomberg.

I have not even mentioned Jay Carney who left Time to be Obama’s White House press secretary. Or Jonathan Allen who left Politico for Debbie Wasserman Schultz then went back to Politico, then Bloomberg, then the left-leaning Vox, and is now at NBC.

Speaking of Vox, there’s Ezra Klein who started at leftwing blogs before being given a perch at the Washington Post before going to start the leftwing Vox that reporters often treat as more objective than it is.

And speaking of the Washington Post, they continue to allow Jennifer Rubin the veneer of being a conservative covering the right while she routinely assails conservative, the President, and more than half the positions she espoused when a Republican not named Trump held them.

The list really does go on and there is no reciprocal list on the right. Sure, there are a few people from Fox who joined the Bush Administration and even a few working for Trump — most notably Bill Shine who was Roger Ailes’ right hand man at Fox. But the list is far shorter and these right-of-center reporters are few and far between. I think any fair reading of media bias and Ailes’s attacks on the press need to acknowledge the American political press has made it very easy for the right to launch these attacks.

I think Chuck Todd makes some very sound points about the ruthlessness with which Fox News has gone after its competitors as biased while not acknowledging its own biases. But I think Fox has been able to do that because the other networks have been pretty biased.

Bias, of course, is often something you do not realize you have. But it is there. It is there in how the press covers the pro-life movement. It is there in how the press covers Christianity in America. It is there in how the press covers climate change. It is there in how the press covers the conservative movement.

Let me give you one more example. When I was at CNN and asked to come on to discuss pro-life issues, I always declined and recommended several women who are leaders in the pro-life movement. But overwhelmingly, those panels always descended into a pro-abortion woman vs. a pro-life man. The women I had recommended never got asked. There’s a real bias right there. There was a real life bias in the Washington Post treating the Kermit Gosnell horror story as a “local crime story” while treating Wendy Davis as a national sensation. The reporter who called Gosnell as “local crime story” is now at Vox, by the way.

Or let’s look at the hagiographic treatment of Beto O’Rourke who, through numerous profiles across journalistic institutions, made it by without ever a mention of his attempt to flee the scene of a head-on collision he caused while he was drunk.

It’d be easy to leave it at that, but we need to get to what Chuck got right and he got way more right than a lot of conservatives want to give him credit for.

First, yes, Fox absolutely has its own biases and has been way more blatant of late about being as much propaganda as it has news. Now, Fox puts on a lot of opinion shows and I think they are separate from their news shows. Fox has, on its news shows, typically required an actual conservative be on with an actual liberal, but that has started to falter a bit it seems. Likewise, Fox sometimes ropes its reporters into contributing snippets for the opinion shows and that muddies the water.

On Fox, Chuck writes:

It recently allowed a sitting state attorney general to co-host a show for three days. The network effectively gave a GOP candidate for Florida governor nearly unfettered access to its airwaves during his primary campaign, providing a more significant boost than any super pac can offer.

Yep. Conservatives need to acknowledge this is true and Fox has shaped fields of candidates by doing this. I have a hard time believing CNN would do the same, though I wonder about MSNBC at night. Chuck also writes of Fox, “It’s not an organization that emphasizes journalism.”

I was with Fox for five years and I don’t think I ever spoke to Chad Pergram or Mike Emanuel, who both cover Congress for Fox. Maybe I did, but I don’t remember. But in those five years, I spent a lot of time trading notes and having conversations with a multitude of reporters from CNN, NBC, ABC, and various newspapers about what was happening on the Hill. Fox really does downplay its actual reporters, with the exception of “Campaign Carl” Cameron who is no longer there. Fox spends less time in its news shows with reporters and way more time with split screens of pundits yelling at each other.

Then there is this:

Instead of attacking rivals, or assailing critics—going negative, in the parlance of political campaigns—reporters need to showcase and defend our reporting. Every day, we need to do our job, check our facts, strive to be transparent, and say what we’re seeing. That’s what I’ve tried to do here. I’ve seen a nearly 50-year campaign to delegitimize the press, and I’m saying so. For years, I didn’t say a word about this publicly, and at times I even caught myself drawing false equivalencies because I was afraid of being labeled as biased. I know that stating the obvious will draw attacks, but I’ve also learned that the louder critics bark, the more they care about what’s being reported.

I’m not advocating for a more activist press in the political sense, but for a more aggressive one. That means having a lower tolerance for talking points, and a greater willingness to speak plain truths. 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.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

The media would be far better off if it did that. It just must be careful to do it for all sides. Reporters need to be better devil’s advocates, arguing against each side, pushing and probing. The problem, more often than not, is that the press will be combative and tough with a Republican and not so much with a Democrat. Just go watch the multitudinous interviews Chris Cuomo has conducted at CNN and you’ll see a real pattern there between acceptance and challenge. Or observe the national political press’s coverage of guns.

Chuck Todd is one of the best in the business at pushing back on all sides. He won’t boost himself and say “be like me,” but yes, reporters need to be more like Chuck Todd, Jake Tapper, John King, and the other extremely fair reporters who recognize they sometimes have presuppositions the other side does not share.

I think making it about Roger Ailes and Fox is a distraction because it presumes they caused something that really, I think the media itself caused. Caught in a left-leaning bubble and more and more unable to relate to people outside that bubble, the media set the table for someone to come along and attack its credibility. It happened to be Roger Ailes. But someone else would have done it because the media had gotten into a bubble.

That would be the one piece of advice I would add to what Chuck Todd offers — get out of the bubble. The reason people like Chuck Todd, Jake Tapper, John King, and some of the other stellar political reporters respected across the aisle can do what they do is because they have traveled the country. They see more than Washington and New York. There are a lot of reporters who only see Iowa for a few weeks every four years.

Lastly, let me echo Chuck on this point — do better, reporters. You give Fox ammunition. As Chuck’s piece appeared today, there’s a growing scandal at NBC over it blocking the Ronan Farrow story. I see lots of friends throwing that story in Chuck’s face. The press is its own worst enemy when it comes to stuff like this. Again, Ailes was able to do it because conservatives already know the biases are there.

But that doesn’t mean that overall Chuck is wrong. There is now an even more zealous denunciation of reporters and reporting than any of us have seen in the past half-century. Fox feeds that distrust of the media. And the response from the press should not be to double down on progressivism and attacking the President and Fox. The response should be to do better work, go deeper, challenge all sides, and find truth.

I just have to say I’m skeptical that will happen because, truth be told, I think the press is far more liberal with far more liberal presuppositions going into stories and more and more young members of the press rising now through the ranks have no interest in finding truth, so much as advocating for their own side. Again, Fox and Roger Ailes could not do what they’ve done, but for a lot of members of the press handing them ammunition.

That does not mean we should dismiss the point Chuck is making. He makes a fair point. It also does not mean reporters should misinterpret what he is saying, which is not to go left or assail critics, but to be even better and not take sides.

About the author

Erick Erickson
By Erick Erickson

Erick Erickson

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