Cuomo, Smerconish and Melber – Where facts matter

Cuomo, Smerconish and Melber – Where facts matter
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A very very long time ago, CNN created a program called “Crossfire.” I was a guest on the show many times during the Clinton impeachment time period. I remember thinking – this is the way America should be debating the issues. On the facts, on the merits, avoiding (as much as possible) personal attacks and rhetoric.

The two hosts I remember best were Bill Press (from the left) and Bob Novak (from the right). I remember their focus on tough adversarial questions, but their willingness to hear the answers and (almost always) to treat their guest from the other side of the spectrum respectfully. On one occasion, I remember Bill Press (and I) got overly heated in an exchange with a pro-impeachment Republican, and the then executive producer, Rick Davis, scolded us after the show, saying: “This is not what this show is about. It is about facts – and disagreements with respect.” He warned that he would not permit this again. And Bill and I agreed we had gone over the line.

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Re-read that sentence and ask yourselves: How many cable news shows today offer serious point-counter-point debates where there is focus on just the facts, enforced by the moderators, and any use of innuendo and personal attacks as surrogates for facts are not allowed by the moderator?

I can think of at least three with interview shows that focus on facts and are balanced with Rs and Ds, liberals and conservatives, subject to their tough cross examination. They are Chris Cuomo and Michael Smerconish of CNN and Ari Melber of MSNBC. (Bret Baer of Fox also deserves a special call-out for almost always focusing on facts and news in his newscast program).

What Cuomo, Smerconish, and Melber have in common is – well, sorry, everyone, I know how most people feel about lawyers – a legal education. 

All three went to prestigious law schools -- Cuomo at Fordham Law, Smerconish University of Pennsylvania, Melber at Cornell. And all learned from first year law school that sound legal advice is impossible without knowing the facts and confirming they are true.

Why is this important to praise and reinforce fact-based cable news shows – as opposed to ideological-based shows that depend on emotional arguments and innuendo, but not strictly the facts? Now more than ever – perhaps more than ever in U.S. history? Because we have a president of the United States who – this is not a political argument, it is an indisputable fact – lies almost every day multiple times, and at this point seems to know he is lying and believes his supporters know he is lying and they don’t care.

The latest example of Trump willfully and knowingly lying: His claim that the moral outrage and horror of children being stripped away from their parents are the responsibility of Democratic members of Congress. That is a lie – and everyone knows it is a lie.  Not one Republican or cable panelist attempting to defend this Big Lie by Trump can answer the following question: “Could President TrumpDonald John TrumpWSJ: Trump ignored advice to confront Putin over indictments Trump hotel charging Sean Spicer ,000 as book party venue Bernie Sanders: Trump 'so tough' on child separations but not on Putin MORE stop this from happening immediately by ordering it stop?” The answer is, indisputably, beyond any doubt: Yes.

Finally, in recent days, we have members of the mainstream media willing to confront the president directly – “why are you lying?” about blaming Democrats for his policy taking children from their parents to use them for political leverage.

Now we need the White House press corps to do with Sarah Huckabee Sanders the same thing that Cuomo, Smerconish and Melber do with their guests: Don’t allow her to duck and avoid questions about Trump’s lies —especially lies about Democrats as responsible for Trump’s cruel and heartless policies that he could end with one phone call or public announcement. More important, when she refuses to answer a question and goes on to another reporter, that reporter should re-ask the question. If she does it again, the next reporter should again insist on the same question being answered. What would happen if every reporter in the White House press room did the same thing – insist on Sanders either answering the question or explaining why she won’t?

In other words, the White House press corps should follow the lessons of Cuomo, Smerconish and Melber and insist on an answer to the question on the facts, and, if that doesn’t happen, do it again.

Mr. Davis served as Special Counsel to President Clinton (1996-98) and a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (2006-7). He is the author of The Unmaking of the President 2016: How FBI Director James Comey Cost Hillary Clinton the Presidency (Scribner). A paper-back version of the book is forthcoming with an updated “Afterword.” Davis is a partner in the law firm Davis Goldberg & Galper and media strategy firm Trident DMG, which specializes in crisis management.