UPDATE: Greta Van Susteren's MSNBC show “For The Record” will reportedly begin January 9.
After running a proto-fascist campaign, President-elect Donald Trump will bring his hate, misogyny, and bigotry to the White House at the end of the month. And when he does, NBC will have a machine ready to normalize him. Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough is cozying up to Trump, the network is literally paying Trump through Celebrity Apprentice, and MSNBC is reportedly in talks to hire Greta Van Susteren, a longtime Fox News host with a history of treating Trump with kid gloves. And now Megyn Kelly, who famously buried the hatchet with Trump by lobbing him a softball interview and then withheld information about him until after the election, is also going to work for NBC.
By any measure, the Trump normalization effort at NBC begins at the top, with the network actually paying money to Trump as a result of his Celebrity Apprentice executive producer credit. The problem here is simple: NBC will have a fiduciary relationship with the president of the United States. The network now has an incentive to weigh aggressive reporting about the president-elect against what it might lose in revenue if Trump’s reputation is damaged. NBC, after all, is the network that had the hot mic tape of Trump bragging about sexual assault -- but it’s not the outlet that broke that news.
The tangles of the Trump-NBC connection were reflected in Matt Lauer’s recent interview with new Celebrity Apprentice host Arnold Schwarzenegger, in which the two downplayed the conflict of interest posed by Trump’s role in the show. Far from raising concerns about a financial arrangement between a network and the president, Lauer instead teased the increasing personal involvement Trump could have on the show as the season goes on. That’s normalization, and it’s driven by a desire for profit margin, plain and simple. As the Trump administration draws nearer, we’re seeing signs that this approach could repeat itself in the news division.
Megyn Kelly announced her move to NBC on Tuesday. Kelly’s schtick is old hat for those who watch Fox News closely. She’ll have one good moment that gets an absurd amount of press and defines the narrative, and she’ll follow it up by making numerous terrible remarks -- often involving bigotry or race baiting of some kind -- that mainstream journalists just seem to forget in the long run. In fact, promoting bigotry was something of a specialty for Kelly at Fox News, as she helped build her name by obsessively pushing the baseless conspiracy that the Obama administration had declined to pursue voter intimidation charges against the New Black Panther Party for racial and political reasons. She would later infamously declare that both Santa Claus and Jesus were white. As Gawker’s Sam Biddle put it, “To Megyn Kelly, black rage is pervasive when she wants you scared, insignificant when she wants you ignorant.”
The thing is, with a certain crowd of media elites, Kelly’s terrible remarks never stick the way the good moments do. Just look at all the mainstream positive puff pieces on Kelly. One is left to wonder how many of these people regularly watched her show.
Her experience with Trump during the 2016 election is typical Megyn Kelly: In the first presidential primary debate, she confronted Trump about his track record of insulting women. With that query, she cemented her reputation among two crowds: the media elites who loved it, and the “alt-right” misogynists who are railing against Kelly to this day.
But despite her very public feud with Trump, during the campaign, Kelly’s Fox News show was a perfect example of normalization. Even though she posed a tough question to Trump during the debate (and asked the occasional tough question to his surrogates), she also gave Trump a welcoming platform and reinforced the bigoted tropes that he built his campaign on.
Even weeks before the debate, Kelly had set the tone for her campaign, defending Trump’s racist remarks about immigrants by positively citing Ann Coulter’s book Adios America.
And then, just days after being showered with mainstream praise for her debate question, Kelly turned to disgraced former detective Mark Fuhrman for analysis about protests in Ferguson, MO. (Fuhrman is so racist that even Fox News host and Daily Caller founder Tucker Carlson has called him a bigot.) And in the weeks and months following the debate, while Trump raged about Kelly and the press ate it up, Kelly was mainstreaming a hate group, pushing bigotry against transgender people, complaining about a “thug mentality” in black communities, sneering at black protesters, and attacking a Department of Justice plan to address anti-Muslim rhetoric. Kelly blamed African-Americans who were the victims of police violence and even lashed out at one black protester for looking a police officer in the eyes. And all this was just in 2015, not to mention 2016. None of this behavior got the press that her big moment confronting Trump did.
And even when Kelly failed, it didn’t stick. Her prime-time show on Fox Broadcasting Co. last May was supposed to be a huge breakout moment. It was her chance to show she could be a “star” without the lower expectations that come with being a journalist on Fox News. Instead, the show was roundly considered a disaster, and it contained one of the worst Trump interviews of the entire election, up there with anything Sean Hannity aired. And yet, when news broke of Kelly moving to NBC, this catastrophe was largely forgotten.
That’s not all. Kelly met with Trump before the taping of that special and then withheld details about the meeting in order to make news with her book, Settle For More, released November 15. It was only after the election that Kelly revealed Trump was trying to bribe journalists behind the scenes. If Kelly’s secretive meeting with Trump sounds familiar, it’s because her new colleague Joe Scarborough is playing the same game.
Scarborough spent a good part of the election season carrying water for Trump. He questioned whether the timing of sexual assault allegations against Trump were “a coincidence.” He defended a Trump ad that the ADL condemned as anti-Semitic. He lied about Trump’s prior foreign policy positions. He mocked David Fahrenthold’s reporting for The Washington Post about the Trump Foundation. He called Trump’s racism and bigotry just part of a “character” that Trump was playing. He ignored Trump scandals. He excused Trump’s rhetoric, claiming Trump was “exhausted” from being on television. He credited Trump with a “dominating” debate performance. He dismissed Trump’s history of birtherism. He sneered at the idea that Trump was graded on a curve. He downplayed a comprehensive New York Times report on Trump’s treatment of women.
Like Kelly, when Scarborough and his co-host were given a high-profile prime-time interview with Trump, they completely dropped the ball, conducting a friendly chat rather than pressing him on any issue. (The casual tone continued when the cameras were off.) It’s no wonder that even a conservative radio host declared that Scarborough had “turned his show into a Trump Super PAC for six months.” An NBC pollster made a similar point. And Morning Joe devolved into a screaming match when Bill Kristol called out Scarborough for “rewriting history.”
From time to time, Scarborough was lucid about the danger Trump poses, even as late as August when Scarborough demanded the GOP ditch Trump as its nominee. Famously, Scarborough told viewers that Trump had allegedly asked during a security briefing why America cannot use its nuclear weapons. But Scarborough’s occasional Trump skepticism never lasted.
Since the election, Scarborough and Brzezinski have been all in for Trump. They have met with him in person and even boasted on air that they “speak frequently” with the president-elect. Scarborough said that he personally thinks Trump believes in climate science, despite evidence to the contrary. He also downplayed pro-Trump fake news, and he and Brzezinski both tried to whitewash the racism and bigotry out of Trump’s campaign.
Along with meeting with Trump and defending him on air, Scarborough and Brzezinski also regularly get scoops on his transition. In December, the pair, dressed in pajamas for their holiday show, broke the news that Trump was willing to start a nuclear arms race.
Scarborough also recently met with Trump at Mar-A-Lago during Trump’s New Year's’ Eve party.
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) January 2, 2017
Scarborough denied being there for a party, telling CNN’s Brian Stelter that he was meeting with Trump to lobby for an on-air interview and that he was surprised to see people in tuxedos when he arrived. On Monday, he spoke with CNN’s Dylan Byers about the uproar over the incident, repeatedly invoking other reporters’ relationships with various politicians to defend himself.
Scarborough’s defensive answers to Byers give away one major problem with his close relationship with Trump: The need to protect Trump’s reputation can cloud Scarborough’s judgment. Morning Joe’s absurd defense of Trump’s position on climate change is a perfect example. With no proof in his favor, Scarborough simply asserted that Trump believes in climate science, ignoring mountains of evidence to the contrary.
Greta Van Susteren
Trump’s increasingly gushing coverage on MSNBC may soon not be limited to Morning Joe. MSNBC reportedly may hire former Fox News host Greta Van Susteren for its 6 p.m. hour (Update: Van Susteren's move is now official). Van Susteren has given Trump a welcoming platform for years. Before the Republican primary, Trump appeared more times on Van Susteren’s On The Record than on the rest of the Fox News prime-time shows combined. During the Republican primary, Van Susteren had Trump on for over five hours, dwarfing other candidates. During these appearances, Trump pushed birtherism, claimed Obama didn’t write his own memoir, and made bigoted remarks about refugees. And Andrew Kaczynski chronicled more of Trump’s moments from Van Susteren’s show.
To be fair, On The Record was not the worst on Fox News, and Van Susteren may well have been playing to the conservative audience. But the absolute worst Trump hagiographic moment during his campaign came during her “documentary” interview with his campaign. Here’s how the special looks when you take out the Trump family’s answers.
Onlookers harshly criticized the special, with MSNBC host -- and potential future colleague -- Chris Hayes declaring that it was reminiscent of state media under a dictator.
A glimpse of what state media will look like after Glorious Leader Trump is victorious. https://t.co/5viCwg9OBg
— Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) May 26, 2016
As of now, Van Susteren’s hiring is still a rumor and may not come to pass. But either way, a likely factor in MSNBC’s desire to add her to its lineup is her established track record of getting access to Trump, which she certainly didn’t accomplish because she subjected him to tough interviews.
What the future may bring
There are other problem spots on NBC News and MSNBC. Meet The Press fell for Trump’s spin on climate change, just as it bought his take on North Carolina’s anti-LGBTQ law. The show has also at various points ignored or glossed over stories like the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Trump University settlement, the investigation of the Trump Foundation, the proven lawbreaking at the Trump Foundation, the Democracy Spring protests, some of Trump’s sketchy ties to Russia, the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, and the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. The hosts did find time to let Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz relitigate the invasion. They also let Glenn Beck attempt to rehabilitate his reputation -- twice. And it’s not just one show. The spectre of increasing Trump normalization talk on MSNBC brings to mind the network’s shady history in the first term of the Bush administration.
MSNBC’s prime-time voices like Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, and Lawrence O’Donnell are resisting efforts to normalize Trump. But it’s unclear whether they can win that fight with the leading voices at MSNBC and NBC News pushing the other way, much less with the network itself in bed with Trump. And if Trump puts net neutrality rules on the table, NBC’s parent company, Comcast, would surely have an interest.
All of this bears close watching. But the long and short of it is that the network seems primed to become a Trump normalization machine.
In short, Fox News finally has competition.
Graphic by Sarah Wasko