The media today: MSNBC makes the right call

How does an offhand tweet from 2009 launch a full-blown crisis for a major news network in 2017? The answer lies in the dynamics of a battle that’s raging between traditional mainstream outlets and those who hope to discredit the entire journalism profession. On Thursday, after coming under fire from viewers and journalists who accused the network of caving to pressure from far-right activist Mike Cernovich, MSNBC announced an abrupt reversal of its decision to fire contributor Sam Seder over an eight-year-old tweet about director Roman Polanski.

RELATED: MSNBC, Cernovich, and journalism’s struggle with new-media antagonists

Cernovich, who promoted the specious “pizzagate” conspiracy theory but has seen his profile rise this year following a handful of legitimate scoops, first drew attention to the tweet last week. He launched a campaign aimed at pressuring MSNBC to fire Seder, claiming that the podcast host and commentator had made light of rape charges against Polanski. In what seemed an attempt to simply make the controversy go away, MSNBC cut ties with Seder on Monday. Less than 72 hours later, however, network president Phil Griffin had apparently arrived at a conclusion that should have been clear from the beginning: Seder had been satirizing those who, at the time, were defending Polanski. 

“Sometimes you just get one wrong,” Griffin said in a statement to the Intercept’s Ryan Grim. So why does this controversy matter? The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi has a good read on the situation, writing that, “the Seder-Cernovich dust-up was relatively trivial in itself but perhaps says something about the fraught politics of the moment.”

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That fraught moment involves forces who are, as McKay Coppins wrote in CJR’s most recent print issue, “pursuing a scorched-earth assault on America’s journalistic institutions.” These anti-media antagonists, whose platforms stretch from Sean Hannity’s hour on Fox News to the fever swamps of Alex Jones’s Infowars, have set their sights on discrediting mainstream reporting, feeding an increasingly polarized distrust of the media.

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Their tactics include the sort of conspiracy-mongering that leads Hannity, Cernovich, Jones, and others to claim the media is purposefully avoiding (non-)stories like political forces involved in Seth Rich’s murder or Hillary Clinton’s health. The recent attempt by James O’Keefe to feed The Washington Post a spurious story about Roy Moore impregnating a teenager is another example of this anti-media campaign. And then there are the bad-faith attacks stemming from willful misreadings of journalists’ social media comments, resulting in Seder being briefly fired, and New York Times reporter Sopan Deb earning a public rebuke.

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Ultimately, MSNBC deserves credit for (belatedly) realizing the game that was being run. It won’t be the last network to face this sort of malicious campaign, so it’s a positive sign that the network’s leadership came around. Seder, for his part, is understanding. “MSNBC was under pressure, but anyway you slice it, what they did in basically saying ‘we got this one wrong’ took a certain amount of strength,” he told me in a phone call Thursday evening. “I hope both the backlash and the strength that MSNBC exhibited help other media outlets to follow suit.”

Here is the full story on the issue. Below you will find more on Seder, Cernovich, and journalism’s battle with its new-media antagonists.

  • Backstory: Before MSNBC announced its about-face, CNN’s Tom Kludt and Oliver Darcy broke down how a joke, and Mike Cernovich, got Sam Seder booted from MSNBC.
  • The right-wing line of attack: If you venture into right-wing analysis of this story, you’ll be reading a lot about hypocrisy. Here’s The Daily Caller’s Scott Greer with a pretty standard offering from that genre.
  • Related to the above: Over Twitter direct messages, Cernovich told me he is “thrilled” with MSNBC’s decision to rehire Seder. “It’s a game changer,” he added. “The media has said old tweets are off limits. Of course that’s not how the rules will be applied.”
  • Worth rereading: The Coppins piece I mentioned above is titled “What if the right-wing media wins?” In light of the Seder saga and O’Keefe’s failed sting, it’s vital reading.
  • A different MSNBC contributor is benched: Politico’s Cristiano Lima notes that MSNBC has removed former congressman Harold Ford Jr. from his contributor role while it investigates why he was fired by Morgan Stanley. Earlier on Thursday, Yashar Ali reported that Ford had been terminated by the investment banker “after facing a human resources investigation into allegations of misconduct.”


Correction from yesterday’s newsletter, in which I called Jonathan Schwartz, a WNYC host who has been placed on “indefinite leave” pending the results of an investigation into his behavior, “Jason.” Jason Schwartz, of course, is a great media reporter at Politico.


Other notable stories

  • CNN’s Brian Stelter reports on the escalating anti-Mueller rhetoric on Fox News, where pro-Trump opinionators are calling the special counsel’s investigation “illegitimate and corrupt.”
  • As part of the trial of the Chicago police officer accused of murdering teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014, freelance reporter Jamie Kalven has been issued a subpoena to testify and reveal details about the sources that allowed him to break the story. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has the details.
  • The New York Times now boasts “more than 3.5 million paid subscriptions and more than 130 million monthly readers,” according to Thursday’s press release. Those numbers represent a doubling of the audience it had two years ago.
  • Mic’s Kelsey Sutton reports that criminal charges against her colleague Jack Smith IV have been dismissed. Smith was arrested in February while covering the Standing Rock protests.
  • The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple questions why ABC News is “skating” on reports that one of its producers shared proprietary exit-polling data with the Trump campaign on election night.
  • “A week after [Matt] Lauer’s termination, NBC’s efforts to stabilize the situation appear to have worked—at least thus far,” report Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo and Emily Jane Fox.

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.