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The latest Sunday shows demonstrated how not to handle misinformation-spreading Republicans
They must be called out often and aggressively — not be given a platform to confuse people.
I wrote yesterday about how Face the Nation host Margaret Brennan dropped the ball when she let Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) make obviously flawed arguments about election fraud and offered very little pushback in response. That interview combined with another from the most recent round of Sunday shows illustrates a dilemma TV news outlets face as they consider whether it’s a good idea to give airtime to elected Republicans.
On one hand, it’s completely understandable that outlets like CBS and CNN want to book elected Republicans for interviews. People like Cruz hold offices from which they can shape policy, so what they say inherently matters. These outlets also purport to cover the entire political spectrum, so it would be strange if they iced out a party that’s just a handful of seats away from controlling both chambers of Congress.
But on the other hand, journalism is supposed to be about bringing truth and clarity to complex issues — and from election integrity to vaccines to climate, muddying the waters is central to the modern GOP’s brand.
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Consider the interview that Dana Bash, host of CNN’s State of the Union, conducted with Virginia Lieutenant Governor-Elect Winsome Sears (R) on Sunday. Things began normally enough, with Bash asking Sears about her position on the bipartisan infrastructure bill — even though Virginia will receive $10 billion, Sears complained that the bill is too long — and about what her priorities will be as lieutenant governor. But it went off the rails when Bash asked Sears about vaccines.
As Sears made a case that getting Covid and having natural immunity is just as good as getting vaccinated — a position at odds with science — Bash pushed back at first, pointing out that the antibodies generated by natural infection wane over time. Bash then asked Sears to clarify whether she has been vaccinated or not — a question she refused to answer during her successful campaign with Governor-Elect Glenn Youngkin.
Sears’s response was a wild and very unscientific one. Here’s a partial transcript, followed by the video:
America, if it's nothing else, it's about liberty. It's about being able to live your life free from the government telling you what to do. And so we understand this thing about slippery slopes. The minute that I start telling you about my vaccine status, we're going to be down the bottom of the mountain trying to figure out how we got there, because now you want to know what's in my DNA, you're going to want to know this, that, and the other. In New York, you see, we have people, waiters, waiters asking people their vaccination status, and by the way, do you know what else they require? A photo ID to determine if this vaccine card you're presenting is really you. Who are we fooling? Come on. Let's say you get the vaccine, go ahead and get the vaccine, if that's what you want to do, get the vaccine. Don't force it on anybody else. We know — and by the way, media, they're not telling us that people are suffering as a result of getting the vaccine. They have all kinds of problems. I understand it might be the minuscule, but when you're the one out of 30,000 that gets it, it's important to you, so we need to tell the good, the bad and the ugly about the vaccine.
There are a couple important things to note about Sears’s comments. One, Covid vaccines do not alter a person’s DNA, so vaccine mandates are in no way equivalent with genetic testing. And second, while it is true that some people have adverse reactions to vaccines, the notion that there’s any comparison between them and the harm caused by Covid — which has now killed more than 770,000 Americans — is absurd.
But Bash didn’t make these points. Instead, she let Sears spread misinformation and then abruptly transitioned to another topic.
“Before I let you go I want to ask you about what happened in Wisconsin this past week,” she said.
Many if not most viewers of CNN don’t need Dana Bash to tell them that vaccines don’t alter DNA or have side effects comparable to getting the virus itself. But it’s likely that some less informed viewers came away from the Sears interview with the impression there’s merit to the anti-vax arguments she made, which are unsupported by the scientific facts. That’s a journalistic failure, even if it made for good TV.
Don’t interview Republicans unless you’re willing to get confrontational
So how can one resolve the dilemma between booking Republicans and not giving them a platform to spread disinformation? That answer isn’t that complicated. You have to call them on their BS early, often, and aggressively.
Ironically, perhaps the best practitioner of this approach among the Sunday morning hosts is Fox News’s Chris Wallace. Wallace is far from perfect, but one thing he reliably does is nail officials from across the political spectrum when they make flawed arguments on his show.
Taking a confrontational approach to interviews comes with risk. Cruz and Sears presumably decided to go on CBS and CNN last Sunday because they thought the interviews would make them look good. Aggressively calling these politicians out could dissuade them from appearing on the shows in the future. And from the network’s POV, being unable to book Republican guests might make their shows seem more partisan, limiting their appeal across the political spectrum.
Those downsides can’t be totally discounted, but they pale in comparison to the harm involved in platforming misinformation. More than 1,000 Americans each day are still dying from Covid, and lies about election fraud have put our democracy at risk. Facts shouldn’t be partisan, but in our current political environment they unfortunately are. Journalists should be on the side of truth, even if that puts them at odds with the GOP.
And now for something entirely different
I hope you laugh as hard at this screengrab as I did when I saw it flash across my computer monitor last night. Believe it or not, the image is from a segment that aired on OAN, not courtesy of Josh Hawley’s wife.
If you’ve missed it, Hawley is currently trying to make political hay out of the purported “left-wing attack on manhood,” including denouncing porn and video games.
"As conservatives, we've got to call men back to responsibility," Hawley told Axios earlier this month. "We've got to say that spending your time not working ... spending your time on video games, spending your time watching porn online ... is not good for you, your family or this country."
Hawley, of course, spent part of his time this year cheerleading the January 6 insurrection and voting to overturn the 2020 election. That seems like a far less constructive use of time than getting together with your buddies to throw down on some Halo.
Public Notice housekeeping
Thanks for checking out this free edition of Public Notice. While I may have another edition in your inbox later in the week depending on news events, I plan on enjoying Thanksgiving with family, and I hope you all have a nice holiday too. Cheers.