December 19, 2019

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It’s a retrospective on ‘alternative facts’

“Alternative facts.”

The first time that phrase was uttered was on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in 2017. Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway used it to defend then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s false attendance numbers for Donald Trump’s inauguration.

The phrase was so bizarre that “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd laughed when Conway said it. “Alternative facts?” Todd asked.

These days, that term has become common in American politics and media, along with “fake news.”

So on Sunday, Dec. 29, “Meet the Press” will air a special edition called “Alternative Facts: Inside the Weaponization of Disinformation.” In describing the show, NBC News said it will “take an in-depth look at the techniques of spreading disinformation, how it’s designed to create chaos and confusion, and its negative effects on the public.”

Scheduled guests include New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet and Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron. The roundtable that day is scheduled to include Recode founder Kara Swisher, NPR “1A” host Joshua Johnson, New Yorker staff writer Susan Glasser and Washington Free Beacon editor-in-chief Matthew Continetti.

On Wednesday, I had a chance to ask Todd about moderating “Meet the Press” at a time when “alternative facts” are so common.

In an email, Todd told me, “If people are looking to spread misinformation, this is the wrong network to try to do that. We never knowingly let someone use our platform to spread disinformation and we don’t let newsmakers conflate opinion with fact. That’s something I can’t emphasize enough. Specifically on allegations of Ukraine’s involvement in the 2016 election, I’ve had folks ask me, ‘Why can’t someone have a different opinion about what Ukraine did?’ At what point though is an opinion no longer valid in the face of facts? Someone could have legitimately had that opinion about Ukraine three years ago, but the weight of facts that debunk this theory, or ‘opinion,’ is quite overwhelming now.”

So why even allow such voices on the air? One of the criticisms “Meet the Press” and many other shows get is inviting guests who are simply going to lie or mislead the audience.

“I will never permanently ban anyone from ‘Meet the Press,’” Todd said. “My job is to help Americans find out what’s happening — whether it’s their government or a political campaign. Every once in a while, the public has to see for themselves what an attempt at gaslighting looks like, but I won’t knowingly put anyone on I know will openly attempt it and I don’t let these instances go unchallenged. I also don’t endorse members of the media booking someone simply to feel good about ‘winning’ an interview to flex their Twitter muscles.”

Still, moderating a show such as “Meet the Press” has to be much different now than when Todd first started moderating in 2014.

“I think what’s changed the most is that uttering a known falsehood or blatantly lying is no longer treated as a character deficit,” Todd said. “Instead, there is a reward structure for somehow ignoring questions or avoiding confirming a fact. There is an active media ecosystem, mostly on the right, that rewards lying if the act embarrasses someone they don’t politically agree with. If the media ecosystem isn’t going to share the same standards for truth and fact then the entire system gets poisoned and that’s how disinformation flows more easily than ever.”

An overview of impeachment coverage

(Photo courtesy of CBS News)

The major networks covered Wednesday’s historic day of President Donald Trump’s impeachment with full force, using the best of their on-air talent. All three main networks had their evening news anchors lead Wednesday’s coverage. Interestingly, at 6:30 p.m. Eastern, the “NBC Nightly News” and “ABC World News Tonight” went straight to live coverage in the House, while the “CBS Evening News” went to a regular newscast. Of course, that newscast was heavy on impeachment coverage.

CBS’s Norah O’Donnell had a strong day interviewing Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who confirmed to O’Donnell early in the day that “there will be no Republicans voting for impeachment.”

Meanwhile, of all the networks, NBC hung in the longest with Lester Holt leading the way. Holt went on the air at just before noon Eastern and signed off after 9 p.m.

Holt closed his newscast by saying, “Tonight’s impeachment of President Trump will further test the already frayed fibers that barely hold us together in this time of deep political differences. Any mockery, emotion, victory laps and personal attacks that now follow only move us farther from the honest, sober dialogue that this moment demands.”

Tulsi got us a ‘present’

The oddest impeachment vote came from Democratic presidential hopeful and Hawaiian Democratic Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who didn’t vote “yea” or “nay,” but instead voted “present.”

When asked about it on MSNBC, analyst and former Missouri senator Claire McCaskill said, “That’s just stupid. I mean, what is the point? I don’t know what this woman thinks she’s accomplishing by that. I guess getting attention, we’re talking about her. And really, we shouldn’t spend any time talking about her. It’s not, frankly, relevant to anything.”

Tweet of the day

Veteran political consultant David Axelrod perfectly captured Wednesday’s impeachment hearings with this tweet:

“Well, one thing everyone seems to agree on is that this is a sad day for America. They just can’t agree on why!”

Saturday, in the dark?

Following in the footsteps of more than a dozen other papers in the McClatchy chain, the Miami Herald will cease printing a Saturday paper starting in March. Like those other papers in the chain, the Herald will expand the Friday and Sunday print editions. It also will continue to post stories online seven days a week.

The Herald admits its audience is shifting more to reading news online, but it also is McClatchy’s attempt to steer readers to the online product. In a letter to readers, Herald president, publisher and executive editor Aminda Marques Gonzalez wrote, “More and more of our customers are reading our local journalism online. This is not only a trend in Miami, it is a media industry trend, and in fact, all industries.”

Her return is in sight

“Today” show co-host Savannah Guthrie. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

NBC “Today” co-anchor Savannah Guthrie is recovering nicely from eye surgery, she said, but she will not return to TV until after the holidays. Guthrie called in to the “Today” show Wednesday. Guthrie suffered a torn retina when her 3-year-old son accidentally hit her in the right eye with a toy train. She had surgery Dec. 11.

“I don’t have my vision back yet, but I’m going to get it back, everything’s on track,” Guthrie said.

A Bloomberg exclusive

Democratic presidential hopeful Mike Bloomberg is interviewed by MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle. (Photo courtesy of NBC News)

In his first cable news interview since announcing his candidacy for president, New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg sat down with MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle in an interview that will air this morning at 9 a.m. Bloomberg discusses his qualifications, the rest of the Democratic field, his plans, Trump, impeachment and more.

In the interview, Bloomberg questioned Joe Biden’s experience, saying, “He’s never been a manager of an organization. He’s never run a school system.”

Ruhle also asked Bloomberg about how some business people have said they, given a choice, would vote for Trump instead of Elizabeth Warren. Bloomberg said, “I can only tell you, if I were faced with Elizabeth Warren or Donald Trump, I would vote for Elizabeth Warren, even though I don’t agree with her on a lot of things. She is honest and smart and hardworking.”

Well, he’s shared before, hasn’t he?

Edward Snowden. (AP file photo)

The U.S. government is entitled to whatever money National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden makes from his memoir and paid speeches. A federal judge ruled that it’s because Snowden disclosed classified information without approval. He left the United States for asylum in Russia and has been charged with espionage since 2013. He published a book about his life called “Permanent Record” earlier this year.

Judge Liam O’Grady ruled in the government’s favor, writing, “The contractual language of the Secrecy Agreements is unambiguous. Snowden accepted employment and benefits conditioned upon prepublication review obligations.”

Snowden’s lawyers plan to review their options.

Hot type

  • The Charlottesville rally; shootings in Las Vegas and Parkland, Florida; reaction to the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound; families at the U.S.-Mexico border. Those are just some of the feature photos The Atlantic posted in “Photos of the Decade.” (Warning: Some photos might be disturbing to some readers.)
  • Colorado radio host was fired after he said he wanted a “nice school shooting” to interrupt the monotony of impeachment coverage.
  • It’s behind a paywall, but The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch puts together a heck of a good list of the top 160 or so journalism pieces of 2019.
  • G/O Media CEO Jim Spanfeller held his first staff meeting since the mass exodus at Deadspin and apparently it didn’t go so great. Awful Announcing’s Andrew Bucholtz has the details.
  • Finally, just in time for the holidays, the staff at The Ringer lists its 50 favorite holiday songs. Pretty good list even if I can’t get on board with its No. 1 selection.

Correction: Yesterday during my editing process, I accidentally inserted an extra letter at the end of one mention of Terry Gross’ name. I didn’t catch the typo before sending the newsletter out. If you see a mistake in the Poynter Report, please email so we can correct it. — Barbara Allen, managing editor

Editor’s note: The Poynter Report will take a brief pause after tomorrow and resume publication Jan. 6. Thank you for reading and enjoy the holidays!

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
Tom Jones

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