Public Editor

MSNBC public editor: The goldfish network

July 16, 2020

One of journalism’s biggest jobs, maybe the biggest, is just plain remembering. Too much is going on all the time for people to even begin to take it in coherently. If journalists don’t contextualize events, if they don’t trace out the relevant trajectories, the picture of the world they paint remains chaotic, patternless.

And this is how MSNBC operates, continually failing to remember. The network has the memory of a goldfish. If an anchor talks about what happened four years ago, she’ll be congratulated for the depth of her coverage.

A few days ago, Rachel Maddow invited Nicolle Wallace on her show to condemn Donald Trump’s eleventh-hour commutation of his friend Roger Stone’s prison sentence. Stone, Trump’s former adviser, was convicted in February of having lied to a congressional committee. Stone had been scheduled to report to prison this week; he’d be there now, had Trump not intervened.

When the Stone news broke, Maddow said that Nicolle Wallace was “the person I wanted to call and talk to about it immediately.” She introduced Wallace as a veteran of the George W. Bush White House, and said, “Nicolle, I miss you,” at which Wallace beamed.

The camera-friendly rapport between the two anchors, one somewhat liberal and the other a “nonpracticing Republican,” displays exactly the sort of chummily neutral, both-sides respectability the network aims to project. In this way, MSNBC is more of a twin than an alternative to Fox News; both networks strive (albeit with limited success, on the part of Fox) to project a “fair and balanced” image, with tame presenters from “the other side” appearing on each.

In the case of MSNBC, the friendly both-sides facade masks the unpleasant fact that viewers aren’t given the context they need in order to understand, for example, the Stone case, or the Trump administration’s more general sabotage of the rule of law. Because these things aren’t new.

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“We should remember their names forever,” Wallace said of the officials who enabled Trump. “They are all accomplices in the corruption of one of the most sacred presidential powers.”

Excellent advice, but it presents a paradox when the awkward truth of history is included. Wallace was communications director for the George W. Bush White House; the administration she served tortured and killed with impunity, thus corrupting a number of the most sacred presidential powers. It insisted that the president should operate and be treated as a king. It prepared the way for Trump.

In 2014, as a guest on MSNBC, Wallace justified the gruesome and brutal treatment and even murder of detainees—many of whom had never been convicted of any crime—as necessary to prevent “imminent attacks.” “Whatever we had to do,” she said. For her, the ends justified the means: “I don’t care what we did.”


Old-guard Republicans like Mitt Romney—who called the Stone pardon “unprecedented, historic corruption” on Twitter—the Republican strategists of the Lincoln Project, and Nicolle Wallace have made a great show of denouncing the corruption of Donald Trump.

But nobody on Maddow’s show the night of Wallace’s appearance, right or left, saw fit to mention former secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger, who was pardoned by George H.W. Bush. Bush, too, was accused of serious crimes, just like Trump is. Weinberger had been scheduled to stand trial in connection with his role in the Iran-Contra affair, in which arms were sold illegally to Iran and the proceeds shifted to the guerrilla war in Nicaragua—flouting an explicit congressional prohibition against sending military aid to the Contras.

Funding the Contras was an illegal and unconstitutional power grab on the part of the executive branch. And so Weinberger was in a position to drop the dime on Bush Sr., as well as on their former boss, Ronald Reagan. Which would explain why Bush pardoned Weinberger and five others in December of 1992, just a few days before he left office. And also why Trump’s corruption is not at all “unprecedented,” and why any former Republican discussing the Stone pardon shouldn’t be permitted to get away with saying so.

Wallace, a popular right-leaning anchor on the “left” cable news station, is herself a beneficiary of the amnesia she is railing against. We should remember her name, too; journalists should have a memory as long as the relevant history requires. All politicians—and all pundits—should be called to account for their role, and their party’s role, in creating the world we’re now living in.

It’s either that, or we can look forward, eventually, to seeing analyst Kayleigh McEnany explaining tomorrow’s news to us (but not yesterday’s) in the eternal goldfish bowl of MSNBC.

Maria Bustillos is the founding editor of Popula, an alternative news and culture magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Guardian.