February 3, 2020

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Fox News takes it easy … too easy

The pregame Super Bowl interview with the president of the United States was never intended to be super hard-hitting, like it’s a sit-down with “60 Minutes.” Traditionally, it has been a mixture of pertinent current affairs and a couple of light football questions.

Still, any time a network has exclusive one-on-one time with the president, it is bound to conduct a responsible, professional and accountable interview, especially with so many people (perhaps as many as 20 million) tuning in.

Hopes for that happening Sunday pretty much disappeared when Fox chose noted Trump supporter Sean Hannity to conduct the interview instead of an actual Fox News journalist, such as Chris Wallace or Bret Baier. And those hopes of a responsible Q&A disappeared completely just moments into the eight-minute segment, which looked more like a campaign ad than an interview.

In a word, Hannity’s performance was pathetic.

No pushbacks. No hard questions. Just a series of softballs that allowed the president to belittle the Democratic presidential field and completely duck any questions about the details of impeachment.

Longtime journalist Katie Couric, who knows a thing or two about conducting interviews, tweeted:

“The interview of @POTUS was hardly hard hitting. Whatever you think, some challenging questions were in order. Instead, it was largely an opportunity for him to field softballs and belittle his opponents. #sad

Yes, challenging questions were in order. For just the third time in the history of our country, a president is being impeached. And yet Hannity never asked about the specific allegations. Instead, he asked about Trump’s reaction to impeachment, if it’s a campaign issue, what has hurt him the most about it and whether or not he would delay Tuesday’s scheduled State of the Union address.

The questions allowed Trump to play victim instead of answering charges.

Then came the most indefensible part of the interview in which Hannity just threw out names and allowed Trump to, one by one, criticize and insult those names. Aside from the top Democrats running for president, Hannity also asked about Hunter Biden, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi.

No one expected Hannity to turn up the heat too high on Trump, but he did everything but fetch slippers and put out a footstool to make Trump as comfortable as possible. He could have asked at least one or two stiff questions.

Hannity then wrapped up with a question about the coronavirus and, finally, a question about why Trump likes sports.

Look, it’s no secret that Fox News, as a whole, backs Trump. The network is sympathetic to the president, supports the president, and its programming is geared to those who are sympathetic to and support Trump. So it’s not as if Sunday’s interview should come as a big surprise.

And yet somehow Hannity’s one-on-one, which was taped Saturday at Mar-a-Lago, managed to do even more damage to whatever credibility Fox News has left as a serious news organization. Believe it or not, Fox News still likes to think of itself as a legitimate news source. It has used phrases such as “We report, you decide” and “fair and balanced” and “most watched, most trusted” to describe its network.

Yet when it had the chance to live up to such standards and look like a proper news outlet on one of the biggest platforms of the year, it showed its true colors.

Choosing Hannity might have pleased the president and much of his base, but it was confirmation that Fox News cares more about pleasing the right than doing its job as a news source.

This isn’t about Trump’s answers. And it’s more than just Hannity’s feeble questions. It was about the higher-ups at a news division turning over their airways to Hannity in the biggest interview of the year and allowing Trump to run amok. That right there should tell you where Fox News stands.

Is this political heaven? No, it’s Iowa

Behind the scenes at Sunday’s taping of “Meet the Press” from Des Moines, Iowa, ahead of the Iowa caucuses. (Photo courtesy of NBC News)

So much happening this week. We have the impeachment trial today. The president’s State of the Union address Tuesday night. The impeachment vote is expected Wednesday. And there’s a Democratic presidential debate Friday night in New Hampshire.

Today, it’s the Iowa caucuses. All the networks are embedded in Iowa, but I had a chance to connect with NBC News over its plans — and it shows just how big of a deal Iowa is. NBC is all in.

Coverage starts this morning with “Today” co-host Savannah Guthrie at West End Architectural Salvage and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” coming from Java Joes CoffeeHouse. Throughout the day, NBC News and MSNBC’s Shaquille Brewster, Vaughn Hillyard, Mike Memoli and Ali Vitali will report live from candidate headquarters. Others are spread out throughout Iowa, including Tom Brokaw, Peter Alexander, Katy Tur and many more.

Meanwhile, NBC’s various platforms — such as “Stay Tuned” on Snapchat and — will have coverage throughout the day. For example, Chuck Todd will anchor “Special Report” on (also known as NBC News NOW).

There’s even more. Rachel Maddow (“The Rachel Maddow Show”), Brian Williams (“The 11th Hour”), and Nicolle Wallace (“Deadline: White House”) will be in the New York studio covering Iowa and Steve Kornacki and his “big board” will have up-to-the-minute results and analysis throughout the night. Chris Matthews will be offering analysis from Iowa.

Today is just a culmination of what has been months of work in Iowa.

Rashida Jones, senior vice president of specials for NBC News and MSNBC, told me in an email, “We started telling the story of Iowa and the Iowa caucuses many months ago, not just this weekend. We’ve had NBC News Road Warriors, correspondents and embeds covering the 99 counties in the state talking to voters about real issues that matter most to them. So, on caucus night our focus is to merge the sensibilities of those voters with expertise and context around the data as it comes in real time so we can capture the true story of what’s happening on the ground —  and we will be doing that on NBC News, MSNBC and NBC News NOW.”

Covering Mayor Pete

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Adam Wren has a terrific story in Politico about the LGBTQ press corps that is covering the campaign of Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay presidential candidate. Wren reports that six cable and network reporters assigned to the Buttigieg campaign identify as LGBTQ, including NBC’s Josh Lederman. In addition, many gay national correspondents have focused on Buttigieg, including those from NBC News, Fox News, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

“The fact of the matter is that gay rights issues, same-sex marriage, other issues like that, are still matters of public controversy in our country,” Lederman told Wren. “There are people on both sides of that issue, and so I consider it a professional responsibility not to weigh in on those issues. Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have aspirations for my own life and my own family, but it’s really important to keep a wall there and keep a distinction between that and your reporting, particularly when it comes to politics and presidential candidates. I would consider it a professional and personal failure if my coverage of Pete Buttigieg was distinguishable from the coverage that a straight journalist would give to him.”


Three things

Three thoughts that popped into my head over the weekend:

  1. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo banning NPR from riding along on his latest trip because he’s upset with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly makes the secretary look petty. The controversy has led to an increase in donations for NPR and has emboldened NPR. The banned reporter broke a big story over the weekend: it was Michele Kelemen who had the scoop that former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, was retiring. As CNN’s Brian Stelter said on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources,” “Scoops are the best revenge.”

  2. Best interview of the weekend was Chuck Todd’s taped interview with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on Sunday’s “Meet the Press.” Todd asked tough but fair questions. Alexander gave clear and concise answers. And the result was a respectful back-and-forth that was far more productive than some of the loud and contentious squabbles full of interruptions that we see far too often on Sunday morning news shows.

  3. The Democrats will have a debate Friday night, but this might be better: CNN is hosting town halls with the Democratic presidential hopefuls Wednesday and Thursday in New Hampshire. The New Hampshire primary is Feb. 11. With questions coming directly from the audience and eight candidates each having an hour to really go into details, it could be more worthwhile than the fits and starts of a debate.

Super coverage

Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, left, and Tyrann Mathieu celebrate after winning Super Bowl LIV on Sunday. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The headline on the Kansas City Star website immediately after the Kansas City Chiefs won Sunday’s Super Bowl LIV over the San Francisco 49ers: “CHAMPS!”

The headline on the San Francisco Chronicle website: “No Party in Miami This Time: 49ers Can’t Hold Off Chiefs, Lose Super Bowl LIV”

The Sacramento Bee got straight to the point: “Heartbreaker”

Here are the front pages of those papers this morning:

Hot type

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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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