Should reporters challenge or ignore election disbelievers?


NEW YORK — Matt Negrin’s campaign to ban “election deniers” from television news failed to achieve his original goal, which was to prevent a significant number of Americans from believing the lie that Donald Trump didn’t lose the presidential election to Joe Biden.

Instead, it has provoked a persistent debate over the role of political journalists, along with illustrating how television news and the politicians who depend upon its cameras have changed.

Negrin, a former journalist and now producer at Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” wrote a December column for The Washington Post saying that TV journalists who invite Republicans on the air should begin by asking if they believed Biden won the election. If they don’t say yes, the interview should end.

He’s aggressively continued the effort on his personal Twitter account, saying mainstream news programs that book officeholders who voted against accepting election results are helping to spread misinformation.

Many in the news business believe that stance goes too far, that a journalist’s role is to question ideas and point out inaccuracies or outright fictions, not to pretend they don’t exist. Two Sunday morning hosts, Jake Tapper and Chris Wallace, recently revealed themselves as polar opposites on the point.

While it’s not a formal policy, Tapper said he hasn’t booked election deniers on CNN’s “State of the Union” and on his weekday show, “The Lead.”

“It’s a discussion I think everyone in the news media should be having,” Tapper told Politico. “Should those who shared the election lie that incited the deadly attack on the Capitol and that continues to erode confidence in our democracy be invited onto our airwaves to continue to spread the Big Lie? Can our viewers count on these politicians to tell the truth about other topics?”

Wallace, of “Fox News Sunday,” has said he’s willing to talk to all sides and has no rules about the order of questions. “I don’t think moral posturing goes well with newsgathering,” Wallace said in a statement last month.

When Florida Sen. Rick Scott appeared on his show Feb. 28, Wallace asked whether Biden won the election “fair and square.” Absolutely, Scott replied.

Led by Trump, suspicion about the 2020 results has remained, despite elections officials calling it secure and the dismissal of court challenges. A Quinnipiac University poll taken six months after the election found 29% of Americans, and 66% of Republicans surveyed said Biden was not legitimately elected.

Confronting deniers is not a subject many in the business are eager to address publicly. No one on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” ABC’s “This Week” or CBS’ “Face the Nation,” for example, would speak to The Associated Press about it.

What would Tim Russert do? The former “Meet the Press” host was the acknowledged king of Sunday morning political talk shows before his death in 2008, and his former producer said Russert believed in exposing ideas that many found repugnant. Russert memorably interviewed former KKK leader David Duke in 1991.

But Betsy Fischer Martin, executive producer of “Meet the Press” from 2002 to 2013, wonders how many such opportunities exist now. In today’s climate, many politicians prefer friendly TV venues, like Fox News for conservatives or MSNBC for liberals.

“It’s human nature in many ways that you want to pick a program that is going to give you more of a platform than a tough interview,” said Fischer Martin, executive director of the Women in Politics Institute at American University.

Booking deniers is less of an issue when many don’t want to be booked in the first place.

The current “Meet the Press” moderator, Chuck Todd, alluded to this while writing for Politico in January. A handful of GOP senators make themselves available for interviews, he wrote, but they’re few and far between.

Unless they need to reach a broader electorate, many Republican officeholders don’t see the point of such faceoffs, said Alex Conant, a GOP consultant and founding partner of Firehouse Strategies in Washington.

“If you’re a conservative, the truth is, you don’t care too much about liberal voters,” Conant said. “They’re never going to support you, and there’s not much benefit to subjecting yourself to a tough interview.”

Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief, lands on the side of interviewing deniers. Yet he wonders whether that would be worthwhile if questions are ignored, talking points spouted or empty fights instigated.

“It’s not a question of banning them,” said Sesno, professor at George Washington University. “You just don’t want them on the air because they’re not going to be a good guest.”

Some recent interviews prove his point.

ABC News’ Terry Moran grew exasperated last month in repeatedly and fruitlessly asking GOP spokesman Paris Dennard whether he accepted the results of the 2020 election as legitimate. “It’s a yes or no question,” Moran said.

Biden was president, Dennard said. He wouldn’t go further. Moran kept trying, asking whether he was scared to answer or didn’t believe democracy worked last November.

“You can be an American citizen who can accept the fact that Joe Biden is president as well as being concerned about election integrity,” Dennard said.

Todd’s May 11 interview with Rep. Dan Crenshaw devolved into a fight when the Texas Republican was asked about his support for an effort to overturn the election. Crenshaw said it was “time to move on” and attacked the “liberal and pro-Democratic media” for continuing to bring up the subject.

“Don’t start that,” Todd said. “There’s nothing lazier than that.”

The interview soon ended.

“I understand where the ‘invite and confront’ people are coming from,” said Jay Rosen, a New York University professor and author of the PressThink blog. “But in practice, the confrontation with a determined fabulist or denialist rarely works out to the viewer’s advantage.”

Few interviewers have the ability to effectively expose hypocrisy on live television, Negrin said. Even when a journalist can, politicians will take from the invitation to come on the air a message that they can say whatever they want and will still have a platform.

The online provocateur said that he’s been pleased that television producers and hosts are at least thinking about these issues.

“It’s been (nearly) six months since the insurrection, eight months since the election, and I think a lot of hosts just want to get back to normal — interviewing Republicans, interviewing Democrats,” Negrin said. “That’s what they do.

“But, to me, it’s important to remember what happened.”

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