Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Reliable Sources newsletter. Subscribe here to the daily summary covering the evolution of the media landscape.
The Kristen Welker era of “Meet the Press” is off to a bleak start.
The high-stakes meeting with disgraced former President Donald Trump was risk and little reward for Welker as she assumed the esteemed chair of “Meet the Press” moderator for the first time Sunday. TV executives I interviewed before and after the interview were baffled that NBC News and Welker had deliberately chosen to take on such a heavy assignment, given Trump’s notorious propensity to lie. As one TV executive told me, “It was a crazy way to set the tone for what ‘Meet the Press’ would be under his leadership.” »
But the Peacock network chose to do so — and NBC News spent all week profiling Welker as someone who “met the moment” as a White House correspondent where “power had to be held to account.” during Trump’s tumultuous presidency. Unfortunately, Welker failed to capture the moment during his interview with Trump.
Welker allowed Trump to make a number of statements completely unrelated to reality on a range of critical issues, without a stubborn, resolute or meaningful reaction. Trump, a fast lying machine, sang and danced as usual. He lied about the election. He lied about the insurrection his lies had created. And he lied about almost every topic Welker discussed.
Through it all, Welker seemed ill-equipped to handle Trump’s characteristic bravado. Lacking any visible fire in her belly, she sometimes timidly attempted to set the facts straight. But Welker lacked the necessary fervor and apparent understanding of the subject that the massive platform needs to effectively counter Trump, who, as Peter Baker, the New York Times’ chief White House correspondent, later told him, is like a “bulldozer shoveling lies”. Trump clearly sensed weakness in the air, taking control of the interview by ignoring Welker’s desperate – but constant – pleas to “stay on track” and continuing to flood the area with outrageous lies.
“Mr. President, let me just ask this question, please…” she pleaded at one point.
It was a difficult moment in Welker’s otherwise immaculate career. And it will certainly have consequences for the popular Sunday public affairs show, given that Welker’s debut was an opportunity for NBC News to refresh the program, to define the role it will play in the 2024 elections and capture the hearts and minds of viewers.
Although the episode will likely see better-than-usual ratings due to Welker’s debut and the anticipated Trump interview, it’s a safe bet that the manner in which she executed the Trump session will have alienated some significant portion of the audience. audience. CNN, for example, saw a tsunami of criticism wash over the network following its (also disastrous) town hall with Trump this spring — and the network is still trying to win back its viewers.
But the interview also speaks to a larger problem that – one way or another in 2023 – continues to confound the news media and the well-paid TV anchors charged with holding power to account. Even after Trump subverted democracy in the 2020 election, inspiring a full-blown insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, newsrooms continue to grapple with how to cover him.
Arguably, at this point, there is really no need to question Trump. After years and years of seeing how he operates dishonestly, what exactly can we get out of a discussion? The almost certain result is that the media will record a stream of lies coming out of his mouth, mixed with absurd grievances about the supposed injustice of the system. Does all this really serve the public?
Some news executives seem to believe that Trump can make “news” in interviews, but pressing him on policy issues rarely yields substantial results. The public knows Trump well and already knows that he is a man estranged from the truth. Additionally, it’s hard to believe that voters decide whether or not to support him based on his stance on specific issues.
As Trump once boasted, he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still retain the support of his loyal fan base. Trump supporters choose to support him because of his personality and swaggering style. They lock arms with him because they believe he boldly defends them and leads the fight against the elites. Not because of his position on Taiwan.
If it is necessary to interview Trump, newsrooms must approach the task differently than any other interview. Although there is a temptation within the DC ruling class to pretend that newsrooms are still operating in an era near the 1990s, in which Republicans and Democrats are treated as opposite sides of the same coin, this constitutes a serious error. The Republican Party of 2023 is very different from the Republican Party of yesteryear. And its leader, the twice impeached and four times indicted Trump, is not a normal politician.
When interviewing Trump, the goal cannot be to make “news” like you might with a typical politician. The goal of the interview must be to hold power to account. It must be about stating the facts in a meaningful way and forcing Trump to face them. Of course, he’ll still lie – but at least the audience might be able to see through the showmanship if the interviewer demonstrates a firm grasp of the subject and exercises command.
Unfortunately, few journalists who have accepted this mission have shown themselves capable of carrying out this difficult task convincingly. This does not bode well for the news industry or, more importantly, for democracy as a whole.