What started as a firestorm on Twitter, turned into an angry petition and by noon on Wednesday more than 1,000 progressives had called NBC's Washington bureau to tell people just how mad they were at Chuck Todd.
The NBC political director's transgression came during a conversation on Morning Joe last week. Todd, in an exchange with former Governor Ed Rendell about misinformation that has profilerated about the Affordable Care Act, said something that created a liberal firestorm (emphasis added below).
Rendell: "I think the biggest problem with Obamacare, it's not a perfect bill by any means, was the messaging. If you took ten people from different parts of the country who say they're against the bill, sat them down, I'd love to have ten minutes with them and say, 'Tell me why you are against the bill.' If they told you anything, it would be stuff that's incorrect."
Todd: "But more importantly, it would be stuff that Republicans have sucessfully messaged against it. They don't repeat the other stuff because they haven't even heard the Democratic message. What I always love is people who say, 'Well, it's you folks' fault in the media.' No, it's the President of the United States' fault for not selling it."
That was enough to set off liberal critics at Talking Points Memo and other liberal outlets, who argued that by logical extension he was shirking the media's duty to correct falsehoods. Where members of this crowd would usually focus their attacks on "lies" spread by Fox News or various right-wing personalities, Todd's comment had them turning on a mainstream pundit.
The backlash is considerable. Nicole Belle, editor of the progressive blog CrooksandLiars.com, launched a petition on CREDOMobilize.com urging the president of NBC News to issue a public apology. The petition has garnered more than 133,000 signatures since it was posted last week. Another effort, encouraging activists to call NBC headquarters, has inspired more than 1,500 phone calls.
Todd didn't immediately respond to a request for comment but tweeted his defense:
Somebody decided to troll w/mislding headline: point I actually made was folks shouldn't expect media to do job WH has FAILED to do re: ACA
— Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) September 18, 2013
He's in an uncomfortable position, but Todd does have some high-profile company. Another television personality accused of parroting establishment talking points, or at least the appearance of doing so, is CNN's Stephanie Cutter, a former Obama deputy campaign manager, who has been targeted for her White House ties by the left-wing media watchdog FAIR.
Cutter, who's reportedly still advising the Obama administration on communications strategy, has argued that her relationship with the White House is actually an asset. FAIR thinks it's more an asset to the administration than to CNN.
"A TV pundit is paid to say what she thinks," the organization wrote in an "Action Alert" telling members to contact CNN about Cutter. "A political spin doctor is paid to say whatever line is most likely to promote her client's agenda. It's a glaring conflict between two very different responsibilities."
The issue is that journalists have an important role to play as critics, and you can't plausibly do that if you're too connected to or uncritical of the establishment or if you just dumbly parrot what you're told. It's a topic that James Fallows, who has long had a particular interest in media, has been writing about for years.
Take, for example, his coverage of the vote on President Obama's job bill in 2011. Highlighting a Washington Post headline that read, "Senate Has Become a Chamber of Failure," Fallows excerpted a paragraph with the following in bold:
The Senate's top two leaders [Reid and McConnell] have spent the past nine months trying to trick, trap, embarrass and out-maneuver each other. Each is hoping to force the other into a mistake that will burden him and his party with a greater share of the public blame. On Tuesday, as usual, it was hard to tell whether anyone was winning.
Fallows in an article titled "Chronicles of False Equivalence, Chapter 2,817" responded thusly:
No, it is not hard to tell. Since Scott Brown's victory over Martha Coakley and the end of the Democrats' 60-vote majority, Mitch McConnell has flat-out won, and (in my view) the prospects of doing even routine public business have lost, by making the requirement for 60 votes for anything seem normal rather than exceptional. And by eventually leading our major media to present this situation as an "everyone's to blame" unfortunate and inexplicable snafu, rather than an intended exercise of political power by one side.
Dan Froomkin, writing in The Huffington Post earlier this month, offered some timely insights into why writing a neutral story on non-neutral issue is not, in fact, good journalism. His chosen subject was the House vote to make deep cuts to the food stamp program and the ensuing coverage, which focused on the political play-by-play rather than the fact that the program has kept millions of American families from going hungry.
"The New York Times editorial board this morning said the vote 'can be seen only as an act of supreme indifference,' " Froomkin wrote, "But that's not the way the paper's own reporters covered it. Like those at essentially every other mainstream news organization, they wrote it straight. They focused on procedure. They quoted both sides. And they called it a day."
Looks like liberals won't let liberals — or anybody — get away with that anymore. This is just the most recent example.