Rachel Maddow as debate moderator raises questions, plus CJR’s public editor announcement and the ‘luxury’ of Tribune Tower

Your Wednesday news roundup

June 12, 2019
Category: Newsletters

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June 12, 2019

Two media stories really jumped out at me on Tuesday, so much of today’s newsletter is dedicated to those. One, NBC News picked five moderators for the upcoming Democratic primary presidential debate. The other was a bold move by the Columbia Journalism Review. Both issues have potential flaws.

Maddow pick is controversial

NBC News’ decision to tap an ‘opinion journalist’ as one of it debate moderators raised some questions Tuesday.

One of these things is not like the other.

NBC News has picked five moderators for the first Democratic presidential debate later this month. They are Lester Holt, Chuck Todd, Savannah Guthrie, Jose Diaz-Balart and … Rachel Maddow?

The name that seems a bit out of place is Maddow. Not because she isn’t capable, but because, unlike the others, Maddow hosts an opinion show where she is the one giving her opinion.

Holt anchors the “NBC Nightly News.” Todd hosts “Meet The Press.” Guthrie co-anchors “Today.” Diaz-Balart anchors “Noticias Telemundo” and Saturday’s “Nightly News.” All are down-the-middle journalists.

But Maddow is more pundit than journalist and her leanings tend to be to the left. So much so that The New York Times recently forbid one of its reporters from going on Maddow’s show because it was worried about possible bias. And when NBC News announced its moderators Tuesday, Washington Post media writer Paul Farhi tweeted, “Hmm, @maddow?” because she’s what Farhi called an “opinion journalist.”

NBC News had no comment, but it could argue that Maddow has debate experience, having moderated a 2016 Democratic debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. She also is a part of the network’s election coverage and hosts a nightly show, so she is clearly well-versed on the issues. But having Maddow ask the questions would not be unlike Fox News hosting a debate and having Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham hosting.

The Washington Examiner’s Phillip Klein argued that Maddow “should use the debate as an opportunity to press the candidates on issues that are of concern to her liberal audience that may not obviously occur to her co-moderators.”

In the end, however, the last thing a network ever wants is having even the slightest appearance of favoritism. Fairly or unfairly, that’s a serious risk with Maddow in the moderator’s chair. It’s hard to argue she doesn’t have a stake in who might run against President Donald Trump in 2020. With so many other potential moderators at NBC’s disposal — Brian Williams and Andrea Mitchell, for instance — it just doesn’t seem like a risk worth taking.

Going public

Columbia Journalism Review announces that it has hired public editors for four major U.S. news organizations.

CNN Center in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Ron Harris)

Most news organizations have done away with public editors — someone who serves as a watchdog of that outlet and represents the public when it comes to questions about ethics, standards, balance and fairness of stories. Among those who have eliminated public editors in recent years include The New York Times and The Washington Post.

On Tuesday, the Columbia Journalism Review addressed that issue by hiring what it is calling “public editors” to watch over the Times, Post, CNN and MSNBC.

In announcing the hirings, CJR editor-in-chief and publisher Kyle Pope wrote, “As watchdogs for the biggest news organizations in the country, they’ll be ready to call out mistakes, observe bad habits, and give praise where it’s due. Most importantly, these public editors will engage with readers and viewers, bridging a critical gap.”

This seems like a worthwhile and innovative idea, although referring to the reporters as “public editors” does feel misleading because they won’t be embedded in those newsrooms. As Columbia Journalism School’s Raju Narisetti, the former chief at Gizmodo, tweeted: “How is this labeling different from media critics/punditry, other than the luxury of focusing on one media brand each?”

But Pope told me in an email Tuesday, “I think we’re in our right to call these people public editors since it’s the public — in the form of readers and viewers — whose views they’ll be representing. Clearly, our calling it this is also a commentary on the fact that they did away with these positions; but we don’t see our people functioning that differently than the in-house people did.”

Speaking at the Code Conference 2019 in Arizona on Tuesday, New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger defended the Times no longer having a public editor by saying, “The internet lacks for all sorts of things; it does not lack for media critics. … I don’t think that at any point, there has been a question of whether or not there are enough institutions that can hold The New York Times to account for the questions around its coverage. I think that’s really important. We’re glad that those reporters are out there.”

Sulzberger said he thinks what CJR is doing is “great,” but gave no indication if the Times would go out of its way to assist CJR in its coverage, or to treat CJR the way it would have cooperated with its own public editor.

Pope told me CJR did not consult the news organizations before announcing its plans on Tuesday.

“It is, though, worth remembering that previous public editors at these places didn’t always get full cooperation either,” Pope said in his email. “We hope they engage, but have no idea if they will.”

It will be interesting to see if CJR’s project works, but its certainly has hired reputable journalists:

Gabriel Snyder, formerly an editor at The New Republic, The Atlantic and Gawker, will cover the Times.

Ana Marie Cox, who has written for GQ, The Daily Beast and New York Times Magazine, will report on the Post.

Maria Bustillos, editor-in-chief of Poula and whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s and The Guardian, will cover MSNBC.

Emily Tamkin, who has reported on foreign affairs for BuzzFeed News and has written for Politico, Slate and The Washington Post, will report on CNN. She wrote her first piece in her new assignment Tuesday.

Drawing a blank

The New York Times announces that it is officially done running editorial cartoons.

The New York Times is doing away with editorial cartoons. The decision comes less than two months after a controversial anti-Semitic cartoon ran in the Times’ international edition. But James Bennet, the Times’ editorial page editor, told CNN’s Brian Stelter that the decision to discontinue cartoons was being considered well before the controversy. He also pointed out that the U.S. newspaper version of the Times doesn’t carry cartoons.

The decision did not go over well with cartoonists, including the Times’ Patrick Chappatte. In a blog post, Chappatte wrote, “Political cartoons were born with democracy. And they are challenged when freedom is.”

Bennet told CNN, “We plan to continue investing in forms of opinion journalism, including visual journalism, that express nuance, complexity and strong voice from a diversity of viewpoints across all of our platforms.” Bennet added that he hopes the Times can continue to use Chappatte’s services on other projects.

A shakeup in the lineup at ‘Nightline’

Dan Harris is stepping away from his anchor duties on “Nightline” to spend more time working on his 10% Happier business and other assignments at ABC News. In a note to staff, ABC News President James Goldston said Harris will continue anchor weekend editions of “Good Morning America,” as well as host his 10% Happier podcast. Harris’ 10% Happier project includes a book and app that touts meditation as a way to reduce stress in and out of the workplace. According to Variety’s Brian Steinberg, Harris told colleagues in a note that he expects to continue to doing big, investigative pieces. He also said he had to give up something on his heavy workload.

He said he chose to give up “Nightline,” “Because, frankly, you deserve an anchor who gives it his or her all. This team of amazing producers — who work all hours and travel all over the world — has the right to expect an on-air representative who is in the trenches with you day after day. And the circumstances of my life simply will not allow that right now.”

Byron Pitts and Juju Chang will continue to be “Nightline” co-anchors.

Before you go movin’ on up …

Displaced Chicago Tribune staffers find irony and hilarity in the ‘luxury’ of their old office space.


The Tribune Tower, previously the home of the Chicago Tribune. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

My favorite tweet this week, so far, has been from Chicago Tribune metro columnist Mary Schmich, who linked to an advertisement for Tribune Tower with the words “Storied Luxury.”

The Tribune Tower was the home of the Chicago Tribune for 93 years until the paper moved out last year. Now the building is being turned into condos. Schmich’s tweet then sparked hilarious comments from current and former Tribune staffers about the digs, which they don’t remember being all that luxurious.

… “And to think it was only a year ago that we said goodbye to the Tribune Tower cockroaches,” Schmich also tweeted.

Hot type

A list of great journalism and intriguing media.

Entertainer and activist Jon Stewart on Capitol Hill in 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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