MSNBC contributor compares GOP lies about election theft in Florida to Democrats calling out voter suppression in Georgia
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Melissa Joskow / Media Matters
Lazy conventional wisdom is running abound in horse race coverage of the upcoming midterm elections.
The October 22 broadcast of MSNBC’s Morning Joe devoted a lengthy segment to claims that the Democratic Party has no messaging or, if it does, the message is packaged incorrectly. This evaluation of Democratic Party election efforts is evidence-free -- Democrats have largely coalesced around the issue of health care -- and it is also a gift to the Republican Party, as it plays into the argument that Democrats have no principles or plan for governance.
Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski opened the discussion by saying, “Donald Trump is talking about trade, crime, immigration, and judges. What are the Democratic issues that pack the same kind of inspiring emotional punch? Democrats can still win these midterms, but with time running out, the message and the momentum appears to be on Donald Trump’s side.”
Brzezinski's claim that Democrats have no response to Trump’s midterm rhetoric probably says more about the beltway press -- which tends to cover Trump's every move, at the expense of other topics -- than about reality.
What is happening on the ground tells a different story. Although it is important to note that the idea that a party needs a singular national message to be successful in elections is itself largely empty conventional wisdom, Democrats have unified to a great extent around the issue of health care in their messaging. Wesleyan Media Project -- an initiative that tracks and analyzes all broadcast election ads -- found in a September analysis that “Pro-Democratic messaging in federal races is concentrated primarily on healthcare, with 44 percent of airings in U.S. House races and 50 percent of airings in U.S. Senate races featuring the topic.” An October 18 report from the project stated, “It’s official: the 2018 midterms are about health care.” The “typical” message, according to an analysis by Vox, is that “the Republicans voted to take away people’s health care and end Obamacare’s protections for people with preexisting conditions.”
The media, however, have largely not been interested in covering health care policy, which could explain the perception that Democrats have no message on the issue. An October 19 Media Matters analysis found that broadcast nightly news shows did not air a single substantive segment about health care policy between January 1 and October 18
Despite Brzezinski's suggestion that Democrat messaging is inept, polling suggests that what the Democrats are doing is working. According to Morning Consult, a survey research company, the “strategy” to focus on health care “is paying off” because it is a high priority issue for voters and “voters who say health care is their top priority favor Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 28 points.”
Republicans have also been clearly put on the defensive by this messaging strategy. As The New York Times reported on October 16, “For months, Democratic candidates have been running hard on health care, while Republicans have said little about it. In a sign of the issue’s potency, Republicans are now playing defense, releasing a wave of ads promising they will preserve protections for Americans with pre-existing health conditions.” (It should be noted that these ads include false claims -- many of the Republicans running them have clear voting records of supporting legislation that would threaten mandatory coverage of pre-existing conditions.)
After Brzezinski’s opening, co-host Joe Scarborough and frequent show panelist Mike Barnicle offered a factually incorrect analysis of Democrats’ communication strategy around health care. They both essentially attacked Democrats for not effectively messaging on the issue, even though Democrats are actually messaging in the ways that Scarborough and Barincle said they should be.
Scarborough said, “So, if the Republican issue that they’re going to lean on is immigration, the Democratic issue is health care. I haven’t heard a compelling argument about health care.” He then claimed, “All they would have to say is the same exact thing that [then-President] Bill Clinton said [in 1996] for the next two weeks and they’d win a landslide and it’s this: Republicans are coming for your Medicare to pay for their tax cuts for the rich. … All they have to say is Republicans are coming after your Social Security and your Medicare to pay for tax cuts for the rich. Boom. They can’t put a sentence together like that. They are incapable.”
But that is largely what Democrats are saying. According to the Wesleyan analysis, ads supporting Democrats running for House seats are mentioning health care 44 percent of the time, Medicare 18 percent of the time, Social Security 17 percent of the time, and taxes 14 percent of the time. So what Scarborough says Democrats are incapable of talking about are actually the four top issues that they are messaging on:
And in the Senate, Democrats are mentioning health care in 50 percent of ads and prescription drugs in 16 percent of ads.
Barnicle went a step further, saying of Democrats running for House seats: “All they talk about is impeaching the president, when all they would have to do, as Joe just referenced, is go to the country and say, ‘If you have a child who is sick, you better pray that the Republicans don’t take control again because your child will be in severe danger of losing health care.’” But as the Weslayan analysis showed, in the House, Democrats are running on health care, not impeachment.
Another example of lazy horse race coverage occurred during the October 22 broadcast of CNN’s New Day when David Gregory said: “It’s also disturbing -- I mean, if you look at both parties, what they are really selling their supporters is anger and fear. That’s the vision for the country, which is pretty ugly during an ugly time following an ugly political episode with the confirmation of Justice [Brett] Kavanaugh.”
There is really no comparison between Republicans and Democrats engaging in fearmongering as an election tactic. For weeks, Trump, the GOP, and its conservative media allies have argued without evidence that the Republican supporters are in danger of being killed by angry mobs of Democrats. And now Trump and his allies are coalescing on racist messaging that a caravan of migrants from Central America is poised to invade the U.S. While examples of divisive Democratic messaging can certainly be found, two of the party’s most high-profile candidates -- Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke and Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum -- have made aspirational messaging about healing political divides in the U.S. a primary argument of their candidacies.
— Adam Best (@adamcbest) October 22, 2018
Horse race punditry is often shallow on election coverage, but analysis should not be so poor that it is clearly at odds with reality.
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A segment on MSNBC’s Morning Joe covering Serena Williams’ loss in the U.S. Open final included commentary by three white pundits, who all criticized Williams, and a sole Black commentator, who defended her actions and argued that she set a good example for young women. The segment was a stark example of why newsroom diversity matters, and what happens when the dominant voices in the media are white ones.
During the match, chair umpire Carlos Ramos repeatedly penalized Williams. Many in the media and on social media platforms have noted the gendered and racist nature of the violations against Williams. Some pointed out that male players have rarely been penalized for similar actions or for showing emotion on the court.
The three white commentators on Morning Joe seemed largely unmoved by these arguments. Mike Lupica, a sports journalist, argued that Williams was “was out of line” and claimed that she had “priors at this event,” referring to past instances where Williams reacted strongly at the tournament. He also attempted to disconnect the umpire’s decisions from Williams’ race, suggesting that the violations could not have been rooted in racism because Williams’ opponent Naomi Osaka is of Japanese and Haitian descent. Co-host Joe Scarborough attempted to dismiss arguments of sexism, denying that the extreme, and often unpenalized, rants of former men's tennis player John McEnroe demonstrate that Williams was treated differently because of her gender. Instead he claimed that Williams was penalized because “the codes, a lot of the standards were changed to stop the sort of verbal abuse that John McEnroe heaped on umps.” His co-host Mika Brzezinski claimed that Williams’ behavior is not “becoming whether a man does it or a woman does it.”
The only commentator who defended Williams’ actions was Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, who also happened to be the only Black person included in the segment. Glaude noted that the umpire’s decision was akin to “throwing Lebron James out in Game 7.” He said he understood “exactly her emotion, her anger” and argued that Williams was “absolutely justified in standing up for herself” and “point[ing] out the very gendered way in which she was responded to.” He also suggested that, “every young girl in this country who saw it should look up to her in that moment and stand up for themselves and not be disciplined by how they're supposed to behave in those moments.”
From the September 10 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe:
Glaude’s empathy for Williams, as compared to Lupica, Scarborough, and Brzezinski’s apathy, is evidence of the importance of cable programs having diverse voices, especially while discussing issues of race and gender. But, while the systemic racism and overwhelming whiteness of media is a problem for many reasons, it's also an accuracy problem:
The absence of people of color in newsrooms and on television allows the biases of white journalists and commentators to go unchecked, resulting in reporting that often overlooks important angles, privileges one side of a story, and fails to provide necessary context to understand news events.
Media diversity isn't a luxury good that can be jettisoned for the sake of convenience. White newsrooms are broken newsrooms.
Former Fox News host Eric Bolling, who was fired last year, appeared as a guest on the July 23 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe to promote his new CRTV show.
In 2017, Bolling was fired from sexual misconduct hub Fox News after HuffPost reported he had sent an “unsolicited photo of male genitalia via text message” to at least three Fox colleagues.Despite this alleged sexual misconduct and a long record of pushing bigotry and promoting conspiracy theories, Bolling just got a new show on Mark Levin’s CRTV, home of like-minded bigot and misogynist Gavin McInnes.
Bolling’s return to the airwaves is part of a larger trend of wealthy media men reported for sexual misconduct who are being allowed to make comebacks they have not earned. On his show, Bolling is unsurprisingly already getting cozy with other pro-Trump sycophants.
During his MSNBC appearance, Bolling talked about a 15-minute call he had this past weekend with President Donald Trump, of whom he’s a self-described “fan.” Bolling shared the insights from the call, praised Trump, and claimed Trump's state of mind was “amazing,” saying, “He was fine. He was in a good place.”
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Researchers found that Kavanaugh "is an uncommonly partisan judge" who "justified his decisions with conservative doctrines far more than his colleagues," particularly in the run-up to elections
On July 9, President Donald Trump nominated conservative D.C. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court in a move that would undoubtedly shift the court far to the right and out of step with the American people. Many media figures, though, have casted Kavanaugh as a centrist pick, citing his ties to former President George W. Bush and saying he is less conservative than other potential nominees.
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough called Kavanaugh “such a mainstream pick” and praised him for voicing opposition to indicting a sitting president, saying it “speaks to the content of the judge’s character” because it was written under a Democratic president.
CNN senior political analyst and occasional host John Avlon praised Trump’s choice as “not as far right” as many of the other options he had considered. After CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin disputed that characterization, fellow commentator David Gregory dug in, saying, “Any Republican would have made this selection.”
The New York Times published a July 9 opinion piece on its website written by a liberal friend and former law professor of Kavanaugh’s, which Fox News exploited as evidence of widespread bipartisan support for the nominee.
A New York Times article described him as “often a moderating force.”
On CBS This Morning, Dan Senor, a Republican strategist and former colleague of Kavanaugh’s in the George W. Bush administration, said he’s “not some fire-brand right-winger” and argued that other Republicans also would have nominated him.
MSNBC political commentator Bret Stephens claimed that Kavanaugh is “within the broad mainstream of the American movement.”
But data shows that Kavanaugh is “an uncommonly partisan judge” who has historically “tended to dissent more often along partisan lines than his peers,” according to research compiled by social scientists Elliott Ash and Daniel L. Chen. They also noted that Kavanaugh “justified his decisions with conservative doctrines far more than his colleagues” and that his right-leaning partisan decisions ramped up in the midst of presidential elections, “suggesting that he feels personally invested in national politics.” Additionally, Kavanaugh’s views on the environment, labor, LGBTQ discrimination, reproductive rights, gun safety, and immigration -- which are often out of step with those of the majority of Americans -- have won him the support of some of the most extreme factions, including extremist anti-LGBTQ groups and nativists like Ann Coulter and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
In a May 8 column that lionized the members of the so-called “intellectual dark web,” New York Times opinion columnist Bari Weiss misled her audience by portraying commentators known for inflammatory rhetoric about oppressed minorities as intellectuals exiled into the “dark web,” a name for the hard-to-reach areas of the internet. The cast of characters she profiled is far from being exiled to the dark web. In fact, they profit from broadcasting bigoted ideas on platforms that reach massive audiences.
In her column, Weiss glorified Jordan Peterson, the “alt-right’s” favorite professor who has repeatedly appeared on Fox to push anti-trans myths, and praised former Breitbart writer Ben Shapiro, without disclosing his history of bigotry. Instead, Weiss portrayed them both as martyrs for the criticism they get for voicing bigoted opinions. The term “intellectual dark web” is a useful branding ploy for bigoted commentators and far-right figures, as, according to Right Richter’s Will Sommer, “They’re appealing to this kind of forbidden nature of the knowledge they're discussing.” Weiss went on the May 8 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe to promote her piece, where the hosts did not push her to address any of the valid, thoughtful criticisms of her piece many journalists have shared on Twitter:
This has to be the worst work I've seen in the Times in ages. Not only are they full platforming these loons, the entire premise of this article is wrong; this ""movement"" is not new, it's decades old, and 30 seconds of research would have told you so. https://t.co/yjZViBEM5p
— Kelly Weill (@KELLYWEILL) May 8, 2018
ah yes, ben shapiro, shunned for standing up to his own and definitely not for this kind of shit pic.twitter.com/d5KPKRF1tD
— Ashley Feinberg (@ashleyfeinberg) May 8, 2018
i know i shouldn’t be surprised but it’s astounding how dishonest this is and the most frustrating thing is that, without a public editor, the times has absolutely no reason to force itself to reckon with that https://t.co/3AlZWQZCAf
— Ashley Feinberg (@ashleyfeinberg) May 8, 2018
That was the first and only story Soh wrote at Pacific Standard, so it's not as though she lost a job over it. It was clearly just a one-off freelance piece. https://t.co/Szm5O596CK
— Parker Molloy (@ParkerMolloy) May 8, 2018
here’s a good example. i’ve been super interested in Joe Rogan’s podcast and it’s influence for a long time now. Weiss got a chance to ask him about having Alex Jones on his show and then let’s him give this wishy washy “i’m not an interviewer or a journalist” answer! pic.twitter.com/OwcuSPP2Dp
— Charlie Warzel (@cwarzel) May 8, 2018
shorter Bari Weiss: rich media figures with massive platforms who frequently appear on/are published in mainstream outlets are actually brave free speech martyrs being silenced (a terrible take that she's managed to publish like 50 times) https://t.co/zC5qvDxwXQ
— Caleb Ecarma (@calebecarma) May 8, 2018
The Bari Weiss article was horrible. Contrary to what the misinformed piece says, the "Intellectual Dark Web" is actually full of conspiratorial grifters like @benshapiro @jordanbpeterson and @SamHarrisOrg using "facts and logic" to justify islamophobia, misogyny and race science pic.twitter.com/K4jdRf1tru
— Nathan Bernard (@nathanTbernard) May 8, 2018
would love for my ideas to be silenced by a glossy spread in the NYT
— Stephanie Russell-Kraft (@srussellkraft) May 8, 2018
— Dylan Matthews (@dylanmatt) May 8, 2018
here's the deal, in exchange for getting a cushy job as an editor at the NYT you no longer get to do the WHY IS NO ONE IN THE MEDIA TALKING ABOUT THIS schtick. That's not a thing youre allowed to do anymore when you literally decide what's published at the New York goddamn Times.
— Adam H. Johnson (@adamjohnsonNYC) May 8, 2018
and they ran a con advertising campaign to get liberals to subscribe and then fed them shit https://t.co/plRuUbuJCe
— Atrios (@Atrios) May 8, 2018
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Fox News’ morning show, Fox & Friends, completely ignored the bombshell report that Mick Mulvaney, President Donald Trump’s interim director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, admitted that when he was a congressman he wouldn't meet with lobbyists unless they had made financial contributions to his campaign.
On April 24, The New York Times reported that Mulvaney, while speaking at an American Bankers Association conference, encouraged banking industry executives to make donations to lawmakers to push their agenda. According to the Times, Mulvaney “revealed that, as a congressman, he would meet only with lobbyists if they had contributed to his [congressional] campaign.” The newspaper quoted Mulvaney saying, “If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”
The next morning, Fox & Friends did not mention the story at all in its broadcast. The other cable news morning shows, CNN’s New Day and MSNBC’s Morning Joe, discussed the news in detail throughout the morning. While much of the coverage was critical of Mulvaney’s behavior, some pundits, including CNN’s David Gregory and Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs, diminished his ethical pitfalls and blamed the American political system for allowing this type of corruption. Others correctly noted that these type of ethical scandals are particularly prevalent in the Trump administration.
Fox & Friends has gone to great lengths to cover up other scandals in the Trump administration. The show has downplayed Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt’s ethics problems, avoided coverage of Trump aide Rob Porter’s reported domestic abuse, and attacked other media outlets for reporting on administration scandals.
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Like other Trump officials, Zinke heavily favors the president's favorite network
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has appeared on Fox News four times more often than on the other major cable and broadcast networks combined, Media Matters has found. And for the last nine-plus months, as Zinke has been increasingly dogged by scandals, he has not given interviews to any major channels other than Fox networks.
In exhibiting a clear preference for Fox News during his 13-plus months in office, Zinke is following the same pattern as many of President Donald Trump’s other cabinet officials and top aides, including Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt.
Zinke has gotten soft treatment on Fox News. During his interviews, the network's hosts and journalists rarely asked about his scandals. Instead of confronting him with tough questions, they let him peddle Trump administration talking points and trumpet brand-burnishing policies such as “Bring Your Dog to Work Day.”
Zinke gave 13 interviews to Fox News and one each to CNN, MSNBC, and CBS. From March 1, 2017, when Zinke was sworn in, to April 17, 2018, Zinke appeared on Fox News 13 times. He granted only one on-air interview apiece to the other major cable news networks, CNN and MSNBC. On broadcast TV, Zinke appeared only on CBS; he gave no interviews to ABC or NBC.
Zinke appeared most often on Fox & Friends, a show that shapes Trump’s decision-making. Here are all of Zinke's appearances on Fox News during his time as interior secretary:
Fox & Friends’ interviews with Zinke were good examples of how he was treated across the network. When the hosts were not feting him for his Navy Seal service or lauding him for enacting Trump's deregulatory agenda, they allowed Zinke’s statements on policy to go unchallenged. Zinke's September 20 appearance on Fox & Friends stands out for its breeziness. Host Brian Kilmeade accompanied Zinke on a tour of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and neglected to ask the secretary about a controversial recommendation Zinke had made just days earlier to shrink four national monuments, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah.
Here are Zinke's appearances on major networks other than Fox:
Zinke’s preference for Fox extended to the Fox Business Network, which he has appeared on seven times, compared to once on rival CNBC. Fox Business, like Fox News, regularly echoes Trump administration talking points and attacks the administration's perceived enemies. Fox Business host Lou Dobbs even has the ear of the president, who has invited Dobbs to participate in senior-level meetings via phone.
Here are Zinke's appearances on Fox Business programs:
Zinke's sole appearance on CNBC was on Squawk Box on June 29, 2017.
Zinke started getting a notable amount of bad press last summer after an article published on July 26 revealed that he tried to strong-arm Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) into voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Since then, Zinke, like Pruitt and others in Trump's cabinet, has been at the center of numerous scandals involving excessive travel expenses, favors for donors, and undisclosed financial ties to companies that could benefit from his agency’s decisions.
All of the TV interviews Zinke did with networks other than Fox or Fox Business happened prior to July 26, 2017, after which point his controversies began generating significant media attention.
Once scandals cropped up, Zinke retreated fully to his safe space. For more than nine months now, Zinke has not granted a single interview to any major TV network other than Fox News or Fox Business.
On September 28, The Washington Post and Politico reported that Zinke spent more than $12,000 of taxpayer funds to charter a flight from Las Vegas to near his Montana home on a plane owned by oil and gas executives. Commercial flights between the airports run daily and cost as little as $300, the Post reported. Zinke's jaunt was widely reported across cable news the week after the story broke, but more widely on MSNBC and CNN than on Fox.
From September 28 to October 4, MSNBC ran 27 segments that mentioned Zinke’s travel, while CNN ran 23. The networks' hosts, correspondents, and guests usually brought up Zinke’s travel scandal during wider conversations that included mention of other cabinet members' extravagant travel.
During the same period, Fox News ran 12 segments about Zinke’s travel -- roughly half as many as each of the other cable news networks. Most of Fox's mentions of Zinke's travel were news alerts restating basic facts from the Post article. When Fox News hosts and correspondents discussed the story on air, they usually downplayed or excused the scandal. For example, on America’s News Headquarters on September 29, White House Correspondent John Roberts said that Zinke was “taking The Washington Post to task” before airing Zinke’s defense for taking private flights. Later in the show, host Sandra Smith remarked, “Zinke makes a fair point,” and noted that he got approval for other controversial flights he took on government planes.
On April 16, 2018, the Interior Department’s (DOI) inspector general released a report that found Zinke's $12,375 charter flight "could have been avoided." Zinke took the chartered flight so he would have time in his schedule to give a motivational speech to a hockey team owned by a major donor to Zinke's former congressional campaign. The speech did not mention Zinke's work at the Department of Interior. The inspector general’s report concluded, "If ethics officials had known Zinke’s speech would have no nexus to the DOI, they likely would not have approved this as an official event, thus eliminating the need for a chartered flight. Moreover, had ethics officials been made aware that the Golden Knights’ owner had been a donor to Zinke’s congressional campaign, it might have prompted further review and discussion."
Kevin Kalhoefer contributed research to this report. Charts by Sarah Wasko.
Media Matters searched the following terms in Nexis and iQ media to find Zinke’s on-air TV appearances from the date he was sworn in as secretary of the interior on March 1, 2017, to April 17, 2018: “Zinke OR Zinky OR Interior Secretary OR Secretary of the Interior OR Secretary of Interior.” We used the same terms to search cable news networks’ coverage of Zinke’s travel controversy from September 28 to October 4, 2017.
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