NBC News President Complains Of Misleading Edits While MSNBC Airs Misleading Edits


NBC News President Steve Capus admonished the political advertising industry in a speech on Monday at the Edward R. Murrow Awards Ceremony. He called political ads that pull clips of news personalities, notably those on MSNBC and NBC, saying something about a politician which, when taken out of context, can appear damning for one side and flattering for another. Capus called the practice of taking news anchors out of context “lazy.” It does, however, take some brass – as former President Bill Clinton would say – to call political advertising shops lazy for doing what the news anchors on MSNBC do virtually every day.

“It’s not fair for our journalists and producers and it’s not fair to our citizens and it’s just lazy,” Capus said Monday. “I know that campaigns want to be associated with Tom Brokaw and Andrea Mitchell and Brian Williams in their commercials. But let’s be honest. That’s good company, but those folks are journalists and they do not endorse this message. Tonight, while I’m among all of my colleagues and acquaintances, I’d encourage all of you to join us in this effort to ask the campaigns to stop — respectfully — ask them to stop using news material in their advertising.”

He is right. It is not fair. It is, nevertheless, a staple of political ads to use clips from television news including the anchors themselves to reinforce a political message. Journalists who take pride in their objectivity often bristle at being used as tools by political candidates, and they are often taken out of context. This practice is one likely reason why political ads are taken with a rather large grain of salt by the viewing public – they know they are being sold something. But politicians and their staffers have an excuse for such tactics — they are trying to win, at all costs. Winning is all that matters for political consultants and, if they offend the fragile ethics of a journalist or two along the way, so be it.

It is quite another for a news network to engage in that same practice. News networks do not, to my knowledge, receive a win bonus when their preferred candidate is victorious. A brief review of just the last few hours of MSNBC’s programming, which has focused on Mitt Romney’s position on abortion rights, has made a virtue of taking Romney out of context to reinforce a political point of view.

Take for example, MSNBC anchor Lawrence O’Donnell. During his program on Tuesday night, he played a clip of Romney speaking with David Gregory on Meet the Press on September 9 addressing the issue of abortion rights:

I hope to appoint justices to the Supreme Court that would follow the law and follow the Constitution and it would be my preference that they reverse Roe v. Wade, and therefore they return to the people and their elected representatives this important issue.

O’Donnell found this statement inconsistent with another recent statement from Romney in which he said “there’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.” As though O’Donnell, a former Congressional aide, is unfamiliar with how legislation is crafted or introduced.

But Romney’s quote was, of course, taken out of context. Here’s the exchange just prior to the clip O’Donnell played.

Gregory: Would a President Romney fight to overturn Roe v. Wade, and what would you do in that fight to achieve that goal?

Romney: I’m pro-life and will intend, if I’m President of the United States, to encourage pro-life politics.

Gregory: Just encourage or fight for it to be overturned?

Romney: I don’t actually make the decisions the Supreme Court makes, and so they’ll have to make their own decision.

So, as O’Donnell is aware, there really is “no legislation with regards to abortion” that he is advocating in that clip.

On Today’s NOW with Alex Wagner, during an attempt to paint Romney as an obsessively anti-abortion activist who has cleverly disguised his policy preferences for the last twenty years in order to serve as the governor of deep blue Massachusetts, employed a similar tactic. Despite there being nothing inconsistent in Romney’s position that he would prefer the Supreme Court overturn Roe and return the issue to the states, he has said on multiple occasions that he would not pursue that policy preference legislatively.

Wagner opted to go for the coup de grâce, adding a new clip to augment O’Donnell’s case. She played a clip of Romney during a 2007 Republican presidential debate in which the former Bay State governor was asked about his preferences on abortion rights. In that clip, Romney seemed to advocate for a truly extreme position – no “abortions in this country. At all. Period.”

“I would welcome the circumstance where there was such a consensus in this country where we said we didn’t to have abortion in this country. At all. Period,” said Romney. Asked by Anderson Cooper if he would sign such a bill, Romney replied he would be “delighted.”

It’s such a good “gotcha” moment that it would be a shame to spoil it by playing Romney’s very next sentence.

“But that’s not where we are,” Romney said in the same breath. “If the Congress got there, we had that kind of consensus in this country, terrific.”

In other words, Romney would love if the nation turned sharply against Roe and sent Representatives to Congress with the mission to overturn that law. In such a case, he would sign that legislative repeal of Roe. In the absence of such a consensus, he would not push for such a law.

But, why ruin a good meme with actual context and full statements. One wonders if Steve Capus finds this type of programming “lazy.” If so, his position affords him the opportunity to do something about it, rather than simply identify a problem before a friendly audience.

UPDATE: Having heard Chris Matthews on his MSNBC program charging that Romney sounds like he is “close to criminalizing” abortion and may support some form of a National Right to Life amendment, it is appropriate to link to this Fact Check.org piece from July which rather effectively debunks this notion. Some things are just too fun to check on in election season.

h/t Politico

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An experienced broadcaster and columnist, Noah Rothman has been providing political opinion and analysis to a variety of media outlets since 2010. His work has appeared in a number of political opinion journals, and he has shared his insights with television and radio personalities across the country.