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  • NBC News Appoints An Iraq War Cheerleader As Its New President

    Blog ››› ››› JOHN WHITEHOUSE & TIMOTHY JOHNSON

    As NBC News faces growing questions about moving to the right, the network’s chairman, Andrew Lack, announced that Noah Oppenheim, a Today show producer who was an outspoken supporter of the Iraq War and has a lengthy history with conservative media, will be the new president of NBC News.

    During 2003 and into 2004, Oppenheim was a pro-Iraq War pundit on MSNBC. On July 19, 2003, four months after the invasion, Oppenheim appeared on MSNBC Live to respond to a firestorm stemming from President George W. Bush’s false assertion in the 2003 State of the Union address about Iraq’s supposed nuclear weapon capabilities. Oppenheim defended the Bush administration for misleading the public in order to make the case for war by saying that that intelligence business “is not an exact science” and you have to “make educated guesses.” Transcript via Nexis (emphasis added):

    LAWRENCE O'DONNELL: Noah Oppenheim, last week we talked about -- was that the worst week for the president after things have gotten so messy on the whole how did these 16 words get into the speech? Now, this week the story kept going. We've narrowed it down, to, you know, the suspects, of who got the words in there. It looks like it's the National Security Council people, which means it looks like it's Condi Rice. Is Condi Rice the next person to have to take the blame in this story?

    NOAH OPPENHEIM, MSNBC ANALYST: Well, I don't know if she's the next person to have to take the blame. But we are -- the whole country is getting a very useful lesson in how the intelligence business works. And it is not an exact science. It is a very inexact science. And we now all understand that when we are trying to predict what's going on in countries like Iraq, we make educated guesses, and that's exactly what happened here. The British made an educated guess about the way Saddam was trying to reconstitute his nuclear program. They actually stand by that educated guess. We now know that the line, how the line made it into the speech, we understand the consultations that go on between the National Security Council staff and the White House, the CIA. It seems like this line shouldn't have made it in. It's unfortunate that it did, but I have seen no evidence of any sort of egregious wrongdoing on anyone's parts, no malicious plotting, no conspiracy here to drag the country into war. You see the governing -- government functioning as it does, imperfectly at times.

    When asked, on the same program, about the plan for leaving Iraq, Oppenheim said that “no matter what happens,” Iraq “will be better than … before we came”:

    OPPENHEIM: I cannot give you an exact date. The exit plan is as we help the people of Iraq rebuild their country, like we help the people of Germany and Japan rebuild theirs after World War II. We put in place a government that represents the various groups in Iraq, and we hopefully nudge them toward a liberal democracy. But ultimately, we take off the training wheels and see what happens. And you know what? No matter what happens, it will be better than what they had before we came.

    MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell asked Oppenheim on the July 12, 2003, edition of MSNBC Live how many people would die in Iraq. Via Nexis:

    O'DONNELL: Noah, is it a decade, or is it less than a decade?

    OPPENHEIM: It is between one and five years, and I do not know how many people are going to die, but it may be in the hundreds, it may even be in the low thousands, but it will still be worth it.

    150,000 Iraqi civilians and over 4,600 members of coalition forces have died in Iraq as a result of the war.

    On August 23, 2003, Oppenheim told O’Donnell on MSNBC Live that the majority of Iraq was actually peaceful and predicted the country was “headed in a positive direction.” Via Nexis (emphasis added):

    O'DONNELL: Noah, what if he doesn't? What if Iraq continues along the path that's going now, with roughly the same number of disruptions and killings, and then what if the peace process in the Middle East stays off track where it is now? How do Bush's numbers look six months from now if everything keeps going the way it is in the Middle East?

    OPPENHEIM: Well, look, you've got to -- what direction is it going? If you read "The New York Times" today, which is not exactly President Bush's greatest cheerleader, they report about how the great majority of Iraq is actually quite peaceful and actually happy to have an American presence there. We have a problem in Baghdad. We have a problem in the predominantly Sunni areas in the center of the country and in parts of the northwest. But for the majority of the country, it is pretty calm and peaceful and actually headed in a positive direction.

    Now, with regard to the Mideast peace process, no president has ever been able to bring peace to the Israel and the Palestinians. If Bush is unsuccessful there, I don't think someone's going to say, you know what, John Kerry is going to be able to do it, but George Bush couldn't. I mean, that's outrageous.

    Oppenheim even admitted that he is a conservative, stating on MSNBC Live on June 26, 2003, that he agreed with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s concurrence in Lawrence v. Texas, stating, “Even as a conservative, I felt like it was a rightly decided case.” (via Nexis)

    Andrew Kirell, now of The Daily Beast, examined Oppenheim’s background when Today brought him back on board in 2015. As Kirell noted, Oppenheim’s stint as executive producer of the TV show Scarborough Country occurred when host Joe Scarborough was portraying a much more conservative figure than he has done recently.

    Oppenheim has also written multiple columns for the neoconservative outlet Weekly Standard. In an April 2001 column, he attacked civil rights activist Jesse Jackson’s activism as “shakedowns” and “an old-style protection racket,” complaining that “Jackson threatens boycotts and the stigma of being labeled racist by this country's most prominent black leader.” Five months after the 9/11 terror attacks, Oppenheim accused the American Muslim community of assuming a “see-no-evil posture” and lacking “resolve” to fight terrorism.

    Oppenheim’s most notable Weekly Standard column came in 2004, when he, as an outspoken “supporter” of the Iraq War, traveled to Baghdad and castigated war reporters in Iraq of not doing enough to cover the good stories. It is worth reading at length:

    Four weeks ago, MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews" asked me to go to Baghdad in search of the story most of the mainstream media were missing. The network's vice president knew I was a supporter of the war, and suggested I find out if things had really gone as horribly wrong as the evening newscasts and major print dailies reported. What I found is that, in Iraq, the mounting body count is heartbreaking, but the failure of American journalism is tragic.

    […]

    Along with freedom, America has brought to Iraq the notorious Red State-Blue State divide. Most journalists are Blue State people in outlook, and most of those administering the occupation are Red. Many of those who work for the Coalition, including civilians, carry guns. This either amuses journalists or makes them uncomfortable. Most of those who work for the Coalition are deeply invested, emotionally, in the success of America's enterprise in Iraq. (How else to explain why someone leaves an apartment in Arlington to live in a trailer in Baghdad and endure mortar attacks?) Most journalists did not support this war to begin with, and feel vindicated whenever the effort stumbles.

    Journalists will point out that they, too, are braving significant risks and discomfort to do their jobs. This is true, but would carry more weight if it seemed they were doing their jobs well. Instead, their sense of peril fuels a certain self-aggrandizement and sometimes a selfish myopia.

    […]

    To be fair, the [Coalition Provisional Authority] is not likely to win any awards in the field of public relations. I arrived in Baghdad explicitly sympathetic to its message. And I found its press officers friendly and easy to deal with. But there are only so many schools and police stations you can visit before you almost start wishing for a bang. The CPA is understandably proud of Iraq's rebuilt infrastructure. The water I saw gushing through new irrigation ditches throughout the Sunni triangle roars accomplishment.

    […]

    The best metaphor I've heard about Iraq is that the country is like a child, and the American press is its parent. When you're around a child every day, you don't notice how dramatically he's growing and maturing. But a more distant relative who sees the child only once a year is astounded by how much taller he keeps getting. Iraq is getting taller and healthier every day, but those responsible for documenting the growth are not noticing--or if they are, they're not telling the people back home.

    Oppenheim would leave his position at MSNBC after Steve Capus (now the executive producer of CBS Evening News) and anchor Tom Brokaw complained that his column did a disservice to journalists covering a war zone. Oppenheim, in the meantime, worked as a producer on the Today show and would later return to MSNBC in 2008 to work on David Gregory’s MSNBC show Road to the White House. When Oppenheim returned to MSNBC, New York Observer columnist Felix Gillette wrote of the move:

    A former NBC News staffer compared Mr. Oppenheim’s return to MSNBC—only four and a half years after seemingly burning some important bridges on his way out—as typical of a business where institutional memory can be fleeting.

    “TV is like politics,” said the source. “You can rehabilitate yourself very quickly because the game is always changing and so are the people.”

    Oppenheim’s selection as NBC president comes as increasing questions are arising about NBC News and MSNBC moving to the right. Beyond hiring Fox News hosts Megyn Kelly and Greta Van Susteren, Scarborough has been cheering on and defending President Donald Trump. Just last week, MSNBC host Chris Matthews had an on-air meltdown in defense of Trump’s Muslim ban. Appointing an Iraq War media lapdog as the head of the entire division does nothing to distance NBC News from these accusations.

    Oppenheim replaces Deborah Turness, who became president of NBC News International. Turness, the first woman to be named president of NBC News, hired Oppenheim to take over the Today show in early 2015.

  • How NBC News is moving to accomodate the right

    As Trump Feuds With CNN, NBC Is Elevating Voices That Are Accommodating Trump

    Blog ››› ››› JOHN WHITEHOUSE

    A lot of attention in recent days has been paid to the Trump administration’s decision to freeze out CNN. Rather than focusing on why Trump is lashing out at CNN, a better question to ask is: Why does the Trump administration feel so comfortable with NBC and MSNBC?

    It was clear back in early January that NBC was building a Trump normalization machine when the network brought on former Fox News host Megyn Kelly, MSNBC brought on former Fox host Greta Van Susteren, and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough started talking daily about his chats with the president. Two weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, it turns out that things are even worse than imagined.

    Kelly has yet to start at NBC (and reportedly won’t for several months). Yet to make space for the former face of Fox News, NBC is removing Al Roker and Tamron Hall as co-hosts of the third hour of Today. Kelly, who, like Trump, built her name on racial demagoguery, is thus taking the space of two of the few people of color who host NBC news shows. Tamron Hall has since announced that she is leaving NBC. Indeed, in recent years, Ann Curry, Alex Wagner, Karen Finney, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Michael Eric Dyson have all left NBC News shows, raising concerns that the network was marginalizing people of color. In short, maybe NBC should treat diversity as more than just a Twitter account.

    As for Scarborough, Morning Joe of late is best understood as not just its own show but also a window into the heart of the Trump administration. Scarborough and co-host Mika Brzezinski are regularly meeting with and advising Trump. Scarborough defends some of Trump’s worst instincts. And, of course, there’s the obnoxious infighting with other advisers whom Scarborough blames when things go wrong. Trump himself watches the show. Even on the rare day when he criticizes Trump, Scarborough will say something apparently intended to protect his relationship with the president. If Trump’s administration is Apocalypse Now, Morning Joe is Hearts of Darkness.

    Van Susteren, who debuted on the network with an effusive introduction from Rachel Maddow (“Greta Van Susteren is great!”) has continued her schtick of trading access for the type of softball questions and deferential approach you would expect from someone actually employed by the people she is interviewing. The show is clearly more concerned with booking big guests than with answering big questions. Van Susteren’s deferential interview with House Speaker Paul Ryan exemplified this approach, as was especially notable when she brought back the torture-substitute phrase “enhanced interrogation.” Somehow, the most newsworthy thing from a 22-minute interview with the speaker of the House was Ryan speculating about how Trump might eventually get Mexico to pay for the border wall.

    Van Susteren’s interview with Trump aide Stephen Miller about the Muslim ban was even worse. Where to even begin? Van Susteren’s first question to Miller was literally, “Have at it!” It somehow managed to get worse from there.

    The problem is not that Van Susteren is too far left or right. It’s that her style of access journalism itself enables misinformation. We are living in a post-truth era with an administration that lies even on routine matters. Giving deferential interviews to these liars only makes Van Susteren an accomplice. That she will do similar interviews with Democrats (or, one can imagine, with the few “Never Trump” Republicans left) is no defense. Journalism at its best speaks truth to power. Van Susteren’s show does the opposite.

    NBC’s leading figures seem eager for politics to get back to some sort of “normal” -- to the point that they sometimes seem in denial about who Trump really is. When the intelligence community briefed then-President Obama and then-President-elect Trump on alleged ties between Trump and Russia, leading figures at NBC and MSNBC united to downplay the claims.

    Andrea Mitchell praised the “reboot” of Sean Spicer’s first press conference (following his bizarre harangue directed at the media about inauguration size two days before), as if the Trump camp’s years-long war on the press was just a Hollywood franchise that needed a new beginning:

    Chuck Todd bizarrely claimed during the inauguration that former Breitbart chief Stephen Bannon was “not ideological.” When Trump organized a reality TV-style circus to announce a Supreme Court nomination, Todd gushed over the presentation, saying Neil Gorsuch made “an incredible first impression.”

    This is not to say that everyone at NBC and MSNBC is uniformly problematic. There are good reports coming from people working there.

    When NBC News chairman Andrew Lack began to make changes at MSNBC in late 2015, at first he was understandably putting more emphasis on breaking news capability. But things slowly began to change. Lack then touted extensive coverage of Trump on MSNBC even as the network was under fire for running a ridiculous number of Trump rallies. He also offered an assessment of geopolitics that was far more in line with Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric than with reality. When Matt Lauer interviewed both candidates during a widely panned forum, two of the very few people who praised Lauer were Lack and Trump himself. The network botched coverage of Trump on tape bragging about sexual assault, even though it owned the footage. And just yesterday, NBC News president Deborah Turness was spotted in the West Wing.

    It looks to a lot of people like NBC and MSNBC are shifting right in order to compete for the GOP audience and appeal to Trump himself. The Trump administration’s increasing comfort with MSNBC and NBC only reinforces this theory. But as Fox News could tell them, once you start giving in and moving to the right, you may have a hard time stopping.

    Graphic by Sarah Wasko