Part 3—His guest’s latest howler: Last Friday, on Real Time with Bill Maher, something unusual happened:
Rachel Maddow’s journalism was challenged, from two different directions. At Mediaite, Josh Feldman offered a reasonably accurate summary of events:
FELDMAN (2/21/14): Bill Maher confronted Rachel Maddow on his show Friday night about MSNBC’s obsession with BridgeGate, following up on his blog post last week calling it MSNBC’s Benghazi, telling Maddow it’s just too much now and really needs to stop being a “top story” on almost every single show on the network.Maddow's fuller statement went like this: “Here’s the thing. I am totally obsessed with the Christie story, unapologetically, and will continue to be obsessed with it while amazing things in that story continue to happen.”
Maddow responded, “I am totally obsessed with the Christie story, unapologetically.” She pointed to the gleeful, fun way she covered the Rod Blagojevich scandal, but Maher shot back that it wasn’t covered with nearly the same kind of fervor that BridgeGate has. Maher acknowledged that it’s not the same thing as Benghazi, but the scandal has become MSNBC’s Benghazi. He said, “It’s not Watergate! He’s not the president!”
Maddow said, “When there are gonzo political corruption stories, you cover them.”
To watch this whole segment, click here.
In our view, “confronted” was too strong a word for the exchange between Maddow and Maher. But as he continued, Feldman noted that the National Review’s Charles C. W. Cooke joined Maher in his challenge to Maddow.
Cooke accused MSNBC of trying to end Christie’s presidential hopes, something he said some conservatives also were doing. Throughout the segment, Cooke agreed that this was a genuine scandal.
(Full disclosure: Like most Americans, we normally ignore comments by Brits with more than one middle initial. In this case, correspondent Cooke made some sense.)
It’s unusual to see Maddow challenged on her journalism. Maddow is a highly talented seller-of-self, a useful skill you may not want to see in your leading journalists. Partly due to her songs-of-self, Maddow is widely regarded as a highly reliable, very bright, extremely well-motivated journalist.
On this occasion, Maher and Cooke challenged one basic aspect of Maddow’s work. In response, something rather common occurred:
Maddow uncorked her latest howler.
That wasn’t Maddow’s only reaction to the concern Maher voiced. According to Maher, Maddow has been devoting too much time and too much attention to the Fort Lee scandal. In her reaction to this claim, Maddow did these things:
She briefly pretended not to know what election Cooke could be talking about. (“Why would I be excited to clear Chris Christie from whatever race you mean?”)
She constructed the world’s largest straw man, then skillfully knocked it down. (“So you think that I’ve created the bridge story out of whole cloth in order to elect a Democrat in 2016?”)
She kept insisting that the scandal was well worth covering. This forced Maher and Cooke to keep saying that wasn’t their point.
When Cooke said the extent of the coverage “has been ridiculous,” she played the right-versus-left victim card. (“Thank you for saying it’s ridiculous. I take that almost as a compliment.”)
On the rare occasions when Maddow is challenged, she tends to play such cards. Eventually, she listed the factors which make the Fort Lee matter worth covering, which of course it is.
Presumably, these are some of “the amazing things [which] continue to happen:”
MADDOW (2/21/14): Thank you for saying it’s ridiculous. I take that almost as a compliment. I mean, it’s not like we’re not covering other things. But listen. First of all, his appointee to the Port Authority resigns. Then another appointee of his resigns. Then his deputy chief of staff gets fired. Then his campaign manager gets fired. Today, the head of the police union got fired...It’s an ongoing story, worth covering.“It is worth covering,” the long-suffering Maher said again, not realizing that his guest had just uncorked her latest howler. (There’s no reason why he should have known.)
It’s true! Two of Christie’s appointees did resign, late last year. And on January 9 of this year, Christie did fire two top aides.
Those well-known facts are certainly true. But as Maddow spoke to Maher last Friday night, had “the head of the police union” been fired that very day?
Nothing resembling that had happened. To appearances, Maddow was misstating the contents of this report in that morning’s New York Times, a thinly-sourced report which went beyond anything which has been reported by any New Jersey newspaper.
The New York Times did not report that the head of the Port Authority police union got fired. The Times reported nothing like that. Meanwhile, nothing resembling that had occurred, unless you were listening to Maddow emit her latest howler.
Go ahead—read that thinly-sourced report, which may have overstated the facts. After that, reread what Maddow said.
Maddow’s howler capped a week of horrible work on her show. It was a week which spilled with misstatements, overstatements and promiscuous acts of accusation based on the slenderest threads.
Tomorrow, we’ll review the journalistic misdeeds from Maddow’s Wednesday and Thursday night programs, the programs which preceded her Friday night massacre of the police union head. For today, let’s note the most striking part of the criticism directed at Maddow on last Friday night’s program.
Here’s what we were most struck by as Maher and Cooke challenged Maddow’s work:
Maher and Cooke each criticized the extent of Maddow’s coverage. But neither complainant suggested that she had made any misstatements or journalistic mistakes.
There was nothing wrong with the content of her coverage. She was simply devoting too much time to the Fort Lee matter.
Indeed, less than one minute after Maddow issued her latest misstatement, Maher went out of his way to praise Maddow and her channel for the accuracy of their work. Horrified, the analysts covered their eyes as their Uncle Bill seemed to rattle a script:
MAHER (2/21/14): Again, I say this as a viewer, as somebody who loves these [MSNBC] shows. And every, I’m like, “OK, can I just flip through this and get to the part where they’re talking about something that matters?”Exactly 35 seconds after Maddow emitted her latest false fact, Maher praised her mighty network for its scrupulous fact-checking.
MADDOW: What did I lead my show with last night?
MAHER: Not [Fort Lee]! I’m saying the network, I’m not saying you. Also, I’d also like to quote myself, when we talked about this on Overtime? I said, “I hate false equivalency. MSNBC, one of the great things about it, is that they are scrupulous fact-checkers, whereas Fox News are scrupulous fact maker-uppers.”
We’re long-time fans of Maher around here, for his superlative tone and superlative wit if not always for every one of his views. If Maddow had competent journalistic supervision, we might be fans of her work too.
That said, Maher was flirting with a script as he praised MSNBC, and by inference Maddow, for their wondrous fact-checking. This is one of the frameworks Maddow has worked hard to hang around her own head.
For years, we’ve been struck by the fact that Maddow just isn’t obsessively honest. We’ve also been struck by the skillful way she has created a narrative in which her devoted fans say precisely the opposite.
Maddow has largely built this myth through her “Department of Corrections” reports, in which she corrects her minor mistakes while lecturing us about her honesty—about her desire to correct her own errors, even when it hurts.
Can we talk? If Maddow hadn’t successfully sold herself as the liberal world’s “Little Prince,” as an incomparably fey and sincere ethereal being, cynics might possibly view her “Department of Corrections” series as a bit of a scam.
For today, we’ll only say this: No head of any relevant union got fired last Friday. Nothing like that actually happened. We can find no news report which asserted any such thing.
That claim became Maddow’s latest howler as she listed the “amazing things” that “continue to happen” in the Fort Lee story. And sure enough:
As of today, Maddow hasn’t corrected this error. Her ballyhooed Department of Corrections hasn’t been called into action.
For several years, we’ve been struck by the contrast between Maddow’s songs-of-self and her actual journalistic conduct. Last Friday, the analysts thought they saw this pattern play out once again.
Maddow had been emitting groaners all week, but neither Maher nor Cooke said a word about any of that. As we watched the tape of the show, we were struck by the way the modern pundit corps actually works. And we found ourselves asking that question again:
Who is Rachel Maddow?
Tomorrow: The week of living cluelessly
In the New Jersey press: As Maddow often notes, the New Jersey press is leading the way in covering the Fort Lee matter.
Did Paul Nunziato get fired last week? At the widely-praised Bergen Record, a single report included the paper’s one fleeting reference to the minor matter Maddow misstated.
No, the gentleman didn’t get fired. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.
According to Nexis and the paper’s own web site, the Newark Star-Ledger hasn’t mentioned Nunziato in the past week at all.
On Real Time, the chief got fired! In the real world, not so much.