MIAMI — Journalistic ethics cops put in an extra shift on the job after NBC News announced its slate of five hosts for this week’s double-header Democratic presidential primary debates. The problem was the inclusion of Rachel Maddow, opinionated host of her eponymous prime-time MSNBC program, alongside Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Chuck Todd and José Díaz-Balart.
Though Maddow had moderated a Democratic debate back in 2016, the finger-waggers still roared. "Having Maddow ask the questions would not be unlike Fox News hosting a debate and having Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham hosting,” noted Poynter’s Tom Jones, adding, “it just doesn’t seem like a risk worth taking.”
The Hill’s Joe Concha, on an edition of the Fox News program “Hannity,” said, “People like me, objective people, look at her moderating a debate and saying, ‘Wait a minute — that can’t happen,’ because in 2016 she moderated a debate and actually went up on stage on national television and hugged Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton onstage. Picture Shannon Bream or Martha MacCallum [both of Fox News] doing that to a Republican candidate. The apocalypse would look like nothing compared what the reaction would be."
Such misgivings stemmed from the general tendency, though by no means universal policy, of primary debate-hosting networks to deploy their “straight news” folks on debate moderation. At CNN, that’s a Jake Tapper or a Wolf Blitzer or an Anderson Cooper; at Fox News, that’s a Bret Baier or a Chris Wallace or a Martha MacCallum. And so on.
Does this distinction matter?
Eh. Thanks to this week’s proceedings, we have more data on which to make a judgment: two nights and two hours of Maddow-moderated debate time. The results? Maddow asked questions about abortion, civil rights, the war in Afghanistan, school shootings and other topics. In a Wednesday question for former Maryland congressman John Delaney, Maddow asked:
Congressman Delaney, because of the accountability issues that Congressman O’Rourke was just describing there and the real political landscape in which Nancy Pelosi is saying that impeachment will not be pursued in the House, it raises the prospect — and the Mueller report raises the prospect — that President Trump could be prosecuted for some of those potential crimes down the line. No U.S. president has ever been prosecuted for crimes after leaving office. Do you believe that President Trump could or should be the first?
That particular question aligns with Maddow’s obsessive coverage of the investigation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — a nightly pat-down of court documents, reporting by major newspapers and, yes, a leading question or two or three. Whatever your take on Maddow’s Mueller coverage, however, the question regarding post-presidency prosecution is a fine one.
On Thursday night, Maddow pressed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on the history of his position on gun regulation, leading to this entertaining moment:
And she pushed a doozy in the direction of South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg: “In the last five years, civil rights activists in our country have led a national debate over race and the criminal justice system. Your community of South Bend, Indiana, has recently been in uproar over an officer-involved shooting. The police force in South Bend is now 6 percent black in a city that is 26 percent black. Why has that not improved over your two terms as mayor?”
The mayor had little room to maneuver: “Because I couldn’t get it done.”
Yes, Maddow is an unabashed lefty. But opinions don’t equate to bias, however, as we’ve discussed before in this space. Michael Kinsley explained the distinction years ago:
Bias is a failure to suppress your opinions or (if opinion is in your job description) to state and defend your opinions openly. Like avoiding opinions, avoiding all bias is probably impossible. Among other difficulties, objectivity is not a huge safety zone. It is a narrow path between bias on one side and bottomless relativism on the other. Journalists are not supposed to be neutral between fact and falsehood or about certain basic shared values. We may state baldly that two plus two is four and may assume without supporting evidence that democracy is a good thing. But beyond that, the fog of disagreement sets in.
If Maddow entered the proceedings with searing biases for certain candidates and against others, we missed them. So maybe an “opinion” journalist can be fair enough to referee a rhetorical set-to. That makes sense, given that the “straight news” folks all have plenty of opinions as well. It’s just that journalism decided that only certain people are licensed to express them.
Plus: Maddow spent much of her time this week serving not so much as a political referee but rather as a human kitchen timer. “If I could preface this, we will give you 30 seconds, because we’re going to come back to you on this again in just a moment. But go for 30 seconds,” Maddow told Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) in a typical bit of hall-monitoring.