David Gregory, the host of NBC’s Meet the Press, has painted himself into a strange corner with his assertion that there’s no need to fact check what his guests say on the air because viewers can do that “on their own terms.”?? His competitor, Jake Tapper of ABC News, disagrees. Tapper has instituted the after-the-show fact check on This Week. I am a participant in the story of how this happened, as you can see from the time line I have constructed. At the bottom of the post, I offer a brief comment on what I think is going on here.
May 28, 2008: David Gregory on Hardball says that former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan was wrong to charge the press with insufficient skepticism in examining the case for war in Iraq:
I think the questions were asked.?? I think we pushed.?? I think we prodded.?? I think we challenged the president.?? I think not only those of us the White House press corps did that, but others in the rest of the landscape of the media did that.
If there wasn???t a debate in this country, then maybe the American people should think about, why not??? Where was Congress??? Where was the House??? Where was the Senate??? Where was public opinion about the war??? What did the former president believe about the pre-war intelligence??? He agreed that???in fact, Bill Clinton agreed that Saddam had WMD.??
The right questions were asked.?? I think there???s a lot of critics???and I guess we can count Scott McClellan as one???who thinks that, if we did not debate the president, debate the policy in our role as journalists, if we did not stand up and say, this is bogus, and you???re a liar, and why are you doing this, that we didn???t do our job.?? And I respectfully disagree.?? It???s not our role.
Jan. 15, 2009: David Gregory appears on The Colbert Report; the following exchange occurs:
COLBERT:?? The press got a lot of razzing, from guys like Jon Stewart, for not holding the administration’s feet to the fire.?? Are you proud of the questions the press asked of the administration??? Because I’m proud of the questions you didn’t ask.
GREGORY:?? I actually do think that the right questions were asked, and I think — this criticism is certainly out there of the press corps, and I tried to be thoughtful about it, reflective about it, but I do think the right questions were asked, and I think people view our job through their own ideological prism, and they’ve made some judgments along those lines.
Dec. 27, 2009: I send a post on Twitter to Betsy Fischer, executive producer of Meet the Press, hosted by David Gregory: ??
Sadly, you’re a one-way medium, @betsyMTP, but here’s an idea for ya: Fact check what your guests say on Sunday and run it online Wednesday.
There is no reply.
Dec. 27, 2009: My tweet leads to a longer post, My Simple Fix for the Sunday Shows, in which I am quite acerbic about David Gregory:
The midweek fact check would also give David Gregory a way out of his puppy game of gotcha. Instead of telling David Axelrod that his boss promised to change the tone in Washington so why aren’t there any Republican votes for health care? … which he thinks is getting “tough” with a guest, Gregory’s job would simply be to ask the sort of questions, the answers to which could be fact checked later in the week. Easy, right?
The beauty of this idea is that it turns the biggest weakness of political television–the fact that time is expensive, and so complicated distortions, or simple distortions about complicated matters, are rational tactics for advantage-seeking pols—into a kind of strength.?? The format beckons them to evade, deny, elide, demagogue and confuse…. but then they pay for it later if they give into temptation and make that choice.
The “Simple Fix” post concludes this way:
Soon, This Week with George Stephanopoulos on ABC will get a new host, which is likely to be White House correspondent Jake Tapper.?? He could institute the midweek fact check in a stroke. And he has the ego to think he could pull it off.?? Stroke, ego– hey, maybe we got something here. How ’bout it, Jake?
Dec. 28, 2009:?? On Twitter, Jake Tapper reacts to my post.?? “Interesting, thanks.” David Gregory does not reply.
Jan. 3, 2010: Howard Kurtz, media reporter for the Washington Post, endorses the simple fix on his CNN program, Reliable Sources:
Brian Williams is a talented anchor and pretty good comedian. But when it comes to Twitter, well, let’s just say he’s a tad out of touch.
The NBC newsman tells “TIME” magazine that, “I see it as a kind of time suck that I don’t need anymore of. Just too much ‘I got the most awesome new pair of sweatpants.'”
Now, I learn smart things from smart people on Twitter every day that have nothing to do with what pants people are wearing or not wearing. Here’s just one example.
NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted an idea about improving the Sunday morning talk shows. He says the programs, rather than letting politicians get away with distortions, should offer an online fact check each week of exaggerations and lies. For the guests, says Rosen, the format beckons them to evade, deny, elide, demagogue and confuse, but then they pay for it later if they give into temptation and make that choice. I happen to think that makes a lot of sense toward holding officials accountable.
Jan. 10, 2010: Michael Calderone, the media beat reporter for The Politico, examines the depressed state of the Sunday shows. His piece starts:
A new idea recently surfaced for television???s longest-running show: What if ???Meet the Press??? fact-checked what its stream of political guests said and ran the results online later in the week?
The suggestion by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen kicked around Twitter and the blogosphere with such force that the show???s host, David Gregory, said in a statement to POLITICO that it was a ???good idea??? and his staff is ???going to talk about it.???
March 28, 2010. The CBS News Sunday show, Face the Nation, is forced to fact check Republican Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann after a series of bizarre claims about government domination of the economy:
Bachmann offered no facts to back up her assertion that the government owns or controls 51 percent of the U.S. economy.
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis data since 1929, the highest percentage of government spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product was during World War II when government spending was 47.9 percent (in 1944). The lowest level of government spending as a percent of GDP was 9 percent in 1929 at the outset of the Great Depression.
April 8, 2010: ABC News announces that its Sunday show, This Week, hosted by Jake Tapper, will fact check what its guests say by collaborating with Politifact.com.
April 11, 2010: The fact checking on This Week debuts at Politifact.com.?? David Gregory tells Howard Kurtz that it’s an “interesting idea” that Meet the Press will not be adopting . “People can fact-check ‘Meet the Press’ every week on their own terms,” Gregory says.
April 11, 2010: I point out on Twitter that Gregory must feel that CBS’s fact check of Michelle Bachmann was pointless. “Viewers of Face the Nation can do it themselves, right David?” There is no reply.
April 12, 2010: Brian Stelter of the New York Times reports on the news from Tapper and This Week. David Gregory again says there’s no need to fact check his guests because viewers can do it themselves.??
Critics say that kind of truth telling rarely happens on television. But David Gregory, the moderator of ???Meet the Press??? on NBC, said that accountability is ???in the DNA??? of his program. He said he had considered Mr. Rosen???s idea but concluded that people can fact check the program on their own online.
April 14, 2010: Jake Tapper and Bill Adair of Politifact are guests on the Colbert Report with Steven Colbert. David Gregory comes in for some merciless ribbing. Colbert mentions my “Simple Fix” post (calling me “Field Marshall Thesarus” for certain features of my writing style.)?? “A fact check on Wednesday? Is he really suggesting that David Gregory work two days a week?”?? Fortunately, Colbert says…
David Gregory has rejected this hare-brained scheme, saying “people can fact-check ‘Meet the Press’ every week on their own terms.” Thank you, David! It is not a Sunday host’s job to make sure his guests aren’t lying, any more than it’s a party host’s job to make sure the food isn’t poisoned. (applause..) …The host is there to tell his guests when it is their turn to talk. That is why NBC is currently grooming Gregory’s replacement: a chess timer.
April 15, 2010: On Twitter, Alf Sunde tells Gregory: “maybe your focus should be to watch yesterday’s Colbert Report, you could learn a great deal, like real journalism?”
Look, I don’t think it’s fair to suggest I’m opposed to fact checking or accountability or real journalism for that matter. My view is that I just don’t think we need a formal arrangement to accomplish that goal.
Interpretation: So… what is going on here??? As with his defiant claims that the press did well in questioning the Bush Administration’s case for war, David Gregory believes he always and already asks the questions necessary to get at the truth. (So what’s your problem?)?? If the truth does not emerge from his interviews, it’s not his fault because he–always and already–asks the tough questions. That’s who he is. It’s in his DNA. The criticism he gets is therefore partisan chatter. Or it comes from people who want him to go beyond asking the tough questions to the point of conclusion: that man is lying.
David Gregory thinks that is not his role.
I see two other possibilities for his refusal to adopt the fact check: one banal, the other more troubling. The banal: He’s too proud to adopt something that a competitor picked up on first; it would look like a “me too” response and he is the market leader, first in the ratings and heir to the chair that Tim Russert held.?? The more disturbing possibility is that he thinks Tapper’s policy may give Meet the Press a competitive edge in booking guests who won’t want to be checked so vigorously. (As opposed to competing with an even better fact check, which would probably cause Bob Schieffer at Face the Nation to adopt the same policy, forcing the guests to accept the new rules or flee to cable, which has a fraction of the viewers.)
Look at it this way: the Washington politician who’s been on Meet the Press more than any other is John McCain. On April 6, Politifact’s truth-o-meter rated McCain a pants-on-fire liar for claiming that he never called himself a maverick. See what I mean?