If you heard two significantly different explanations for the same big mistake (and possible instance of wrongdoing) from the same organization, wouldn’t you at least think of investigating further, rather than simply leave the matter hanging? If so, congratulations. You have infinitely better journalistic instincts than Washington Post media columnist Erik Wemple – who’s supposed to earn a living trying to resolve such discrepancies, and who failed miserably in his coverage of a major recent journalism controversy.
The mistake and possible misdeed entail the treatment by NBC News’ Chuck Todd of an interview on another network with Attorney General William P. Barr. The film clip of that session – first broadcast on CBS News – used by Todd to kick off a panel discussion on the weekly Meet the Press program he hosts was missing a key passage. What Todd showed last Sunday morning depicted Barr answering in an apparently cynical way a question about his hotly debated decision to drop the Justice Department’s case against then senior Trump administration foreign policy appointee Michael T. Flynn.
Specifically, Barr was asked how he believed history would view his handling of the Flynn case. In the excerpt seen by Todd’s panelists and Meet the Press viewers, Barr’s answer stopped with the flip remark, “History is written by the winner, so it largely depends on who’s writing the history.”
As Todd noted, those words created the impression of Barr as a completely unscrupulous hack lacking any regard for his most solemn responsibility: “I was struck…by the cynicism of the answer. It’s a correct answer. But he’s the attorney general. He didn’t make the case that he was upholding the rule of law. He was almost admitting that, yeah, this is a political job.”
The problem is that Barr’s answer didn’t stop there. Wemple reported that he continued with the following points: “But I think a fair history would say that it was a good decision because it upheld the rule of law. It helped, it upheld the standards of the Department of Justice, and it undid what was an injustice.” In other words, Todd’s comment, anel discussion, was utterly inaccurate.
And here’s where the conflicting explanations come in. That same evening, following a protest by the Justice Department’s chief press spokesperson (included in Wemple’s article), NBC responded with the following (also presented by Wemple):
“You’re correct. Earlier today, we inadvertently and inaccurately cut short a video clip of an interview with AG Barr before offering commentary and analysis. The remaining clip included important remarks from the attorney general that we missed, and we regret the error.”
That is, before sending the material to Todd and whoever helps him with these tasks, someone at NBC just happened to cut off a recording of the interview at exactly the point at which Barr transitioned from wisecrack mode to serious mode. I’m personally struggling to believe that this action was an innocent mistake, as NBC’s use of the word “inadvertently” clearly claims. After all, the deleted portion represented essential context. But maybe the scissor (or the digital editing tool) slipped. So maybe the network’s expression of regret is totally sincere.
But Todd himself appears to disagree. Tuesday, in an on-the-air appearance, he gave viewers an entirely different version of events. According to Todd (and reported by Wemple),
“Now, we did not edit that [Barr material] out. That was not our edit. We didn’t include it because we only saw the shorter of two clips that CBS did air. We should have looked at both and checked for a full transcript. A mistake that I wish we hadn’t made and one I wish I hadn’t made. The second part of the attorney general’s answer would have put it in the proper context.”
He continued: “Had we seen that part of the CBS interview, I would not have framed the conversation the way I did, and I obviously am very sorry for that mistake. We strive to do better going forward.”
To his credit, Wemple raised disturbing questions about Todd’s account:
“The scope of these oversights bears some explanation. ‘Meet the Press’ aired on Sunday. CBS News published the transcript of the Barr interview in its entirety on Thursday, allowing ‘Meet the Press’ several days to evaluate it. A longer version of the interview video was available by Friday morning. The show’s mistake amounts to a stunning breakdown.”
But this partly helpful explanation was only partly helpful. For it missed the glaring contradiction between the two explanations. As I mentioned, it’s conceivable (despite Todd’s denial) that the crucial Barr passage was accidently snipped. It’s also possible that the Meet the Press staff was just lazy and incompetent, and failed to do the most elementary journalistic double-checking.
It is flatly impossible, however, for both explanations of the same set of events to be true. And yet Wemple not only overlooked this whopping inconsistency. He actually praised Todd’s apology for having “struck a tone consistent with the screw-up.”
Of course, that can’t simply be “end of story,” as Wemple clearly believes. Absent further investigation (“Wemple? Wemple?”) no one outside NBC News can know which of these versions of the Barr episode is true, or whether there’s still another explanation. So in the absence of definitive evidence, here are two alternatives that mustn’t be ruled out:
>If the snipping version is the more accurate, it wasn’t accidental at all. Instead, it may well have resulted from some zealous staffer who thought he or she could get away with an outright deception – largely because NBC has become a den of Never Trumpers, and because the other leading mainstream news organizations aren’t interested in seriously policing themselves even when unmistakable scams are uncovered, – as Wemple’s own performance has made clear. Sure Fox News might pick it up. But so what? Its findings usually get dismissed (by most outside ‘Fox Nation”) as raw partisanship anyway.
>If the lazy, incompetent version comes closest to the truth, it’s all too easy to imagine that everyone at Meet the Press is so devoted to the Resistance that as soon as someone spotted a Barr statement that made this also-loathed Attorney General look bad, no one saw no reason not to run with it.
And unless one of Wemple’s peers rises to the challenge, speculation is all that’s left. Because in this case, a so-called “media watchdog” lacked both bark and bite.