On Mick Mulvaney, Ketanji Brown Jackson, cynicism, and idealism

Last week, CBS News announced that Mick Mulvaney, who led the Office of Management and Budget and served as acting chief of staff under President Trump, had joined its ranks as an on-air contributor. For his first appearance in that capacity, he was invited onto a “MoneyWatch” segment to, as the CBS News Twitter account put it, “break down” President Biden’s plan for a wealth tax on the super-rich. Anne-Marie Green, the anchor, introduced Mulvaney as a former OMB director without specifying whose OMB he directed, calling him “the guy to ask about this” before getting him to explain how Biden’s proposal might work, the obstacles it might face, and whether the “regular, working-class American” should care. “It’s easy to look at it and say, Don’t worry, you’re not going to pay this,” Mulvaney said. “There is that issue, though, of how they’re going to prove that they don’t have to pay it. That could be troublesome: every single year proving that you’re not worth a hundred million dollars.”

Media critics were soon up in arms about Mulvaney’s appearance and CBS’s broader decision to hire him—“one of the most egregious violations of media ethics I’ve ever witnessed”; “one can only assume that the CBS newsroom leadership has suffered a mass amnesia event”; “Cronkite wept”—often pointing to his complicity in Trump’s attempted extortion of Ukraine (which looks even worse now than it did at the time), the time he called covid a “media hoax,” and his prediction that, should Trump lose the 2020 election, he would “concede gracefully.” According to the Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr, CBS staffers were variously “embarrassed” and “baffled” by the hire given Mulvaney’s sparing history with the truth; one employee told the Hollywood Reporter’s Alex Weprin that while insiders were not as angry as the outside observers, Mulvaney’s ties to Trump should at least have been disclosed during the wealth-tax segment. Per Barr, the CBS standards department subsequently reminded staff to “always identify” a guest’s “relevant background and biographical information,” including which administration they served. (It’s not clear if Mulvaney’s current lobbying commitments should count, too, but CBS’s announcement of his hiring certainly didn’t mention them.) The text accompanying the online version of the wealth-tax segment still doesn’t link Mulvaney to Trump.

New from CJR: ‘A kind of hell for journalists’

The most eye-catching quote in Barr’s story actually predated the Mulvaney announcement, with Neeraj Khemlani, the co-head of CBS News, reported to have told staff, in a meeting last month, that when it comes to contributor hires, “being able to make sure that we are getting access to both sides of the aisle is a priority, because we know the Republicans are going to take over, most likely, in the midterms.” There’s nothing out of the ordinary in former politicians taking cushy gigs as TV talking heads—some even land their own shows—or political reporting turning on access to powerful people, as tedious as the former, and compromising as the latter, can be. As the Post’s Margaret Sullivan has argued, however, Khemlani’s rationale was unusually explicit in its cynicism. “The question arises here: Access to what?” Sullivan asked. “To those who will spout the ‘big lie’ about the 2020 election? To those who will excuse and arrange for corrupt behavior?” She then pointed to the “larger issue” with Khemlani’s words: “the news media’s blind and relentless pandering to the outdated notion that both sides of the aisle are pretty much equal.”

If the merits of access journalism are highly debatable, the “both sides” impulse, to my mind, is a more urgent problem. It has proved remarkably persistent—impervious, even, to mounting evidence to the contrary—and it can take many forms. Sullivan is right that Khemlani’s stated rationale was overtly cynical: the political reality is that the Republicans will probably soon control Congress; we need access to them; let’s hire Mick Mulvaney. But a similar impulse often finds expression in sunnier ways—not least the media practice of relentlessly waxing nostalgic for the bygone days of bipartisanship in Washington, rooted less in cold calculations about the balance of political power than the belief that bipartisanship is a good thing, a proxy for unity, consensus, and the healing of painful divisions. This framing was rampant in much early coverage of the Biden administration and it hasn’t gone away, even as Biden’s pledge to restore legislative cooperation—never fully, or even primarily, in his grasp—has clearly proved DOA. (The Sunday shows have continued to be one particularly prolific vector of such thinking. This past weekend, CNN’s Dana Bash ended a blue-versus-red panel debate on immigration policy with “a reminder that there was a time when people worked together on this issue.”)

Perhaps because I’m British, I’ve always found the idea of bipartisanship as an end in itself to be bizarre—sure, the US political system is less adversarial than that of the UK, and so bipartisanship is more often necessary to get stuff done, but that doesn’t make the stuff that is being done good, or the stuff that doesn’t inspire consensus bad. Every country has its political myths. The more immediate problem is the apparent refusal of many in political media to recognize that, even on its own terms, the prospect of meaningful bipartisanship is pretty much dead and that the Republican side of the aisle bears disproportionate responsibility for this, before we even get into GOP attacks on the fabric of the democratic system itself. Lots of journalists—an increasing number, I would say—recognize and have articulated this state of affairs. Too many, though, still seem to lament it as something that just kinda happened, or for which both sides are equally responsible, while watching with hawk eyes for signs of a truce.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The Supreme Court confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, which could be finalized as soon as tomorrow, is a case in point. Throughout the process, major news organizations have expended a thoroughly disproportionate amount of energy on the question of whether any Republican senators might support Jackson (in the end, three will do so), even though Democratic and Republican votes count the same and Democrats don’t need the latter to get her on the court. The support of Susan Collins does not strike me as warranting a headline or push notification much more than that, say, of her fellow Maine senator, Angus King; in fact, neither warrants centering, since Jackson’s record and credentials, and the historic nature of her nomination, are what matter here. (As MSNBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin, who also took issue with the push notifications, has pointed out, describing Jackson’s confirmation as “bipartisan,” while technically now accurate, also risks implying much broader Republican support than she will actually get.)

There is a real debate to be had here, about the value and ongoing tenability of the idea that senators should vote for qualified Supreme Court nominees regardless of the party of the president who appoints them; this tradition has clearly slipped in recent years, and both sides have been complicit, if that’s the right word, in its erosion. Again, however, describing this state of affairs as something that just kinda happened or for which both sides are equally responsible is an oversimplification at best, and a distortion at worst. Our job, ultimately, should always be to cover the arguments around individual confirmation fights on their merits—and on this occasion, the most prominent right-wing arguments against Jackson have been strikingly meritless, not least the ridiculous, QAnon-adjacent smear that she is soft on pedophilia. This reflects a dangerous radicalization more than the regrettable death of a bipartisan tradition. The former is the story. The latter is mostly just hand-wringing.

If Khemlani’s apparent reasoning for hiring Mulvaney comes across as cynical, the notion that bipartisanship is good—which springs from similar principles, even if it’s a different argument—reads as idealistic, sometimes to the point of naïveté: less Here’s the way the cookie crumbles, more Why can’t we all just get along? To the extent that focusing on bipartisanship is actually useful, however, it’s as a function of real-world political power dynamics. More broadly, cynicism and idealism, while contrary-seeming, are hard to disentangle here. In our present political reality, clinging to a “both sides” ideal is only really tenable if you can somehow downplay, or at least rationalize, the deep and disproportionate cynicism of those on one side of the aisle.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t scrutinize or challenge that cynicism; indeed, we should do so relentlessly, especially where its logical endpoint is most dangerous. But wishcasting is not scrutiny. Nor is handing a prominent cynic a contributor contract, then presenting them as an expert without disclosing their ties to the Cynic in Chief.

Below, more on bipartisanship and Capitol Hill:

  • King and the Hill: According to Barr, of the Post, Gayle King, a senior anchor on CBS, responded to Khemlani’s comment about hiring more Republican contributors by noting that John Thune, the Republican senator for South Dakota, had appeared on her show that morning and that she’d told him, “We like Republicans. We like rational Republicans here, Senator Thune.” Per Barr, Khemlani then said “he would ‘love’ for the network to book House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy [R-Calif.] as a guest, and King agreed.”
  • A different perspective: Jack Shafer, Politico’s media columnist, had a different take on the Mulvaney hiring. “Granted, Mick Mulvaney is no Tim Russert. For one thing, his powers of prognostication suck,” Shafer wrote, but his critics “seem to be confusing the man’s employment with a lifetime achievement award. While I wouldn’t hire Mulvaney to fish the moldy leaves out of my eaves, if the co-president of CBS News thinks a man of such low repute will help him capture some scoops, well, that’s journalism.”
  • A media-made match: Per Politico’s Marianne LeVine and Burgess Everett, Biden’s selection of Doug Jones, the former Democratic senator for Alabama, to steer Jackson through the confirmation process as her “sherpa” came about after a reporter emailed Jones to ask whether the White House had approached him about the role. “I did not respond,” Jones said. “But I did send it off to my contacts at the White House. And the next thing I know, they’re calling me back saying: ‘If you’re interested, we’re interested.’”
  • The threat to democracy: Yesterday, Nick Quested, a filmmaker whose crew captured a meeting between far-right extremists the day before the insurrection, testified for hours before the House committee investigating the attack, which had a broad set of questions for him. Quested has also been subpoenaed by the Justice Department; according to Politico’s Kyle Cheney, he was “initially treated like a co-conspirator of the Proud Boys, though he says he doesn’t feel pressure from DOJ like he did at the outset.”

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: How Putin’s war overshadowed a week of crucial elections in Europe

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.

TOP IMAGE: FILE - In this Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, file photo, then-acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, left, listens to President Donald Trump, right, speak at a luncheon with members of the United Nations Security Council in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington. Republicans are coming to grips with the fallout of Trump's false attacks on the election, which fueled the anger of supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Mulvaney says he never thought people would take the president's words so literally. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)