Bill Press | Media Matters for America

Bill Press

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  • Bill Press on his new memoir and why you're wrong about CNN’s Crossfire

    In From The Left, Press reflects on an unorthodox life in media and politics

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    It might surprise listeners who tune into The Bill Press Show or who read Press's syndicated column to know that the progressive commentator believes he could have easily ended up a Donald Trump voter. Press's new memoir From the Left: A Life in the Crossfire is the story of how a "misguided young redneck" raised in a segregated, blue-collar Delaware town became a "liberal counterpuncher" instead. In crisp prose, Press describes a career of constant evolution, as a Catholic seminarian, activist, political candidate, and journalist.

    In an email interview, Press and I discussed the rise and fall of CNN’s Crossfire, which he co-hosted from 1996 to 2002, his relationships with his conservative former co-hosts, how journalists can best respond to President Donald Trump, and why he’s still optimistic about the country’s future. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.


    Your book describes your varied experiences in both politics and the media. After moving back and forth between the two, you write that in 1996, you had to choose. You were a host on CNN’s Crossfire when you had a shot to become the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. And you write that your conservative co-host, Robert Novak, is the one who told you, “It’s about time you decided what you want to be when you grow up. Do you want to be a journalist? Or do you want to be a politician?” Why did you decide to take the journalism path?

    That was some of the best advice I ever got in my life. I decided to stick with journalism for two reasons. One, a very practical one. After working for three years as the “volunteer” chair of the California Democratic Party, I was now getting a paycheck from CNN. Yes, I’m a bleeding-heart liberal, but I still like getting paid! Two, I realized that for advancing the progressive causes I really cared about, I could have more influence on nightly cable television than I could as just another member of Congress, or even Democratic National Committee chair. I still believe that. On one condition: provided I use that powerful microphone to fight hard for core Democratic values and never back down.

    Do you ever look back on that decision and wonder what might have been?

    Yes. I would have served for two years as national chair, then I’d have been out of a job, just another political hack, with no way to get back into journalism. I’d probably be driving Uber in San Francisco today.

    But instead you stayed at Crossfire, depriving a lot of people of some very interesting rides! Let's talk about that show a bit. You were there, I think, from 1996 to 2002. You write that the show was “the first -- and is still the best -- of all political shows.” People in my generation and younger are probably more familiar with the Paul Begala-James Carville years -- which you describe as “amateur hour,” and which ended which Jon Stewart famously telling Begala and then-co-host Tucker Carlson that they were “hurting America” -- or even the revival in 2013, which did not last long. So make the case for the show when you were there -- what did it bring to the table?

    Crossfire was the first and, in my humble opinion, in its original form, the best of all political debate shows. What made the original Crossfire so compelling was its straightforward, single-purpose approach. The set was simple: four people, two expert guests, two co-hosts, seated at a round table, before a black curtain, for a half-hour, live and unscripted, on one topic only. No fancy graphics, no glitz, glamour, no rushing from topic to topic. At the end of the show, audience knew a lot more about the topic and had enough information to make up their own mind. After Larry King Live, Crossfire was CNN’s most highly rated program.

    All that changed when Walter Isaacson, then-president of CNN, decided he could improve Crossfire’s ratings by putting it before a live audience at George Washington University and, literally, turning it into a gong show. They painted it up like a boxing match, with bells announcing each new round, each new topic. It was a disaster. Co-hosts and guests played for laughs from the audience. There was no continuity, no substance, no heft. Jon Stewart was right when he appeared on set and trashed the show. CNN pulled the plug shortly thereafter.

    I was only co-host of the original Crossfire for its last six years, but I still think canceling that format was one of the biggest mistakes made in cable television.

    Do you think news executives learn the wrong lessons from Crossfire? It seems like most of cable news is now dominated by the left versus right debate style that Crossfire popularized. (I just watched a shoutfest between pro-Trump and anti-Trump conservatives on CNN.)

    Yes, there’s a lot cable news execs should have learned from the demise of Crossfire, but didn’t. Contrary to what they all seem to believe, viewers CAN tolerate serious discussion of serious issues. They don’t have to be fed a steady diet of one-and-a-half-minute soundbites on silly, sensational topics. Not only that, viewers do indeed follow an argument better when not everybody is shouting at each other at the same time. We actually had a rule on Crossfire NOT to interrupt, unless the other person simply refused to shut up. Another lesson they’ve never learned: You can’t just put somebody with no political experience on the air and expect them to know what the hell they’re talking about. Most people I see on cable today identified as “political strategist” have never stepped foot in a campaign headquarters. They’re total frauds.

    CNN seems to have a particular problem in that respect -- they've hired a lot of people who don't have lengthy resumes, but are willing to defend Trump on virtually everything he says and does. I’m curious what you think about the criticism the network has taken over that. They say they need to represent the president’s supporters, but the panelists end up derailing segments by pushing obvious misinformation.

    I think, overall, CNN has a good mix, but a few bad apples. As contributors, they have some of the sharpest political minds in the country, like David Axelrod and Ron Brownstein. They also have a couple of Trumpers who are nothing but mouthpieces for the administration. It’s good to have conservative voices in the mix, but even Trumpers should have some credibility. A couple of CNN’s Trumpers have zero.  

    I have a couple questions about your former CNN co-hosts. Tucker Carlson is now a big star over at Fox, taking over Bill O’Reilly’s old time slot and producing a show that spends a lot of time detailing the evils of diversity and the victimization of white people in America. What do you think of Carlson’s Fox show and the arc of his career?

    Tucker Carlson and I bonded over fighting the management at CNN, and we’ve been fast friends ever since. We meet often for lunch at The Palm and, believe it or not, we don’t talk politics. I watch his show a couple of times a week and disagree with almost everything he says. But, as a fellow media creature, I admire his success on Fox. Catapulting to the second-most watched show on cable news in less than a year is a remarkable achievement. I also admit a tad bit of envy. Tucker made the trifecta: hosted shows on CNN, MSNBC, and FOX. I only made CNN and MSNBC. Somehow, FOX never called. Wonder why?

    You and Pat Buchanan were colleagues at CNN and MSNBC, from which he was fired in 2011 after his latest book brought new attention to his homophobic, anti-Semitic, and racist commentary from Media Matters and others. You write that while you strongly disagree with Buchanan’s views, MSNBC made a mistake. “No matter how vile or incorrect, Pat’s views deserved to be aired. The correct answer was not to silence Pat but to challenge him, debate him, and prove him wrong.” Are there views too horrific to deserve that treatment? Where do you draw the line?

    I have a real problem with censorship of any kind. One, because it’s wrong. Two, because: Who decides? Three, because you never know which way the axe is going to swing. Obviously, I’d draw the line at advocating anything illegal, but, short of that, I think the best way to confront obnoxious points of view is to let others air them, then expose, repudiate, and destroy them. Pat’s been saying that stuff for a long time. Nobody but the most die-hard Trumpers believe it.

    As a member of the White House press corps in the Trump era, you write that journalists need to figure out “how to be a fair and objective reporter while covering a president who ... has declared war against you.” Your argument is that journalists play into the president’s hands by complaining about his attacks on them, and should instead just do their jobs and report out the facts. But the attacks on the media seem to be working -- support for the press is sinking among the president's supporters. So how can reporters maintain the trust of the American people when they are under this constant bombardment from the president?

    I still believe that the best way for the media to respond to Donald Trump’s constant, repetitive, and boring attacks is (1) to ignore them; and (2) to do our jobs as aggressively and as thoroughly as possible. Sure, Trump’s base may not like us. So what? They never will. Conservatives have always played the “liberal media” they way they play the refs. But the vast majority of the American people understand the importance of a free and fearless media and support their work. And, in the end, what has Trump produced? The best investigative reporting we’ve seen in this country since Watergate. The Washington Post and The New York Times, in particular, have excelled. So have The Guardian, Daily Beast, BuzzFeed, The Intercept, and others. In the end, that’s what counts.

    You have a pretty bleak, though I think accurate, assessment of the current political moment. You write that following Newt Gingrich’s ascendence to Speaker of the House, Republicans broke the political system, with the result that we have a “failure to make progress on any of the critical policy challenges facing this nation” that will end only if Republicans come to their senses. “For my grandchildren’s sake, I hope that happens in my lifetime. But I’m not holding my breath.” Are there any reasons to be optimistic for the future?

    I’m the eternal optimist. Even as bad as things are today, I still believe they’ll get better. Largely because I think Republicans, having let Donald Trump take over their party, are doing a good job of self-destruction. Democrats have a good chance of taking back both the House and Senate this year. And then we get rid of Donald Trump in 2020, if Robert Mueller doesn’t get him first. Of course, that presents a different challenge: how to convince Democrats to grow a pair and get something done about climate change, health care, gun safety, infrastructure, and other challenges facing the country. But I’d rather fight that battle than suffer the fools now in charge.

  • On MSNBC, Bill Press Calls Out Rep. Scalise For Lying About Americans Not Losing Health Care Under Republican Bill

    Radio Host Bill Press: Scalise’s Claim Is “Absolutely False. … The CBO For The First Bill Scored 24 Million Americans -- 24 Million Americans -- Would Lose Their Health Care”

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    While appearing as a guest the April 5 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, radio host Bill Press called out Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) for lying that under the new Republican health care bill, Americans with pre-existing conditions who already have a plan would be “protected forever.”

    As Press pointed out, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that the previous Republican bill would cause 24 million Americans to lose their health care. The version of the bill that passed in the House of Representatives on May 4 has yet to be scored by the CBO.”

    MIKA BRZEZINSKI (CO-HOST): So Bill Press, are they participating in a ruse in the Rose Garden or did they actually think that the Senate is going to seriously read this 1,800 page bill and think it's great for America?

    BILL PRESS: Rick [Tyler] says that John McCain doesn’t know what’s in the bill. Those people in the Rose Garden don't know what's in the bill. They voted for something that they hadn't read, they hadn't seen, the CBO hadn't scored. And here’s what gives me --

    BRZEZINSKI: Steve Scalise on our show said no one will lose their health care. Not one person.

    PRESS: That is absolutely false. That is fake news. The CBO for the first bill scored that 24 million Americans -- 24 million Americans -- would lose their health care. That’s when pre-existing conditions were still in it.

    However, an hour earlier, Scalise shamelessly guaranteed repeatedly that no one with pre-existing conditions would lose their coverage and that health care would remain affordable:

    WILLIE GEIST (CO-HOST):  So Congressman, are you able to look into the camera this morning and say to everybody in your district and everybody in this country who currently enjoys coverage who has a pre-existing condition that they will continue to enjoy that coverage under your bill?

    REP. STEVE SCALISE (R-LA):  If you have continuing -- if you have a plan today and you have a pre-existing condition, under our bill you'll be protected forever, as long as you want. You can again -- you can move around from one plan to another. In Obamacare, you really don't have choices. As we saw in Iowa just two days ago, in 94 out of 99 counties, you won't have anybody that will sell you insurance in Obamacare. That's how bad this law is. We need to change it. We need to give people real choices and lower premiums. And in our bill, we have multiple layers of protection for people with pre-existing conditions.

    GEIST: So everyone with a pre-existing condition right now who is covered under Obamacare will continue to have coverage?

    SCALISE: Absolutely.

    GEIST: Everyone?

    BRZEZINSKI: Oh.

    SCALISE: Everyone.

    GEIST: And their rates will remain affordable even though there's now more flexibility for insurance companies state by state?

    SCALISE: Their rates will remain affordable. If somebody just drops out of the insurance market altogether and then wants to come back and get in, we put extra money in place. In fact, the last amendment that was added just a few days ago -- and maybe a lot of people didn't get a chance to look at it, our members did, because it was an eight-page amendment -- that put an extra $8 billion in the bill to help specifically people with pre-existing conditions, who just chose on their own to stop having insurance coverage so now they can even get back in the insurance market and actually get coverage that's affordable for them.