Friends, I hope you’re as well as can be expected in these difficult times.
A few days ago I focused on Elon Musk and his designs on Twitter. This morning, as I predicted, Musk put in a bid to buy the rest of Twitter and take it private. Musk’s bid of $54.20 per share is going to be hard for Twitter to resist, given Twitter’s duty to its shareholders: It’s nearly 40 percent higher than Twitter’s stock price in January, before Musk started buying. Musk says he has lost confidence in Twitter’s management to fulfill the company’s “social imperative” as a platform for “free speech” and he’d “unlock” Twitter’s potential. (He can start with unblocking me from his Twitter feed.)
But enough about Musk. Today I want to continue to probe into the issue of power over how Americans get their news. I’ve spent enough time in and around politics to see how decisions made by the media — what issues to focus on, how those issues are framed, and who presents them — are central to our democracy. The media isn’t just the “fourth branch” of government, as it’s been called. It’s not a branch at all. It’s the trunk.
Which is why I find it troubling that CBS News has hired Mick Mulvaney as an on-air contributor. You’ll recall that Mulvaney served as acting chief of staff under Trump and led Trump’s Office of Management and Budget. But as I’ll talk about in a moment, Mulvaney wasn’t just a high official in the Trump administration. He was an active enabler of Trump’s deceit and attempted coup.
First, some background: An “on-air contributor” on a major network is quite different from a mere “guest.” I’ve been in both roles. Guests appear from time to time when a particular program’s producer invites them, and are unpaid. “On-air contributors,” on the other hand, appear regularly. They’re paid contractors. And they’re introduced as “contributors” — which gives them the cachet and authority of being part of a network’s news division.
Mulvaney’s first appearance as a paid contributor for CBS News occurred several days ago on a “MoneyWatch” segment in which he was asked to explain Biden’s plan for taxing the super-rich. The anchor, Anne-Marie Green, introduced Mulvaney as “a former OMB director” and “the guy to ask about this.” But she said nothing about whose OMB he directed, suggesting that Mulvaney was simply a budget expert offering an expert analysis rather than a fierce Trump partisan.
Then she asked him whether a “regular working-class American” should care about Biden’s tax proposal. Mulvaney’s answer: “It’s easy to look at it and say, ‘Don’t worry, you’re not going to pay this,’” but regular working Americans would have to “prove that they don’t have to pay it,” and such a burden “could be troublesome: every single year proving that you’re not worth a hundred million dollars.”
This is as misleading as it gets in broadcast media (with the possible exception of Fox News). Nothing in Biden’s proposal to tax the super-rich requires that people prove they’re not super-rich. Mulvaney’s claim was pure demagoguery.
But that’s what we should expect from Mulvaney. Recall that Mulvaney was complicit in Trump’s attempted extortion of Ukraine President Zelensky in 2019 — threatening to withhold U.S. aid to fight Russian aggression unless Zelensky came up with dirt on Hunter Biden. (This was the call in which Zelensky’s request “we need more Javelins” — anti-tank missiles that have proved crucial in Ukraine's defense against Russia's invasion — was met with Trump’s “I would like you to do us a favor though.”) When the quid pro quo came to light, Mulvaney brushed it off: “I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.” After Trump withheld the aid, Mulvaney asked White House budget officials for legal justification to withhold it until Zelensky did what Trump wanted him to do—announce an investigation of Hunter Biden.
Oh, and there was the time Mulvaney called COVID a “media hoax” designed to bring down Trump. And the time he predicted that if Trump lost in 2020 he would “concede gracefully.” I should add that Mulvaney is now a high-powered lobbyist for corporate interests — another fact that CBS somehow failed to mention in its announcement of his position and when it introduced him on air.
When I was growing up, CBS News was the home of news legends like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite — pioneers who set the standards for broadcast news. So why is CBS News now reaching into the cesspool of Trump conspirators and enablers to hire Mulvaney?
Neeraj Khemlani, co-head of CBS News, explained to the CBS News staff at a meeting last month that when it comes to contributor hires, “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.”
“Getting access?” Access to what? To the big lie about the 2020 election? To lies about COVID? To bonkers economics? To insights about how to pull off a coup that nearly destroyed American democracy and continues to threaten it?
Since when does CBS News’s decisions about whom to hire depend on predictions about which party will prevail in the midterm elections, anyway? What if the party that’s predicted to win is so contemptuous of democracy that it continues to claim, without basis in fact or law, that the last presidential election was stolen? Would the CBS News of the 1950s hire as an on-air contributor Senator Joseph McCarthy (who conducted a vicious anti-communist witch hunt that wrecked the lives and careers of countless Americans) because the News Division wanted access to “both sides?” (In fact, CBS News’s Edward R. Murrow exposed McCarthy as a liar and demagogue.)
If there were ever any doubts that “both sides” of the political aisle are about the same, the events of the past two years should have laid them to rest. One of America’s two national political parties has embraced (and been embraced by) an anti-democratic extremist fringe. CBS News, like every reputable news division of every reputable news network, has a cardinal responsibility to protect American democracy from this growing menace. To fulfill this responsibility, it must report accurately what is occurring. It should not pander to the menace by hiring a person who has had a hand in it and will further obscure the truth.
That’s my view. What do you think?
Crossposted from Robert Reich's Newsletter.