The Media Now Has No Excuse For Avoiding The Tough Questions

[ Posted Tuesday, September 6th, 2022 – 15:55 UTC ]

Last week, President Joe Biden gave a rather pivotal speech. In it, he called out and denounced Donald Trump and the extremist "MAGA Republicans" who are supporting him and following in his footsteps. There were varied reactions to this speech, but Biden is not backing down, raising the point in all his appearances since, using similar language: The MAGA Republicans are a threat to American democracy, plain and simple. They do not support the rule of law and they are not just sympathetic to but sometimes openly supportive of using political violence to further their aims and prospects. That should be seen as anti-American by everyone, immaterial of party, Biden pointed out.

As I said, the reactions differed across the political spectrum. So far, Biden's new fervor for taking this fight directly to those who would undermine our political system from within hasn't seemed to change a whole lot of politicians' minds -- Republicans who were pro-Trump remain so and they defend him by taking perhaps the most hilariously ironic stance I have ever heard in American politics: Biden is being divisive and should be bringing Americans together. Funny how nobody ever seems to call out these same Republicans for their divisiveness-on-steroids that they exhibit in just about every political utterance these days, isn't it? To their credit, HuffPost did run an article later in the week under the headline: "Trump Rips Biden's 'Most Vicious, Divisive' Speech Ever Before Comparing Him To Satan." At least they understood how ironic this charge is, coming from Trump and his ilk. The rhetoric coming -- from Trump on down to some of the lowliest House members for the past six years -- has been breathtakingly, unbelievably "divisive." Trump's always got some scapegoat to blame, and lumps all Democrats together as a monolithic evil and dangerous group at the drop of a hat. So why is it only incumbent upon Democrats to be unifying and non-divisive?

The American news media is notable for its timidity in calling lies "lies," and in pointing out that expressing support for insurrectionists and lawbreaking and political violence is leading America down a very dark and dangerous path. They have abandoned their traditional role as gatekeepers of the truth and now prefer only to play: "he said/she said" games. But now they no longer have even this excuse, since Biden's new emphasis on the issue gives them the opportunity to frame tough questions more to their liking. Instead of blatantly asking a Republican politician: "Don't you think that calling the January 6th insurrectionists 'patriots' and expressing support for them might lead to political violence happening again in the future?", they can instead say: "President Biden has said that calling the January 6th insurrectionists 'patriots' and expressing support for them might lead to political violence happening again in the future -- what do you say to President Biden's point?" Perhaps if the journalist is feeling energetic, they could even dig out some clips of the politician they are interviewing saying similar things, to drive the point home.

That was the real value of the speech. Now that the leader of the Democratic Party is out there saying this stuff in unvarnished terms, the media can use that as a crutch to actually ask a few pointed and important questions that have been mostly ignored for the past year and a half or so.

Some journalists seem to be at least trying. However, their lack of follow-up questions and pressing Republicans on the inherent disconnect between unquestioningly supporting Donald Trump and at the same time decrying Biden for being "divisive" needs to improve. In other words, the interviewers need to do a better job of calling lies "lies" -- right to the face of the politician who is uttering them.

I'll take just one example of this, from an interview given by the CBS Sunday morning political show This Week host Martha Raddatz with the ranking Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul. Raddatz began her questions by asking McCaul about his reaction to the president's speech, which was yet another "Oh, he's being so divisive" display of political pearl-clutching. McCaul called on Biden to "unify the nation," which led to this exchange (taken from the full transcript of the show):

[Host Martha Raddatz:] And how much should Donald Trump be blamed for the division in this country? You heard him say last night Biden is an enemy of the state. He has called the left wing fascists in the past.

[Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX):] We know the rhetoric on both sides has been heightened. I don’t think -- you know, people in mainstream America that particularly like the divisive rhetoric. I think -- I wish the president could have been more like Abraham Lincoln who really did -- he did not condemn the Democrats in the South in that time. He actually brought them into the tent. And I think that would be the mission I would advise for the president. I think he failed to do that in this speech that he gave.

This is classic "both-sides-ism." Raddatz then should have asked something along the lines of: "Can you please point me to one instance -- just one -- where you called out Donald Trump for being 'divisive' or called for him to be 'more like Abraham Lincoln' in unifying the country? Just one, Congressman?" But she didn't. Instead, she moved on to the subject of the F.B.I. serving a legal search warrant on the president's Florida golf club (transcript taken from a Washington Post article today):

[Q:] So let's talk about the investigation. Last night, Donald Trump called the investigation into classified material stored at his house shameful, a travesty of justice, saying the FBI and the Department of Justice have become, as he said, "vicious monsters." Your reaction to that?

[McCaul:] Well, look, I think there's a legal side of this, as a former federal prosecutor, and there's the perception in the optics. I think the perception is what a lot of Republicans I know see on the heels of the Russian investigation, the Steele dossier. There's a certain "distrust but verify" attitude when it comes to the Department of Justice and the FBI....

Here was a prime opportunity for Raddatz to refuse to let McCaul weasel out of answering the basic question: "But Trump called federal agents 'vicious monsters' -- don't you agree with President Biden that using such language is very dangerous and anti-democratic?" But again, she didn't. Instead, she tried a different tack:

[Q:] Do you see any reason that he should have taken those documents, those classified, highly-classified documents to Mar-a-Lago?

[McCaul:] Well, look, I -- you know, I have lived in the classified world most of my professional career, I personally wouldn't do that. But I'm not the president of the United States. But he has a different set of rules that apply to him. The president can declassify a document on a moment's notice....

[Q:] [Former attorney general William P. Barr] basically said... if [Trump] stood over documents and said, "These are all declassified," it was -- it's an absurd idea. You think that's what happened?

[McCaul:] There is a process for declassification. But again, the president's in a very different position then most of us in the national security space.

What McCaul is eliding over is the basic fact that Donald Trump hasn't been president for over a year and a half. Raddatz should have driven this point home and ignored the declassification red herring: "Donald Trump is no longer president. So what possible reason can you come up with for a private citizen illegally retaining the nation's highest secrets, even after a subpoena was issued demanding their return? From a national security point of view, what possible justification is there for Trump to have such documents in the first place?"

To date, not one single Republican has come up with any sort of convincing answer to that question. Mostly because they just never get asked that particular question.

At least Raddatz is trying, though. She's not the only one, either. Since Biden's speech, the media has been a lot more comfortable asking tougher questions to Republicans, but they've really got to do a better job of two important things: doing their homework (preparing clips of people they interview in advance which show divisiveness on their part), and being more mentally nimble in how to properly follow up a weaselly non-answer.

Now, at least, journalists can put the blame for all the tough rhetoric on Biden. They can refer to his words or play a clip from his speech (or the speeches he has given since) where he denounces MAGA Republicans' propensity to encourage and celebrate political violence. It fits neatly into their "he said/she said" model, in other words.

Republicans don't want to talk about a lot of things these days (abortion, for instance). They really don't want to talk about January 6th, but later this month there will be another prime opportunity for journalists to use the "he said/she said" framing, after the House Select Committee holds more televised hearings. Republicans also are quite happy to strew red herrings in abundance on the subject of Trump's retention of secret documents, without ever having to address the key questions -- Why would he do this? What possible legitimate reason could he have had? Why did he fight so hard against returning them, even getting one of his lawyers to lie for him after being subpoenaed? What has happened to all those classified documents that were obviously removed from their cover folders? What did Trump do with them? Why did he have them in the first place?

The mainstream media seems to have at least partially woken up, after Biden's speech. Their skills in this regard are rather rusty, but they're at least beginning to rediscover them. When a Republican spews utter nonsense or blatant lies or whataboutism moosepoop, journalists need to call them on it and drive the real questions home. Now they can do so using clips of Biden speaking, addressing the same issues. Maybe that'll be good enough for the journalists to rediscover what political journalism is supposed to be about: speaking truth to power.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


10 Comments on “The Media Now Has No Excuse For Avoiding The Tough Questions”

  1. [1] 
    andygaus wrote:

    This column strikes me as a pleasant form of wishful thinking. If the media don't grow a spine, I don't think there's any way that one can be implanted.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I don't think any of this really matters so long as Republicans are seen by a majority of Americans to be the best stewards of economic policy.

    Let me know when the media starts speaking truth to power about the Republican cult of economic failure. I won't be waiting with bated breath for that if it has to come from the mouths of Democrats first. ;)

    But, I still imagine what it might be like if Dems held the upper hand with voters on reproductive rights AND the economy.

  3. [3] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    I agree with andygaus. Things may improve on the margins but as long as profit remains the overriding motivation for the press that's as good as can be expected.

    Thank God for the internet.

  4. [4] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Elizabeth, what makes you think Muricans still believe Repugs are better stewards of the economy?

  5. [5] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    The point I wish that the media would take more seriously is the fact that these documents are a matter of national security. Their content can have extremely serious consequences if it fell into the hands of our enemies. And by "our enemies", I am referring to those that Trump considers his "Besties" and heroes for how they force their citizens to show them respect.

    Is it just by coincidence that immediately after Trump left office with all of these stolen documents that the Saudi prince went against his country's financial advisers and "invested" over $2.5 Billion dollars into Jared Kushner's brand spanking new equity firm? That's a lot of money to invest in a brand new biz considering Jared has absolutely no projects lined up and no experience whatsoever in this field??? Doesn't it seem much more reasonable that the Saudi prince was purchasing something of high value? Sure, it may be seen as "an investment" down the road.

    Also, we know that Trump's people asked for a list of every person being paid as a confidential informant by our government in the last 90 days of Trump's presidency. We also know that following Trump's leaving office, there has suddenly been a huge increase in the number of CI's being discovered and killed around the world. Coincidence? Like Jethro Gibbs used to say on NCIS:

    "There are no such things as 'coincidences'."

  6. [6] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    Bush the Elder, Dubya and Trump all left varying degrees of economic calamity upon leaving office.

    Repugs let polluters pollute, give the rich tax cuts and humor the American Taliban to keep them on board.

    Dems clean up the messes but Establishment DINOs have thus far held back the Progressives, although some good things have leaked through under Biden.

  7. [7] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    If Trump does one thing well, it's his willingness to commit criminal acts in broad daylight for all the world to see knowing that people will assume that no one would be so stupid as to commit the crime in front of everyone.

    Asking the Russians to hack Hillary's emails on camera.

    Saying that he cannot see a reason for Putin to lie about Putin's denial of Russia's role in getting Trump elected.

    Trump releasing the transcript of him trying to blackmail the Ukrainian president into claiming the Biden's were being investigated for crimes there in order to get military funding that Congress had already approved.

    Trumps phone call to GA Secretary of State demanding that he find Trump one more ballot than the number Biden had so that Trump would win the election.

    Trump's daughter receiving 5 patents in China right about the same time as Trump deciding not to place sanctions one of their electronic corporations.

    All of these things (and much, much more) Trump did for all the world to see without suffering any consequences!

  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Elizabeth, what makes you think Muricans still believe Repugs are better stewards of the economy?


  9. [9] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Clinton left a lot to be desired on the economy, too ... so, there's that.

    Where is Timothy Geithner when you need him ... oh, wait. Well, I don't blame him one little bit for getting out of public service after all the hard years he put in with no thanks.

  10. [10] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Recent polls, Elizabeth?

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