On the menu today: The country’s biggest Sunday morning interview show, NBC’s Meet the Press, begins a new era this weekend, and Kristen Welker’s takeover from Chuck Todd starts with a bang by airing a sit-down interview with former president Donald Trump. But liberal talking head Dean Obeidallah argues that NBC News is “helping normalize fascism” by airing the interview with Trump. There are people in this country who believe that Trump is so dangerous, odious, and unacceptable that a news institution like NBC News is aiding and abetting him just by interviewing him and airing that interview, even if that interview features tough questions, skepticism, rebuttals, etc. It inadvertently reveals an absolute terror that in a free exchange of ideas, the country will make the wrong choice, and a belief that the electorate must be walled off from certain figures, perspectives, and arguments. It’s a not-so-subtle yearning for a system more akin to California’s recent senate races, where in November, the state’s voters are given the option of which one of two Democrats they want to represent them.
An Odd Call for Banning Interviews of Donald Trump
This weekend, Kristen Welker formally takes the reins as host of NBC News’ Meet the Press,* and her first guest will be former president Donald Trump.
Liberal talking head Dean Obeidallah is irate about this and argues, “Given what Trump did in terms of an attempted coup and inciting the Jan 6 attack what NBC/MTP are doing is far, far more dangerous. They are helping normalize fascism. It’s that simple.” Obeidallah is urging his readers to call NBC and “voice your views on how dangerous booking Trump for this show is.”
By the way, the interview was conducted Thursday, and NBC News has already released some excerpts. I guess the argument is that NBC News should . . . just lock the interview away in a vault somewhere and let Geraldo Rivera find it in a few decades.
Obeidallah concedes that he can envision circumstances in which he would deem a Trump appearance legitimate:
Look, if we were a year from now and Trump was the GOP’s 2024 presidential nominee then it would be understandable to have him on — especially if they had President Biden on as a guest before that. And even if MTP had Trump on months from now after showcasing all the other GOP presidential candidates, an argument could be made that this is simply about fairness.
The reason Biden has not appeared on NBC’s signature Sunday morning show since becoming president is not because Meet the Press has refused to invite him. Biden hasn’t appeared because he doesn’t want to appear — in fact, you probably noticed Biden doesn’t do a lot of television interviews. In other words, if you’re upset Biden hasn’t been on Meet the Press, don’t blame Meet the Press, blame Biden or his communications staff. (Biden does keep telling us, on camera during press conferences, that he’s just following the orders of his staff.)
As for the argument that Trump should only appear “after showcasing all the other GOP presidential candidates,” in the past year, Meet the Press has interviewed Vivek Ramaswamy, North Dakota governor Doug Burgum, former vice president Mike Pence, former congressman Will Hurd, and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson. In fact, the program has interviewed all of those figures twice. I strongly suspect that Meet the Press would love to interview Ron DeSantis or any other 1 percent-or-above Republican presidential candidate.
If a major political figure hasn’t appeared on a particular news program, that almost always reflects the preferences of the major political figure, not the news program. News programs love anybody who is willing to sit down with them and perhaps make some news.
As for the notion that having Trump appear for an interview on a news program “normalizes fascism. . . .”
You can make a strong argument that a lot of television programs did a lot of work to make Donald Trump not just a household name by the time he ran for president, but a figure associated with wealth, success, and keen negotiating.
As I wrote in 2017, for years, CNN’s Larry King would have Trump on his program and treat Trump as a full-spectrum expert on whatever issue was in the news that day. King asked him, “What the U.S. strategy should be in the Iraq War, whether Barack Obama or John McCain would handle the 2008 economic crisis better, what advice he would give President Obama, and even how he thought we should handle Somali pirates. It didn’t much matter that Trump had no particular expertise in any of these subjects; he was a famous person, and famous people draw eyeballs.”
Back then, Trump was “not touted as a partisan Republican, hate-monger, or ranting fool. NBC’s Today show regularly had him on to promote The Apprentice and let him vent about whatever else was on his mind.” He was treated like Dos Equis’s Most Interesting Man in the World, always endless fascinating, no matter what he was talking about:
On Fox News, Greta Van Susteren asked him how he would negotiate a deal to avoid a government shutdown. He was a frequent guest of Regis Philbin. Barbara Walters declared him one of her “most fascinating” people of 2011, alongside Kim Kardashian.
Even publications like the Guardian did quasi-admiring can-you-believe-this-character profiles. Rolling Stone was happy to interview him. The smallest bits of news from Trump-world generated positive coverage in the biggest publications: In 2010, the New York Times’ advertising section did a profile of Melania unveiling, “a line of jewelry and watches bearing her name and available exclusively through QVC, the home shopping network, and its Web site.”
Not even the Birther theories made Donald Trump persona non grata on these programs; it just made him more interesting and unpredictable and good for ratings.
On November 7, 2015, while the Republican presidential primary was going on, Saturday Night Live invited Trump to host the show — a huge opportunity for Trump to reach an audience that doesn’t necessarily watch news programs, and make fun of himself. Cast member Taran Killam later said that show was “something that only grows more embarrassing and shameful as time goes on.”
And if you see Trump as a demagogue, a maniac, and a threat to democracy . . . well, demagogues, maniacs, and threats to democracy don’t usually get to host Saturday Night Live, or sit on Jimmy Fallon’s couch, or make cameos in Home Alone movies.
But I think it’s safe to say everybody knows what they think of Donald Trump now, and everybody’s known for a long while now, and not many people are open to changing their minds. On a chart of public-opinion polls since he left office in January 2021, Trump’s favorable and unfavorable ratings look like two horizontal lines — favorable percentages in the low 40s, unfavorable percentages in the mid-50s.
Let’s be real here. Unless something dramatically changes in the next half year or so, Trump is going to be the 2024 Republican presidential nominee. That thought may elate you, it may depress you, it may outrage you, but the available evidence indicates that roughly half the Republican Party wants to nominate Trump, and the other half is divided among all of the other options. We all watched a similar scenario play out during the primary process of 2016. (As another controversial leader who cut crime and homelessness in half put it, “Dread it. Run from it. Destiny arrives all the same.”)
Refusing to have Donald Trump appear on Meet the Press will not make him go away.
At the heart of this is the question of what you think the purpose of journalism, and a program like Meet the Press, is. Dean Obeidallah thinks the mission of the program ought to be to ensure Americans vote for the correct candidate, and don’t end up choosing the “fascist” option. I am fairly certain that Obeidallah would characterize this, and other efforts like the effort to declare Donald Trump ineligible for another term and keep him off the ballot in 2024, as the “pro-democracy” position. You would be surprised how many people have convinced themselves that the best way to protect democracy is to not allow Americans to vote for the candidate they want.
What Donald Trump says is news. News is not inherently good or bad; sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. Looking at the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal, I see a photo of flooding in Libya that has killed 11,000 people; the UAW union plans to go on strike at midnight; and the president’s son was indicted on gun charges.
But the Journal isn’t “helping normalize” terrible floods, large-scale worker strikes, or presidential-son crime sprees by covering those events. If the newspaper refused to cover those things, all those things would still have happened. The argument that Obeidallah puts forth is a bit like a baby’s perspective of peek-a-boo; if I don’t see something, it stops existing.
*NBC News invites me to appear as a panelist on the daily version of the program, Meet the Press Now, every two weeks or so. They don’t pay me. I drink a cup of coffee or water in the green room. Is this the sort of thing I should disclose? Do you even care? Anyway, that’s my tie to NBC News.
ADDENDUM: In case you missed it yesterday, we’ve known for years that one of the biggest obstacles to Biden’s reelection would be the electorate’s concerns about his age. Instead of attempting to refute those concerns by showcasing the president’s energy and stamina, or being bluntly honest about any small concessions it has had to make for an octogenarian commander in chief, the White House’s communications strategy has been to argue that the age question is silly, or agist, or somehow illegitimate. This week, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius wrote a column arguing that Biden — and Kamala Harris! — should not run for reelection, a giant blaring siren declaring that the current White House strategy attempting to defuse the age issue is backfiring. The more the White House puts out implausible blanket denials and nonsensical claims that Biden has so much energy that much younger staffers can’t keep up with him, the more people conclude that the truth must be even worse than it appears.