The Media Today

Platforming Big Liars four months on from the insurrection

May 5, 2021

Yesterday, the Washington Post hosted a live video chat with Josh Hawley, the Republican senator for Missouri. The interview was billed as being about Hawley’s new book on the “tyranny of big tech,” but before discussing that, Cat Zakrzewski, a tech-policy reporter, asked Hawley about tyranny of a different type—the coup attempt at the Capitol, which took place four months ago tomorrow, and Hawley’s responsibility for it. (He refused, both before and after the insurrection, to certify Joe Biden’s election victory, and made a fist-pump gesture toward protesters.) In response, Hawley offered bluster about “election integrity,” whataboutism targeting Democrats, and technicalities about supposed legal irregularities in Pennsylvania; Zakrzewski tried to intercede on a factual point, but Hawley pressed on. “Don’t try to censor, cancel, and silence me here,” he said. “Senator,” Zakrzewski replied, “we’re hosting you here.”

Online, the Post’s decision to host Hawley was a point of contention among media-watchers, many of whom feared beforehand that the event would whitewash his complicity in the insurrection. Their fears were fed by the way the Post teed up the event—as Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton noted, the paper’s live video platform is billed as an “extension” of its journalism, and yet it posted a biography of Hawley that was provided by Regnery, his conservative publisher, and that spoke of his reputation “for taking on the big and the powerful to protect Missouri workers,” and as “a fierce defender of the Constitution.” (Initially, the Post disclosed the Regnery sourcing at the bottom of the bio; the disclosure is now at the top.) The Post described the interview, meanwhile, as intending to cover Hawley’s book, his plan to break up big tech, and “the Republican Party in the post-Trump era,” with no mention of January 6—wording that smacked, critics felt, of promotion for a book tour. In the end, Zakrzewski did ask about the riot, but the critics weren’t all mollified. Zakrzewski “tried within the limits of the form to ‘hold him accountable,’” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, tweeted. “But the form says one or two follow-ups at most. You can’t blow up the interview. You try. You move on. Given that, I don’t think the results justified the gift of platform.” The Post, he added, “showed it has no ideas about how to hold an insurrectionist accountable. A list of tough questions is not a strategy.”

From the Existential Issue: The revelatory art of Minerva Cuevas

The Hawley event entered into a longer-term conversation about whether and how the media should platform the Republicans who abetted Trump’s election lies, from those who formally challenged the results to colleagues who did not, but did either cast doubt on, or remain silent about, Biden’s win long after it became clear—allowing the “Big Lie” to gather momentum. This debate actually predates the insurrection (Matt Negrin, a former journalist and producer who has since been a ferocious critic of media amnesia about January 6, suggested in December that TV hosts ask their Republican guests to acknowledge that Biden won and kick those who refused off air); in the immediate aftermath, calls to never forget intensified as what looked like accountability for Trump and his enablers rippled through the worlds of media, tech, and society at large. In the months since, major news organizations have continued to aggressively cover the day of the insurrection itself—but have also (with some exceptions) allowed top Republicans to slam Biden without questioning them, or posting reminders, about their complicity. WITF, a public-radio station in Pennsylvania, has bucked the trend—incorporating such reminders into every story it runs on lawmakers who challenged the election, regardless of its subject. Bigger outlets have not followed suit. The day after the insurrection, Simon & Schuster dropped Hawley’s book. This week, a major newspaper copy-pasted PR from the book’s new publisher.

In recent days, the media debate about platforming and the insurrection has swelled again, and not just because of the Hawley event. Over the weekend, Margaret Sullivan, a media critic at the Post, wrote a widely-shared column drawing attention to WITF’s stance, and CNN’s Pamela Brown pushed back on the Republican Senator Roger Marshall’s refusal to certify the election (and request that she “move on” from discussing it), before inviting Rosen on air to discuss the proper approach to such interviews; yesterday, meanwhile, Brown’s colleague Jake Tapper asked on air why he should put serial liars on TV, and ABC’s Terry Moran asked Paris Dennard, a GOP spokesperson, to accept Biden’s legitimacy nine times without getting a clear answer. The Big Lie is also back at the top of the political news cycle, a result of Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House, insisting on calling it out, and the growing likelihood that she will lose her leadership role as a result. If media types are again agreeing loudly that accountability for Big Liars is essential, however, there’s still no consensus on how to deliver it. Rosen noted yesterday, after posting a clip of Moran grilling Dennard, that his followers seemed split: “A third say: They have to do this every time. A third say: Why do you even have these people on? A third say: After the first (or second) refusal, the interview should be over.”

Meanwhile, attention is returning, too, to accountability in the tech space—shortly after this newsletter is published, the Facebook Oversight Board, a sort of Supreme Court that the company established to rule on content-moderation decisions, will announce whether or not it believes Trump should be allowed to return to Facebook, after the platform suspended him for inciting violence around the insurrection. Major outlets have eagerly been counting down to the decision which will, indeed, be interesting and important, from the points of view of online speech, political power, and Facebook’s governance structures. It will also, legitimately, be contentious—Trump is a threat, but so, too, is the huge power of unelected tech executives. As my colleague Mathew Ingram noted yesterday, there are consistency questions at stake, too.

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Whatever the outcome, news organizations should keep in mind, while covering it, that Facebook is not the only or final arbiter of accountability and attention—we play that role, too. If the Oversight Board confirms Trump’s ban, the threat of election denialism across every platform, including in the media, will remain urgent; if Trump is reinstated, reporters will not be obligated to amplify all the lies that he will inevitably post. No matter what Hawley may think, editorial judgments about the people we platform, and the questions we ask them, do not constitute censorship—these choices are, rightly, ours. When it comes to those who incited the insurrection, news organizations should, as Rosen suggests, situate such choices within a broader strategy for accountability. Not every outlet need have the same plan—some might be well-placed to conduct challenging interviews that expose lies; others might be safer ignoring them—but having a plan is important. As WITF has proven, shackling Big Liars to their actions, even in some small way, can work in a longer-term way than just debating accountability when the Big Lie happens to pop back up in the news cycle. The danger doesn’t have a news peg.

Below, more on the insurrection and accountability:

  • Blog standard: Yesterday, ahead of Facebook’s decision and following months of promises to set up his own rival, Trump finally launched a new “social network” that, in reality, is pretty much just a blog on his website. “The new ‘platform’ is styled like a generic version of Twitter but hosted as a running blog of commentary from Trump,” Makena Kelly reports for The Verge. “People can sign up for post alerts on the platform through their email and phone numbers and are allegedly able to like them, although that function doesn’t appear to work as of publication.”
  • “Low energy” jab: Politico’s Jack Shafer argues that the Facebook Oversight Board’s decision will matter less than Trump’s own desire to return to the public arena and make real news, which, so far in his post-presidency, seems to have deserted him. “Trump’s half-hearted attempts at gearing up his movement suggest he doesn’t really care as much about returning to Facebook as he lusts, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, to be a member of a club that doesn’t want him as a member,” Shafer writes. “Trump has voluntarily set aside his publicity hoggery, and the media diet continues to slim him.”
  • Mic, Cheney: As the Cheney v. Big Lie story took shape, Fox News mostly ignored it, but that changed yesterday when Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader who, like Hawley, voted to overturn the election results, went on Fox & Friends for an interview in which he said he had “heard from members concerned” about Cheney’s ability to “carry out the message” in her job. Later, Axios reported that McCarthy was caught on a hot mic telling Steve Doocy, a host of Fox & Friends, that he personally has “had it” with Cheney and suspects a motion to remove her from leadership “will probably take place.”
  • A request: On Monday, fourteen major news organizations, including CNN, the Post, and the New York Times, asked a DC District Court judge to allow them to access video footage of the insurrection that has been presented as evidence in court but has not yet been made public, for reasons, CNN’s Katelyn Polantz reports, that include “court access restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic, technological challenges, the massive ongoing investigation and the Justice Department’s own refusals.” The judge ordered the Justice Department to respond quickly to the request.

A programming note:
We’re continuing to roll out our latest issue of the magazine, which asks the question “What is journalism?” In an entirely digital project, composed of five chapters, we’re confronting the assumptions we make about our work—so much so that we’ve referred to this as “the Existential Issue.” Today we encourage you to read the introduction by Kyle Pope, the editor and publisher of CJR, and check out Chapter 3: How. And as a bonus, come by Galley, our discussion platform, for a panel on journalism labor and production in the digital age, featuring Maya Binyam, Maria Bustillos, Joshua Hunt, and other CJR contributors.

Other notable stories: 

  • For CJR’s Existential Issue, Jack Herrera profiles Minerva Cuevas, an artist who confronts “starvation, ecological decline, neoliberalism, and borders” in her work. “A reporter’s place is often on the periphery, producing a story for people who may be distant from its subjects,” Herrera writes. “As I continued to study Cuevas’s work, I found that it has much in common with the process and purpose of journalism but that her way of doing things pursues, above all, intimacy.” And, “where the press tends to make complicated truths simple, Cuevas is inclined toward abstraction and uncertainty.”
  • Yesterday, Twitter announced that it is acquiring Scroll, a service whose subscribers can visit participating news sites, such as The Atlantic and the Daily Beast, without seeing ads. As part of the deal, Scroll will shutter one of its products, Nuzzel, which aggregated the stories being shared in Twitter users’ feeds, without the noise. Twitter will integrate Scroll into a subscription package that it is planning to launch, and has promised, too, to replicate “the core elements of Nuzzel” on its site. Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire has more.
  • The pandemic was expected to wreck news organizations’ live-events businesses—but Mark Jacob writes, for the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University, that some local outlets were able to make “an impressive shift to virtual, sometimes even ramping up their level of connection to their audience.” The Texas Tribune, for one, exploited the low-cost logistics of going online to host “more events with an increased profit margin.”
  • Yesterday, PBS announced that Yamiche Alcindor, its White House correspondent, will moderate Washington Week, the network’s Friday-night political show. Alcindor will succeed Robert Costa, a Washington Post reporter, and follow in the footsteps of her mentor, the late Gwen Ifill. When Alcindor got the job, “I basically instantly cried, thinking about Gwen,” she told the Times. Ifill “put her stamp on the legacy of the show.”
  • For our issue, CJR’s Alexandria Neason compared watching livestreams of protests on Twitch to public access television. Livestreams turn the camera away from politicians and toward the people, Neason writes. “The evolutionary offspring of public access broadcasting, this footage reflects a value system based on public empowerment—and the ways in which commercial news media fail to meet the needs of their audiences.”
  • Eric Nelson, the attorney representing Derek Chauvin, the white former Minneapolis cop who was recently convicted of murdering George Floyd, wants a new trial for his client. In a motion filed yesterday, Nelson accused the judge in the case of undermining “fairness” by refusing to move the proceedings from Minneapolis, and not doing more to shield jurors from intense media coverage. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has more.
  • An anonymous group of current and former staffers at The Believer and the Black Mountain Institute pushed back on the LA Times’s characterization of the resignation of Joshua Wolf Shenk, who ran both institutions and recently exposed his genitals on a Zoom call. The staffers said that the article privileged Shenk’s account of an “unfortunate accident,” when the incident rather reflected a pattern of callous and “abusive” behavior.
  • Also for our issue, CJR’s Amanda Darrach made a “sound tour” of New York pirate-radio stations with David Goren, a producer and archivist who created the Brooklyn Pirate Radio Sound Map. New York has about a hundred pirate stations, more than anywhere else in the country, and they provide “a vital service to immigrant populations,” Darrach writes—but they are now “at risk of extinction” from regulators. You can listen here.
  • And The Guardian turns two hundred years old today. To mark the anniversary, the paper ran a special cover featuring seven mastheads that it has used over the years, and also printed pullout copies of its first ever edition, from 1821. “Times change,” Katharine Viner, the paper’s editor in chief, writes, “but The Guardian’s values don’t.”

ICYMI: Kevin Merida takes the top job at the LA Times

Update: This post has been updated to correct Kevin McCarthy’s title.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.