A new idea in political interviews: Ban the liars

By Mark Jacob

What if TV news interviewers told their upcoming political guests: “Don’t come on my show and lie. If you do, I’ll end the interview immediately and inform you on camera that you’ll never appear on my show again.”

That won’t happen, of course.

But it should.

Taking a firm stand for the truth would prevent abominations like Kristen Welker’s interview of Donald Trump in her debut as host of NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. It was a shameful piece of journalism in which Welker cleared the street for Trump’s parade of lies, pushing back only occasionally and ineffectively.

One glaring example was when Trump claimed FOUR TIMES that Democrats want to kill babies “after birth.” Welker contradicted him the first two times on that absurd lie, but let it go unchallenged the next two times. Since the interview was taped and edited, NBC made a conscious decision to allow Trump to spread the toxic lie on its airwaves four times.

When NBC announced that the Trump interview would not be shown live, some naive observers thought NBC chose to tape it in order to fact-check Trump’s comments before airing them. But the main motive was obvious: NBC taped the interview so it could market it more successfully, producing sneak-peek news stories and video clips for days before the “Meet the Press” broadcast.

One NBC story in advance of the show was headlined “Trump wants to bring the country together on abortion: ‘Both sides are going to like me.’” Note that it’s NBC – not Trump – saying in the headline that the man most responsible for overturning Roe vs. Wade “wants to bring the country together on abortion.” The very notion that a divisive figure like Trump wants to bring the country together is ridiculous, unless NBC thinks authoritarianism would bring the country together.

After the Trump interview aired, Peter Baker of the New York Times reminded us that he’s part of the problem by praising Welker for fact-checking Trump “all along the way.” Which gave Welker way too much credit. A few minutes after Trump lied that he was facing “four Biden indictments,” Welker clarified that the federal indictments were issued by the special counsel, not through the regular Justice Department process. But she failed to point out that two of the four indictments aren’t even federal. They were filed in Fulton County, Georgia, and New York City with zero Biden administration involvement.

When NBC did fact-check Trump – which was not often enough – the corrections were often far removed from Trump’s lies. After Trump used false figures to overstate U.S. aid to Ukraine, NBC waited until its journalist panel segment 20 minutes later to clean it up. It was like trying to remove a stain long after it was affixed to the fabric.

NBC’s apparent strategy was to let Trump con the audience while Welker postured that she was being tough on him. She asked him repeatedly whether he thought a fetus had constitutional rights. But she never demanded an answer nor stipulated for the audience that he didn’t answer. When journalists ask tough questions but allow the guest to ignore them, that’s not being tough. That’s being a performer.

The whole interview was an assault on the truth and a triumph for Trump – another disappointing performance by mainstream news media.

Journalists need to demand more of their guests. But I’m certainly not calling for a ban on guests with conservative views. Far from it. If a guest wants to argue for an abortion ban or against the Affordable Care Act – and if they can do so without lying – more power to them. That’s what news shows should be – a fact-based examination of the issues. I just think that when news media willingly let their guests lie to their audience, they’re serving the liars, not the audience.

The problem is that news organizations, especially TV networks, think they need politicians more than the politicians need them. I don’t believe this is true, but the networks seem to think so. That’s why they treat liars so kindly – so that they keep coming on the air.

It’s all about access, and the newsmakers know that and take advantage of it.

These journalists aren’t looking for access in order to better inform the public. They’re looking for access in order to make themselves look like players, gain bigger ratings and make more money. When you put Trump on “Meet the Press,” it’s primarily a marketing decision.

Is it possible that journalists who platform lying fascists don’t know they’re undermining democracy? Could they truly be unaware after all we’ve been through? Really?

An alternative explanation is that they simply don’t care if they undermine democracy.

And that is truly frightening.

Mark Jacob, a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune and co-author of eight books, is a consultant for Courier Newsroom.