The press has a Rudy Giuliani problem
The impeachment battle lines now appear to have been drawn in terms of the unfolding messaging war that will dominate the airwaves for months to come: Democrats are doggedly perusing the checked-out claims of a government whistleblower, while Republicans are lying about everything.
That's not an exaggeration. Embracing Donald Trump's signature and constant disregard for the truth, Republicans defending the president are operating in a truthless environment, utterly unencumbered by reality, as they fabricate claims and toss out nonsensical conspiracy theories in an attempt to protect Trump from his admission that he pressured the Ukraine government to dig up dirt on Joe Biden. Leading that reckless brigade is Rudy Giuliani, which means it's time for the press to quit Rudy Giuliani.
On Sunday, the Biden campaign put a finer point on that. "In a letter addressed to the heads of the major news and cable networks, as well as top news anchors, two top Biden campaign advisers make the case that by peddling routine falsehoods about the work of Biden and his son Hunter in Ukraine, Giuliani’s presence on the airwaves is editorially untenable," The Daily Beast reported. Biden aides Anita Dunn and Kate Bedingfield wrote, "While you often fact check his statements in real time during your discussions, that is no longer enough. By giving him your air time, you are allowing him to introduce increasingly unhinged, unfounded and desperate lies into the national conversation."
The Biden letter goes on to make several key points, including the fact that Giuliani, a former mayor of New York, is not a government or Trump administration official or even a spokesperson. If the White House had put forth a top aide this weekend to defend Trump on the collusion scandal, then it would have been a bit more difficult (although certainly not impossible) for news outlets to refuse to put that person on the air. But Giuliani "holds no public office that would entitle him to opine on the nation’s airwaves," the aides write.
Yes, some people might recoil at the idea of a campaign making the demand that television news outlets stop booking a particular guest, simply because that's never been the role of a campaign and because the press, of course, is free to invite whomever they want to discuss the day's news. But if you view the Biden campaign letter as encouraging or imploring television news outlets to make a journalistic decision to drop Giuliani and his marathon of lies, then the scenario doesn't seem so unusual. Television news programs decide everyday whom to put in front of the cameras and whom not to. By putting Giuliani on, they're making a conscious decision to air a pathological liar at a pivotal moment in our history.
The simple fact is that drastic steps need to be taken, because right now Republicans have the media system rigged.
"The strategy is obvious for anyone watching," tweeted Joe Lockhart, former press secretary in the Bill Clinton White House. "Trump and his enablers will manufacture conspiracy theories and lie from now until the end. We know they are, the press knows they are and, and this is the sad part, it has a reasonable chance of succeeding. Something wrong w/system."
Indeed, there's no mystery about what's going on here. The hand Giuliani's playing in the Ukraine scandal is extremely weak, and everyone at the table knows it. He's practically waving his awful cards around in the air. And yet he's ushered into virtually every television news studio in the country, which is bad for news consumers. (On ABC's This Week, Giuliani claimed that George Soros and Hillary Clinton colluded with Ukraine’s government to try to steal the 2016 election … or something.)
"You can try to make things clear for viewers and inform the public. Or you can interview Giuliani. You cannot do both," noted New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. "Everyone in TV news knows this. And they choose. The confusion he spreads is strategic for him and a defeat for them, for it is impossible to resolve on air."
This is all part of the larger challenge that the Beltway press has been facing—and failing at—for the past two years: How do you deal with a president, an administration, and a Republican Party that now lie about everything? They don't spin. Instead, they lie without pause and without apology. Up until the moment Trump appeared on the political scene in the summer of 2015, the press' response to wholesale lying from politicians was obvious and straightforward: The lies got called out, without fear or favor. But for Trump, the press decided to pull its punches.
Nervous about allegations of "liberal media bias" and afraid of being the target of Trump's media-hating wrath, journalists pretend they can't tell if Trump is lying. And then when he obviously is, the press flips through the thesaurus in hopes of not having to call Trump's lies "lies." (So many "falsehoods" … ) Time and again, reporters and their editors, opting for clunky euphemisms, have failed to summon the nerve required to accurately label Trump’s lies as what they are.
And that leads us to the Giuliani dilemma. To borrow the famous Mary McCarthy quote, everything Giuliani says is a lie, including "and" and "the." There's simply no standard for truth in journalism that Giuliani meets.
Keep in mind, Giuliani made his fact-free Sunday television appearances regarding Biden and Ukraine the same day that the Los Angeles Times became the latest news organization to torpedo the corruption claims against Biden. "Ukraine’s former top law enforcement official says he repeatedly rebuffed President Trump’s personal lawyer’s demands to investigate Joe Biden and his son, insisting he had seen no evidence of wrongdoing that he could pursue despite Trump’s allegations," the paper reported.
Think about it. Why are news organizations that have already thoroughly debunked the Biden/Ukraine smear hosting Republicans like Giuliani and letting them disseminate the Biden/Ukraine smear? Do you think back in 2001 and 2002, if some Democratic members of Congress had pushed the outrageous conspiracy theory that President George W. Bush had known about the 9/11 terror attacks ahead of time and had refused to stop them, that those members would be ushered onto Meet the Press and Face the Nation? Me neither.
It's time for the press to fix its Rudy problem.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.