I had the great pleasure on Wednesday of appearing on “On Point,” the radio show produced by WBUR-FM in Boston, hosted by the marvelous Meghna Chakrabarti. I was joined by Tim Lambert, the special projects editor at WITF, the NPR affiliate in Harrisburg, PA.
We talked about how to — and how not to — cover Trump. The transcript is below, or you can listen:
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: At CNN’s supposed town hall with former President Donald Trump last week, Trump threw this old chestnut at moderator Kaitlan Collins.
TRUMP: Can I talk? Do you mind?
COLLINS: Yeah, what’s the answer?
TRUMP: Do you mind?
COLLINS: I would like for you to answer the question.
TRUMP: Okay. It’s very simple to answer.
COLLINS: That’s why I asked it.
TRUMP: It’s very simple. … You’re a nasty person, I’ll tell ya. (CHEERING)
CHAKRABARTI: The bread and circuses rolled on, complete with Trump’s most fervently held lie.
TRUMP: That was a rigged election, and it’s a shame that we had to go through it. It’s very bad for our country all over the world. They looked at it.
CHAKRABARTI: The 2020 election was not rigged. In fact, the legitimacy of the election was preserved most bravely by Republican election officials in several U.S. states. And if anyone watching wondered, does Trump possess even the tiniest drop of remorse for doing nothing, while his supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021. While Trump declared with pride that, no, he does not.
TRUMP: They were there with love in their heart. That was it. Unbelievable. And it was a beautiful day.
CHAKRABARTI: Trump also declared that should he occupy the White House once again, one of his first acts would be to pardon the rioters, who, you will recall, stormed the Capitol shouting Kill Mike Pence and stalked congressional halls with zip ties and Confederate flags, hunting down members of Congress.
TRUMP: I am inclined to pardon many of them, I can’t say for every single one, because a couple of them probably they got out of control. I will say it will be a large portion of them. You know, they did a very (APPLAUSE) and it will be very early on. (APPLAUSE)
CHAKRABARTI: The applause is telling. This was a live broadcast, not a true town hall, in the sense that folks of any political persuasion could attend. Rather, CNN packed the audience intentionally with Trump’s New Hampshire supporters. They are cheering for the pardon of January 6th rioters, some of whom have been convicted by a jury of their peers of seditious conspiracy against the United States.
Donald Trump is once again a candidate for president of the United States. He is the leading Republican in the field. As such, he must be covered by the media. But the question is how to cover a serial liar who attempted to overthrow a legitimate U.S. election is a town hall. The way to do it? Well, here’s CNN’s Jake Tapper commenting on his own company’s broadcast, right after it wrapped up.
JAKE TAPPER: Mr. Trump’s first lie was told just seconds into the night with his false familiar claim that the 2020 election was, quote, a rigged election. And the falsehoods kept coming fast and furious about the January 6th insurrection, about the threat to Vice President Pence, about Pence’s ability to overturn the election, about COVID, about the economy, and more.
CHAKRABARTI: As the criticism piled on, in comes Anderson Cooper riding to CNN’s rescue the next day.
ANDERSON COOPER: The man you were so disturbed to see and hear from last night, that man is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president. That man you were so upset to hear from last night, he may be president of the United States in less than two years now. Maybe you haven’t been paying attention to him since he left office. And have you been enjoying not hearing from him, thinking it can’t happen again? Some investigation is going to stop him.
Well, it hasn’t so far. So, if last night showed anything, it showed it can happen again. It is happening again. He hasn’t changed and he is running hard. You have every right to be outraged and angry. Never watch this network again. But do you think staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with is going to make that person go away? If we all only listen to those we agree with, it may actually do the opposite.
CHAKRABARTI: Mr. Cooper, It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that you just lobbed a humdinger of a false dichotomy there. Please have some respect for your audience’s intelligence. The question facing all of American media is not do you totally ignore Trump or give him a live stage before a friendly audience to flood the zone with lies. The fact that Cooper and CNN insist on framing things that way says a lot about political journalism in this country right now.
Do we not possess the intelligence and imagination to realize that there are many, many other ways to cover and report on this unique figure in American history? Yes, Trump is a man who pulled in 74 million votes in 2020. Biden got 81 million, by the way.
And yes, Donald Trump does not respect democracy, the democracy he once led and he wishes to lead again. Both things are true. So how should the news media approach a candidate like that? Well, Dan Froomkin is here to give us his thoughts on that really critical question. He is editor and the media of the media criticism website PressWatch. And he joins us from Washington. Dan, welcome to On Point.
DAN FROOMKIN: Thank you, Meghna. And I must say, you set that up very, very well indeed.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, you know, a lot of people, including you, saw this coming. … In the weeks since the CNN town hall, in quotes, town hall happened, I mean, do you have any further explanation or insight into why CNN went forward with the format that it did?
FROOMKIN: Well, I think that there’s no question that this was an intentional move by the new, relatively new CNN president, Chris Licht, to reach out to Trump, to reach out to Trump voters, to sort of … check the box, to say that he’s really trying to be neutral about politics. Which is a very, very unlikely place for anyone to be these days.
And it was a complete failure. It was a totally predictable failure. You know, he was just quoted recently saying that he thinks history will look kindly upon his decision to give Trump a stage on the town hall. I think that’s only the case if history proves that from now on, no one will ever do anything like this again.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, I’m seeing reporting here on CNBC that they say sources are saying that Licht has now said that after rewatching the town hall, he says now that he would like to have done certain things differently from a production standpoint, that it was too focused on the spectacle of Trump, not on the substance of what he says.
FROOMKIN: Those are completely trivial admissions on his part. The thing was fundamentally flawed in every conceivable way. I mean, and I should point out that I think with the exception of Anderson Cooper, I don’t think there’s anybody at CNN who thinks it was a good idea. You know, you don’t show him live because he’s a serial liar. Well, first of all, you don’t treat him like a normal presidential candidate, especially, you know, the day after he was found liable for the sexual assault of E. Jean Caroll.
This person is a very unusual figure. He is a major newsmaker. He absolutely must be covered. But you can’t — but if you just treat him like a normal presidential candidate, you’re glossing over an enormous number of shocking scandals, just major assaults on his reputation that would kill anybody else. And you’re just saying those don’t matter.
“What he is is a presidential candidate, we’re going to treat him that way.” Then they showed him live, which is a terrible mistake for when you have someone who’s a serial liar, who fires out lies faster than most people talk. You don’t give him an audience, and you certainly don’t give him an audience full of his own supporters.
Which CNN apparently agreed very happily to do. And you don’t have only one person trying to be the moderator and the fact checker at the same time. So those were all incredibly obvious, predictable problems with this town hall.
CHAKRABARTI: … To the surprise of nobody. So a little bit later, we’re going to talk about … the alternatives to all the things that CNN did. Yes. Just quickly, though, Dan, I mean, you’ve said that Chris Licht should resign.
FROOMKIN: Yeah. I mean, I think that while he was probably doing exactly what his bosses wanted him to do, I can’t help but think he has completely lost the confidence of the CNN staff. I think that he has taken the brand in a very dangerous direction. I mean, and the notion that the middle, that neutrality is a place to occupy is actually kind of hilarious.
And it’s not just him. I mean, a lot of the major news organizations are trying to do the same thing. But there’s nobody in the middle. You can say either you’re on the left or the right. Or I would put it either you’re based in reality or you’re not. But there’s nobody who’s like sort of half in reality, half not. And that’s certainly not a good position for a news organization to be in. So I think what he’s done to CNN is just not sustainable on any level.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, I think you’re right about the edict coming from his bosses. Because CNN and its owners have pretty much declared that they strenuously want to not seem partisan in this election. So let’s just play a moment here. This is David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Brothers Discovery, which now owns CNN.
And a couple of weeks ago, he was on CNBC’s Squawk Box and he was asked about the town hall, which at that point of time was then coming up and you’re going to hear Zaslav first and then CNBC is Joe Kernen and Andrew Ross Sorkin.
DAVID ZASLAV: He should be. We need to hear both voices. That’s what you see. Republicans are on the air on CNN. Democrats are on CNN. All voices should be heard on CNN.
JOE KERNEN: David, suddenly MSNBC is a real force to be reckoned with some of the problems that Fox has had. Is CNN going to fill a vacuum?
ZASLAV: There are a number of advocacy networks out there. Our focus is to be a network about the facts, the best version of the facts, as Carl Bernstein would say, great journalism — and not just politics either. But when we do politics, we need to represent both sides. I think it’s important for America.
ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: So I think it’s a very admirable goal for America. The question to me is a slightly different one, does it rate? And maybe that’s an unfair and terrible question to ask, but underneath it is the business question.
ZASLAV: Well, look, we got a great political season coming. This is a new CNN.
KERNEN: Great for who? (LAUGHS) For the country?
ZASLAV: In terms of the amount of news that will be coming —
KERNEN: I know, I know. Some people don’t like the choice. Some people don’t like the choice… (CROSSTALK)
CHAKRABARTI: Dan Froomkin, what do you hear in that exchange?
FROOMKIN: Well, you hear a lot of the same false dichotomy that you pointed out in what Anderson Cooper said. Of course, you need to hear both sides. Both voices. I mean, that’s absolutely true. And I think he’s absolutely right to say so and to emphasize it.
There shouldn’t be any censoring of one voice, especially if it’s the leading candidate of the major party. And they shouldn’t be partisan. And by partisan, I mean, holding a view that precludes you from seeing facts that you don’t agree with. But advocacy. That’s a tough one. Do you advocate for the facts? I’m for that.
CHAKRABARTI: Andrew Sullivan, you know, the commentator, he’s commented that he thinks CNN actually did America a favor by showing, in his mind, that Trump is still the primary threat to American democracy. Jack Shafer over at Politico in an article headlined ‘Enough with the bellyaching about CNN’s Trump Town Hall.’
Shafer wrote, “The job of journalism is to confront the world and its actors as they are. Not shrink away from them in fright because covering them might benefit them.” And here is David Brooks, New York Times columnist, and he was recently on PBS NewsHour.
DAVID BROOKS: We in the media don’t get decide who we cover. Basically, the American people get to decide, and they get to decide by their votes and their preferences and polling. And so we cover major figures. Now, there’s ways to cover in ways not to cover.
But in my view, it would be disastrous if we appointed ourselves the censors or the determiner of who gets covered in this country. And one of the reasons Donald Trump is popular, because people think people in our business are arrogant. And to me, that would be an arrogant move to say, no, we’re just not going to cover that guy.
CHAKRABARTI: So, Dan, it wasn’t just Anderson Cooper. I mean, a lot of people are sort of retreating back to this false dichotomy. What does that say more broadly about political journalism in the United States right now?
FROOMKIN: I don’t think it’s a lot of people. I think it’s a handful. And I would call those three people in particular. You know, forgive me, but really, really pathetic, mewling defenders of a political journalism practice that has gone deeply awry. I don’t think that they represent a lot of journalists. I don’t think they represent a lot of young and diverse journalists who are really feeling like there’s got to be a different way to do political reporting than what we’re doing right now.
CHAKRABARTI: … Point taken. I stand corrected. But these few people have pretty big platforms.
FROOMKIN: Yeah. No, no. And the people who are committing political journalism as it stands right now have enormous platforms. I don’t think there’s any question. But the fact is that if you want to address Trump in a way that I think is journalistically defensible, you don’t do it the way CNN [did] it. There are ways to do it, though.
CHAKRABARTI: But do you think that a lot of, let’s just call it inside the Beltway political journalists, are they still sort of confined to the old habits of journalism that would sort of require treating Trump like a normal candidate?
FROOMKIN: It’s a lot easier to go, hey, here’s Trump and then quote him than it is to actually contextualize what’s going on. … They have very old habits, which used to work, which worked back when you had two political parties that were roughly in symmetry in terms of, you know, their basis in reality and their acknowledgment of certain things. And for instance, that the government can actually do good. And then, you know, they had very, very different views.
But when you had that sort of a symmetrical situation, you could do good journalism by saying, here’s what these people say, and here’s what these people say. But now that things are so asymmetrical, and certainly between the parties, but especially between anybody and Trump, you can’t just do that. You can’t just go, hey, look, listen to him. And he certainly can say, hey, listen to him when he’s being cheered on by a bunch of wackos. Excuse me.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, you know, I’m going to keep my focus on the media companies here. But I also see, you know, like a certain set of very important incentives for the corporate media, corporate political media that have not changed. And in a sense, that CNBC clip sort of hinted at it. When the head of Discovery Warner, was asked, you know, does it rate? And so, you know, here is a blast from the past. This is 2016.
Now, former CBS chairman Les Moonves was talking about then Trump’s presidential bid and how it was good for his network’s finances. He was at the Morgan Stanley Technology Media and Telecom Conference in February of 2016.
LES MOONVES: Who would have thought that this circus would come to town? But, you know, it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. (LAUGHTER) And that’s all I got to say.
CHAKRABARTI: It doesn’t seem like that much has changed, Dan, because I just quoted Chris Licht in him saying, well, you know, after rewatching it again, I might have changed a little thing or to hear about the production of it. So, I mean are the incentives for ratings and clicks and profit, still the driving ones?
FROOMKIN: Yes, to a large degree. I mean, Trump sells, there’s no question. I mean, Trump is a magnet for eyeballs on the Internet. And on television, people can’t take their eyes off him. It’s, you know, the train wreck situation now. But he is, I mean, it’s not a coincidence that this man’s background was in reality TV.
He is an extremely, extremely gifted man when it comes to capturing the camera’s attention. You know, the New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik wrote a fabulous book just about his relationship with the media and how compelling a subject he is. So it’s not just pure profit motives. It’s also, it’s hard to take your eyes off that guy sometimes.
CHAKRABARTI: You listed specifically what should political journalism not do in covering Trump again? So let’s talk about what you think the practices might be. I mean, first of all, it’s not really possible, I would say, in real time to keep up with the amount of lies.
FROOMKIN: That is an essential point.
CHAKRABARTI: So what to do with that situation.
FROOMKIN: Well, obviously, I have some thoughts about that. I mean, first of all, I should say there is no really successful way to interview him. There will never be a Perry Mason moment in an interview with Donald Trump. So what you need to do is … he needs to be firmly and seriously confronted with the facts that he denies and asked to explain why he denies them.
We need to ask him questions about not just what he feels about something, but what was going through his head when certain things happened. So, for instance, one question before the debate that I thought would be good was, What was on your mind that day as you refused requests from your staff to tell the capital rioters to go home? Were you happy? Were you sad? I mean, that’s a question that goes to his state of mind, which I think is really important. What were you doing for more than 3 hours that afternoon instead of telling rioters to leave the Capitol?
CHAKRABARTI: Because, on that point, there was a moment where CNN’s moderator Kaitlan Collins, may have gotten close to the kind of question you’re talking about. Because she asked him, and we’ve got the tape here, why Trump took 3 hours on January 6th to issue any sort of public reaction as rioters breached the U.S. Capitol.
COLLINS: When they went to the capitol and they were breaking into the capitol, smashing windows, injuring police officers, why did it take you three hours to tell them to go home?
TRUMP: I don’t believe it did.
CHAKRABARTI: So I mean, she asked the question. And Trump just lies and says, I don’t believe it did, where in fact it did. So what good did asking that kind of question do?
FROOMKIN: Well, it was a good question. And Kaitlan Collins asked some very good questions and even did some follow up. But the format did not allow her to say stop, to slow things down and say, okay, wait a minute. Yes, you did spend 3 hours there. Let me read you this. Let me show you this. Let me put this up on the screen. You know, let me quote the testimony from 16 different people. You got to slow things down with Trump.
She also did a good job of pointing out when he didn’t answer the question, but then she didn’t have the time to say, okay, now answer the question. She did go back several times on it, basically giving him the chance to admit that he lost the election. But again, there’s not going to be a Perry Mason moment. He’s not going to do that. … The essential fact here is to get him out of the bubble where he can say anything he wants and people just move right on.
So, if I were advising somebody on how to interview Trump, I would say, first of all, you can’t agree to a strict time limit, because then he’ll filibuster. And then you sit down without an audience in dead silence, and when he says something that is bogus, you stop him right there.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, in a sense, what you’re describing, we have seen a couple times in the past, right. I mean, Chris Wallace did an interview like this, Jonathan Swan, a couple of others. And it did yield a different kind of experience of watching Trump and learning how he thinks. But I mean, there’s still the access game always in Washington. I mean, the networks and cable channels take the risk that Trump is just never going to agree to such interviews this time around. Are they willing to take that risk?
FROOMKIN: Absolutely. No. And so far, what we’re hearing, the result from the town hall, not everybody saying, let’s not do that. It’s, we would like to do it, too. I mean, my sense is he’s getting, you know, requests from everybody right now and they will exceed his demand. In fact, this brand new, very bizarre clickbait startup called The Messenger, which launched a couple of days ago.
They got a 30-minute interview with Trump. And I don’t know whether they agreed to it or not, but it was a complete softball interview. It was absolutely pathetic. And that was a sit-down interview, not live. So they had lots of advantages there, but they were desperately trying to make news in 30 minutes. So they kept on just peppering him with silly questions.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, so you talked about having … a whole staff of fact checkers whispering into the interviewer’s ear. First of all, I’m going to argue that I still don’t think corporate media is built to do that kind of thing. But haven’t you also had a critique of just the entire notion of fact checking around Trump?
FROOMKIN: Well, yes and no. I think that simply doing a fact check three days later, you know, that you bury somewhere, saying, oh, gosh, he was wrong about this. I think that is anachronistic and silly. I think fact checking in the moment, as in correcting the record in the moment, is essential. And in fact, I feel like A, the fact check should be immediate and in the main story.
And B, sometimes the story should be about the lying. Not about what he said, but the fact that he’s lying when he says this. And why is he lying? The ‘why’ behind the lie is something that fact checks never gets to. … But that’s essential. So the lead article ought to be he went on TV, he lied about this. Here’s why he’s lying about this.
CHAKRABARTI: Even if in the moment, the fact checking, the real time fact checking on Trump produces a kind of conflict that Trump thrives on? Because the sort of name calling and parrying and the theatrics of that is, I mean, Trump is excellent at that. And people love seeing that. So take that risk even if he could actually potentially benefit from it.
FROOMKIN: No, I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, at the end of the day, I’m very pessimistic that any of this will actually happen and that it would work. But, you know, a guy can dream.
CHAKRABARTI: Obviously, I’m here hosting this show also as a member of the media, though I’m not a beltway political reporter. So do you mind if I take advantage of your profession as being a media critic and ask you to sort of turn your lens on us for a couple of minutes here? Okay. Because we are going to do a lot of political coverage here. So first of all, how would you describe, you know, public radio in general? Briefly. And its political coverage thus far.
FROOMKIN: I think it’s sometimes terrific and sometimes so terrified that it doesn’t state the obvious because it’s afraid of being called liberal. I think that, you know, because of the inaccurate perception that it’s government funded, it’s particularly sensitive to accusations of being partisan.
And what it hasn’t done, unfortunately, is say, look, we’re not partisan, we’re not for one party or another, but we do support the truth and we’re going to sometimes be calling it out. And at this point, things are kind of asymmetrical and we’re sorry, but that’s not our problem.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, what I want to do is walk you through sort of a list of ideas that would describe my approach in this election cycle. And I want you to give me your responses to it, you know, quickly, because I got a bullet point list here. Don’t pull your punches, Dan. Seriously because we have to be honest about ourselves here. So first of all, I approached this election cycle with the assertion that no living journalist or American has really experienced a moment or figure like Donald Trump in, you know, Trump version 2023. Is that fair to say?
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So, then I look at the last election and Trump’s first administration, and I say between 2016 and 2020, there was an argument, a strong argument to be made that when you’re talking about policies of the Trump administration, a traditional form of journalism was warranted. Looking at what he did, looking at different sides of, you know, policy battles, etc. Fair enough for the past?
FROOMKIN: No, because I don’t think there were Trump policies. There were Trump exclamations. They were Trump random decisions. I mean, to the extent that if you’re talking about what the government did under Trump. Yes, absolutely. But if you’re trying to suggest there were Trump policies that were formed in any kind of normal way, that would be inaccurate, that would be deceiving the public.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Well, I mean, I would disagree with you on that because I think he did have some policies, but I take your point. Okay. But what I want to ask you now is here’s my view on this moment and how I’m thinking about guiding this show.
Because now we are post 2020 and post 2021, and we know specifically that Donald Trump continues tonight to deny the validity of the 2020 election, and he also took multiple actions to overturn it. He’s knowingly undermining the faith in democratic institutions that he doesn’t believe in. And in addition, there are very particular actions of January 6th where he did not do a single thing except send a tweet later and do a video to use the power of the presidency to protect the Capitol building and the people inside of it.
So, Margaret Sullivan puts it this way. You know her well. She says Donald Trump is running against democracy. Is that a legitimate lens through which to view the 2024 presidential election or is it partisan?
FROOMKIN: I think it’s what any reasonable journalist has to conclude. I mean, think back to yourself ten years ago and … let’s imagine that the United States loses the election and then tries to win, tries to take over the presidency anyway. Would that person be a reasonable candidate going forward? The answer would be no. And the answer would be it needs to be sustained outrage about this man. And journalism is very un-eager to do that.
CHAKRABARTI: Dan, I don’t want to stop just yet in being rigorous and analyzing what our approach is going to be. So really don’t pull your punches. I’m serious. Because I think the way politics and the United States is right now, when I say that if I’m partisan towards anything, I’m partisan in favor of American democracy. And that’s how I’d like to guide On Point’s political coverage. Small d democracy here.
What still comes to mind are, you know, certain things that CNN has said or other media folks that say, well, you know, in order to have coverage that reaches voters of all stripes, including Americans who support Donald Trump, even saying that our political coverage is going to be in defense of democracy, that is partisan and that is biased and that’s how people would hear it. What do you think?
FROOMKIN: I mean, I think the notion that you can be neutral on democracy and that you want to brag about it is kind of bizarre. And what did happen in some places, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, during the last year of the election was they had launched these democracy teams where they said, yes, we are, in fact, pro-democracy.
We are going to be covering attacks on democracy. But even then, in the announcements, they refused to say, and really, they’re coming primarily from Republicans. And the coverage turned out to be okay. But was undermined by the constant, daily normalized coverage of the political campaign journalists.
I think the first point you made is really essential. To remind people that nobody has ever seen anything like this before, that nobody in this country has ever actually, I never thought we are democracy would be in danger in my lifetime. But it is. And so everything needs to be reexamined. And you need to rethink. … I went into journalism because of X. Things are now like this. How does X apply to that?
CHAKRABARTI: I’ll fill in those blanks. I went into journalism because I absolutely love this country, and I’m fascinated by its people and its problems and its potential.
FROOMKIN: And you want to make the country better, to the extent that you can as a journalist.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I want to learn about it and talk about what we learn. And we are learning right now that our democracy is in danger. That’s my approach. So, Dan, here’s the thing.
FROOMKIN: I’m sorry I can’t attack you for that. I think it’s actually just exactly right.
CHAKRABARTI: It’s not that often that I just open myself up for criticism on my own show. You should take an opportunity. … But here, listen. The truth … is that getting back to Trump himself, hardly any journalism organization is actually going to get to directly interview him. So it’s not just Trump that’s at the issue. It’s Trumpism more broadly and sort of the weakness of American democracy as a whole.
And when we think about that, I want to talk about what the public radio station WITF in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania decided to do a couple of years ago. And here is an example. This is what they say, or decided to say, after every story that featured a Pennsylvania legislator who was an election denier. And here’s this example.
TIM LAMBERT: As part of our Election 2020 accountability policy, we note Congressman Perry is among the 136 members of Congress who voted to object to Pennsylvania’s certified 2020 election result, despite no evidence that would call it into question.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, that’s Tim Lambert. He’s special projects editor at WITF. And in that little out queue, as we call it, he’s talking about Republican Pennsylvania Congressman Scott Perry. And Tim Lambert joins us now. Tim, welcome to On Point.
TIM LAMBERT: Hello, Meghna. Thank you very much for the invite today.
CHAKRABARTI: So, first of all, can you tell us a little bit about the thinking behind the decision that WITF took to publicly and clearly identify every legislator that … denied the election as such?
LAMBERT: Yeah, it was a very long process, a very hard thinking process because we were going outside. As you’ve talked about on the show today, the journalism norms, right? So, you know, we had been dealing with then-President Donald Trump talking about how the election was stolen almost from the minute that the election was over. I mean, that morning at 1:30 a.m. or 2 a.m., he declared the election over while votes were still being counted.
And then from there, there were court cases and rallies and more misinformation and disinformation, which all culminated in the January 6th attack. And I think it was the attack on the Capitol that, you know, kind of shook all of us to the core, as to how this could happen under our watch as journalists.
So we had the discussion on what could we do, and we realized that there were a lot of lawmakers on the state and federal level in Pennsylvania that took action that, you know, either fed into the election lie. Or just took action that they said the vote shouldn’t have been certified. So we decided that we wanted to put in place an accountability policy.
CHAKRABARTI: And it’s even more interesting to me that this was taking place in Pennsylvania. Important swing state, a place where a lot of those court cases that you’re talking about were filed. Did you get any blowback from listeners about this?
LAMBERT: Yeah, absolutely. … We are in a Republican majority area in central Pennsylvania, so we knew that this was not going to sit well with some of them. But we also did receive a lot of support, as well, from listeners and readers who kind of cheered us on to take this stand. So I think, you know, we balanced what we wanted to do and what we hope to accomplish. And again, like you’ve talked about on this show, democracy and the facts. And those are two things that we sort of planted our flag in.
But can you tell me a little bit more detail, what did you hope to accomplish? Because you did this in terms of identifying the legislators who had voted against certification of the election every single time you talked about them, for a while on the air on WITF. So were some of the goals to remind listeners that this is what had happened or what?
LAMBERT: I think mainly it was to consistently present the facts that revealed the actions these lawmakers took to kind of embolden this election lie. And we had hope that it would play a part in diminishing the power of that lie over those who believed it and supported it. Whether that happened or not, I’m not sure. But I mean, we did have an important midterm election last November, and we wanted to at least keep this policy in place through that and just remind people who they were voting for.
Again, they make their own decisions. We’re not here to preach to them. We were just presenting the facts to them. And we saw, you know, Congressman Perry, who we mentioned earlier, he won reelection handily in central Pennsylvania. We did have State Senator Doug Mastriano, who is the Republican candidate for governor, and he was defeated soundly in the race. And again, he was someone who was a big proponent of that election lie.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So, Dan, first of all, what do you think about the decision that WITF made in 2021?
FROOMKIN: Well, I think it’s awful that you don’t give your guests an applause button because I would have pushed it about 20 times during what Tim said. I think … the essential thing to do is to point out when people have basically voted to destroy our democracy. And I congratulate Tim. I think it’s wonderful. And I think it’s done in a very effective way. You know, I think that when you have an election denier speaking, you need to identify them as an election denier.
That’s crucial. I mean, I know there was a really amazing moment when they came out of the town hall and then went to Jake Tapper in the CNN Newsroom. And he looked so sad because this is a guy who had said, I’ll never have anybody, any election denier on live on my show. And then they had Trump on live denying it like crazy. No, I think that alone is a perfectly important, perfectly reasonable and important thing to point out.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, also, Tim said something really interesting about using the constant repetition of the facts about the legislators who had voted against certifying the 2020 election as a tool that would hopefully diminish the power of the lie of the rigged election. What do you think about that?
FROOMKIN: Well, I think that’s essential. I think repeated is the secret to why lie is spread and is the only answer we have to them. I mean, I remember I covered, you know, the George W. Bush administration. And at the point when he and Cheney implied so many times that Saddam was behind 9/11, that 70% of Americans believed it. And to me, that was a huge wake up moment for journalism to say, wait, when a lie is repeated that much, we have to do more than just refute it once. We have to state over and over and over again that it’s not true.
CHAKRABARTI: So, what’s the status of this decision? Are you still going to identify folks this way when you talk about them?
LAMBERT: Yeah, we’re scaling it back a little bit to just mention the accountability policy when it comes to stories about the election, stories about the voting process and things like that. So it won’t be in every single story that a lawmaker is quoted, or we use a soundbite from. So we are scaling it back just a little bit.
FROOMKIN: But you could also put it in the context of the interview as you describe the interview, as well.
LAMBERT: Correct. Yes. And just, I mean, as part of the context, too, when we talk about, say, cases involving January 6th attackers, people who’ve been charged in that. One of the things we always add the context to, is that they’re cases involved in an attempt to stop the certification of a free and fair election and allow a candidate who lost to remain in power.
And when I hear January 6th stories of some of these folks who’ve been charged, that context is never mentioned. And that’s kind of important, don’t you think? I mean, and the number of Pennsylvanians charged in connection to that attack is second or third in the country, depending on the day. So to add that context, I think is just vital for people to truly understand what happened.
CHAKRABARTI: Right. So, Dan, go ahead and respond to that.
FROOMKIN: I would hit the applause button again. I think that’s perfect. I think that’s exactly right.
CHAKRABARTI: Maybe we should have had someone on who said this is all just bias.
FROOMKIN: I’m sure you could find someone.
LAMBERT: I’m sure they are there, trust me.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So, again, I want to just reiterate that it’s not just Donald Trump, when we’re talking about, how should the media cover this election cycle? It’s sort of the state of American democracy as a whole. And so, with that in mind, here’s a recent moment, an utterance from Republican U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama. He was on Newsmax, the very, very conservative outlet, on Tuesday of this week, and he was reacting to the Durham report, about the FBI. And here’s what Senator Tuberville said.
TOMMY TUBERVILLE: If people don’t go to jail for this, the American people should just stand up and say, listen, enough’s enough. … Don’t have elections anymore. I wish there was a special investigation into the voter fraud, because it was outrageous what happened. But nobody wanted to look into it, because they were afraid they were going to be called out. And so, it is what it is. I hate that this happened.
CHAKRABARTI: When we’ve reached the point where a United States senator is willing to say, hey, look, if people don’t go to jail, Americans should just say, let’s not have elections anymore. In that moment, what should a reporter or interviewer do?
FROOMKIN: Well, Tommy Tuberville is a perfect example of somebody they should really probably ignore because he is a complete loon. But there are people like Ron DeSantis who are, you know, plausible presidential contenders, especially if Trump, you know, somehow crashes, who are taking very, very strong anti-voting measures, who are as dangerous or more dangerous than Trump, when it comes to democracy. So I think that you’re right to focus on the issue of democracy rather than just the Trump issue.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Hey, Tim, I was wondering if you had some thoughts about that.
LAMBERT: On Tuberville? Yeah, absolutely. I think that one of the most important things to come out of that would have been, you know, that the president tried to reach him on January 6th. I think he misdialed and called somebody else. So, you know, follow up with why was the president trying to call you on January 6th?
Just a simple question. But I also think that to hear a U.S. senator say maybe that people should rise up and do away with elections, I mean, if that isn’t a red flashing light to journalists that, you know, you need to push back on some of this stuff and stand by what the facts actually are, then I’m not sure what they’re doing, to be honest.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, we’ve got a comment here on Facebook from Terry who says, What you say about Trump is true, but there’s plenty to criticize Biden about, including his, Terry says, obvious dementia and how he won’t sit for a hard-hitting interview. Thoughts, Dan?
FROOMKIN: I do think Biden should sit down for a serious, contentious interview. I think that if I were his chief of staff, I would say, hey, let’s avoid it if we can, because who knows what might happen. I don’t think it would be dementia. But I think that the guy does make gaffes. But no, I think nothing that any of us are saying suggests that there shouldn’t be the utmost scrutiny of Joe Biden and Democrats.
And I think that he avoids questions, and I think that is a problem.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, you know, Dan, a little bit earlier in the show, you talked about how it seems as if perhaps lessons have not been learned from CNN’s Trump town hall because there’s talk about similar events happening on other networks or cable channels. So what do you feel is at risk if, you know, moments broadcast like that continue to happen. If, you know, he gets these live opportunities before friendly audiences as the election season wears on?
FROOMKIN: Well, we’ve seen, you know, the toxic effect of the repetition of lies. We thought we had kind of learned from 2016, not just when the microphone hit the guy and let him go on for hours and hours. I think that the free airtime, that CNN and the other networks gave Trump was responsible for a very, you know, unfortunate chapter in our history. And I think we’ve got to stop letting people repeat lies on our news shows.
CHAKRABARTI: Tim, we’ve got a few seconds left, and I want to just clarify something. You know, I think a lot of media outlets are nervous to make changes in how they cover Trump because they feel like they have something to lose in the changes that you made. Do you feel as if we have lost anything?
LAMBERT: I don’t. I think that we’re able to look at ourselves in the mirror every day and know that we are doing our best to stand up for the facts and stand up for democracy. So, no. And I think that, you know, if anything, this has raised the issue of how we can approach things in a different way as a field.