Media critic

In a briefing Tuesday, Fox News correspondent James Rosen asked White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest about the performance of NBC News’s Lester Holt in moderating the first presidential debate at Hofstra University. Earnest responded that Holt didn’t become the story. “The fact that we’ve gone through a good 40 minutes or so of the briefing without mentioning Mr. Holt’s name I think is a pretty good endorsement of his performance,” said Earnest.

Determined to extract accountability from the White House regarding an NBC News anchor, Rosen pressed on with the following question:

So it eluded the president’s attention that Mr. Holt, who enjoys the respect of everyone in this room, this questioner included, nonetheless, last night, pressed Mr. Trump pointedly on just about every perceived area of vulnerability for him, including his early statements about the Iraq War, his refusal to release his tax returns, his role in the birther issue, his endorsement of stop-and-frisk, and his comments about whether or not Mrs. Clinton has a presidential look, but somehow failed to press Mrs. Clinton even a single time on any of her perceived points of vulnerability such as her conduct with her emails, the role of the Clinton Foundation in the Clinton State Department, her refusal to release her Goldman Sachs speeches, her deep trustworthy deficit with the American electorate, her role in the destruction of Libya or the Benghazi attacks. None of those things were pressed by Mr. Holt. Did that elude the president’s attention, that sort of seeming imbalance in the questioning?

First, let’s dispense with some housekeeping. How does Rosen know that everyone in the White House briefing room respects Lester Holt? Where’s his polling on that matter? And please do away with the meaningless prefatory niceties: To voice great respect for someone that you then go on to criticize is an overdone rite of Washington smarm. Cut it out.

Moderator Lester Holt during the presidential debate on Monday. (Joe Raedle/Pool via Associated Press)

In responding to Rosen, Earnest said, “Well, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that all of Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities were covered.” That would be correct. Rosen’s premise aligns with a creeping Fox News move toward full-on embrace of Trump, as we described in this post. To suggest that a 90-minute event could possibly encompass “just about every perceived area of vulnerability” for Trump is to assert that such vulnerabilities are finite. In addition to Rosen’s list, we’d like to add a few: Trump’s treatment of women, his extreme pronouncements on immigration, the gulf between his claims of charitable giving and reality, the conflicts of interest posed by his international business holdings, his nonsensical proposal to “open up” the country’s libel laws, his ties to a former Mafia-linked businessman, his hypocrisy over climate change, his extreme litigiousness, his alleged profiting from the work of foreign models on tourist visas, his impersonation of his own PR operative, his insistence on nondisparagement clauses, his denial of campaign credentials to various media outlets. There are more, of course.

None of that is to suggest that Rosen didn’t have a point on the Clinton front — surely Holt should have pressed on the items cited by the Fox News anchor. But how is that a question for Josh Earnest? Or President Obama? Or anyone in the White House?

Too bad NBC News Chairman Andy Lack and his peers don’t do regular press briefings in front of a room of media reporters. At the debate’s media filing center Monday night, the Erik Wemple Blog managed to get several minutes of Lack’s time, though we hadn’t exhausted our list of questions when he decided to move along. Everywhere else were stone walls: We asked CNN commentator Corey Lewandowski a couple of times about his oversize conflict of interest as he punditizes on the Trump campaign while drawing severance payments from the Trump campaign. “I’d love to talk to you but you gotta get clearance from CNN. I got a contractual obligation. … You gotta talk to CNN, brother,” said Lewandowski as he attempted to make an arc around the Erik Wemple Blog. We pressed again, prompting this snark from the fired Trump campaign manager, “Did you hear me the third time?” We asked Brit Hume of Fox News about whether he would comment on his tweet criticizing former colleague Gretchen Carlson for her sexual harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes. “I said no,” he responded. We asked Kimberly Guilfoyle, who also defended Ailes in the Carlson matter, whether she had any apologies. She turned and walked away. And so it went. TV news types love accountability, except when it stares them in the eyes.

Update: James Rosen has written to the Erik Wemple Blog a rebuttal, which we are printing in full:

Imagine my surprise at reading, atop the Erik Wemple Blog of September 28, a Washington Post headline reporting that I had committed an “attack” on Lester Holt at Tuesday’s White House press briefing, wherein I posed a series of questions about the NBC News anchor to Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

The chief impropriety in those questions, from Mr. Wemple’s standpoint, was their setting: While acknowledging that I did indeed “have a point” when I cited the “seeming imbalance” in Mr. Holt’s performance at Monday night’s presidential debate – whereby the Republican nominee faced sharp interrogation by the moderator on half-a-dozen perceived points of vulnerability, the Democratic nominee none at all – Mr. Wemple questioned the wisdom of posing such questions to a spokesman for the White House.

Moreover, Mr. Wemple accused me of exhibiting “Washington smarm” when I started off one of these questions with “meaningless prefatory niceties” to the effect that Mr. Holt commands the respect of all in the briefing room, myself included.

Only if we define an attack on an individual as the polite posing of a series of critical, fact-based questions about him could it be said with any accuracy that I attacked Lester Holt (whom I’ve never met or corresponded with); likewise, only someone very cynical about expressions of professional respect, or even basic manners, would rush to describe my prefatory comment as meaningless smarm.

It seems to me a true attack on Lester Holt is committed by the individual who reflexively dismisses an expression of respect for him as empty and who moreover questions the factual accuracy of the core assertion embedded in such an expression: namely, that Mr. Holt enjoys the respect of all in the briefing room. Indeed, the Erik Wemple Blog argued that absent “polling on the matter” such a sentiment should never be voiced at all: “How does Rosen know that everyone in the briefing room respects Lester Holt?”

This headlong flight into punctilio struck me as out of character for the Erik Wemple Blog, which elsewhere revels in its exaltation of common sense. I happen not to possess any polling on the levels of respect Lester Holt commands in the White House briefing room, but having spent a lot of time there over the years, in contrast to the Erik Wemple Blog, I would stake my professional reputation on the factual assertion that everyone there respects Lester Holt; and if presented tomorrow with poll numbers to the contrary, I would, undaunted, continue to report it as a fact. (To my knowledge, no one in attendance at Tuesday’s briefing has yet demanded recognition as the exception.)

In criticizing me for asking at all about Lester Holt’s performance in such a setting, it strikes me that Mr. Wemple may not have watched the entire briefing or read its full transcript. For had he done so, he would have observed two things: (a) that I first asked Mr. Earnest to respond to Secretary Clinton’s claim in the debate that the wealthy “have made all the gains in the economy” (a claim the president’s spokesman cagily disputed but refused to characterize as inaccurate); and (b) that my series of questions about Lester Holt constituted a response, of sorts, to a set of questions posed thirty minutes earlier by my colleague April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks.

April, too, asked Josh Earnest about the debate, but framed her first question thusly: “Many people are hands-down saying that Hillary Clinton was the victor.” “With this victory,” she continued, “does the White House still believe that there is still an open window for Donald Trump to still possibly become [president] number 45?”

I hope the Erik Wemple Blog won’t regard it as meaningless, or smarmy, if I express here my professional admiration for April Ryan, whom I have known for many years; but it seemed to me, as I listened to her exchanges with the press secretary, that the same official White House transcript that would record as an unchallenged fact that “Hillary Clinton was the victor” in the debate should also, for the benefit of future generations, record the fact that there was, as Mr. Wemple himself admits, a “seeming imbalance” in the questioning that proved so critical to the outcome of said debate. Indeed, contrary to the suggestion by Mr. Earnest in response to my questioning that the debate moderator plays a role similar to those of umpires and referees, the moderator in any debate is far more of a participant in the action, much more of a determining factor in its outcome, than umpires or referees typically are in sporting contests.

I did not see in the Erik Wemple Blog any criticism of Ms. Ryan for using the White House press briefing to declare Secretary Clinton the winner of the debate. But then again, I was surprised that the Erik Wemple Blog devoted an entire blog to my questioning about Lester Holt rather than focusing on the objectively controversial, and far more consequential, performance of Lester Holt.