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Politico Editor-In-Chief John Harris on whether there’s bias at NBC

Thursday, March 31, 2011

HH: Joined now by Politico editor, John Harris. Hello, John.

JH: Hey, Hugh. Nice to hear your voice.

HH: What is the news on the big debate announcement today? What happened?

JH: The Reagan Library was the group that was controlling this. NBC News and Politico are the media partners. But we’d obviously been discussing it in some collaboration, and I certainly agreed with the Library’s judgment that the most important thing was to get a full debate panel. And it seemed like the field is shaping up a little more slowly this time than in 2007-2008. In May of 2008, Politico was one of the partners at the Reagan Library for what was then the first Republican debate of that cycle, and there wasn’t any question at all that the race was off and running on both sides at that time. And this year, is just seems to be a little slower. We expected we would have gotten several candidates, but we didn’t feel that we would have gotten the full field, and that’s important to us.

HH: John Harris, to your knowledge, did any of the major Republican candidates say I’m just not going to show up?

JH: You know, I’m not, I did have some private conversations with different representatives of campaigns that I’m not sort of prepared to divulge. But I did have reason to believe that we wouldn’t get the full field that we wanted, including candidates who we all expect will get in the race, and figure importantly in the race.

HH: All right, now I am hopeful that you still have the first debate. I’m hopeful that the Reagan Library has the first debate in September. Do you believe that will be the case?

JH: I just don’t know, Hugh. And I also don’t know what will, what people will look back, as they examine the history of the campaign, which ones they’ll say is first. You could probably, I’m sure there have been settings already where more than one candidate or potential candidate have been together on the same stage. Is that the first debate? Or what qualifies as the first debate if the person who ends up being the eventual nominee isn’t necessarily there?

HH: Now I am curious, though, about the continued participation of NBC, and I wrote this morning, Politico, you know, you and I have talked about my problems with Politico, but I view them as generally fair, though to the left of center. I think NBC is just full of hacks and people who will never be fair, including Chris Matthews and others who will distort the whole news environment. Is there concern…

JH: Well Hugh, we must just have a disagreement about Brian Williams, who I’ve known and worked with for fifteen years.

HH: I didn’t say Brian. I didn’t say Brian Williams.

JH: We covered the Clinton White House together during those times.

HH: John, I agree with you. I didn’t say…

JH: I just think he’s a very, very solid and non-ideological journalist.

HH: John, that’s a complete diversion. I didn’t say Brian Williams. I said Chris Matthews and the fact that there are partisans within NBC that will so distort the environment there that it would inevitably distort their news gathering. Is it right for the Republicans to be concerned about a news organization that has that deeply an embedded bias in it?

JH: Well, I just don’t accept the premise. And I don’t accept your premise about Chris Matthews, who I admire. I think there are…

HH: I admire him, too, but he’s a lefty.

JH: Well, I don’t thing…in any event, Chris Matthew is not the moderator of this debate. Brian Williams…it’s Brian Williams who is going to be bringing his journalistic reputation, his journalistic values to bear, just as I will be, Hugh, as the other moderator.

HH: But I’ve got to ask you, though, just objectively, if you’re walking down the hallways, and seeing each other and working intimately at the highest levels with Ed Schultz and Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow and Larry, and I’ve interviewed most of these people, and they’re fine left-wing lefties, but aren’t they going to have an impact on the news product of NBC?

JH: I don’t think those people who do come at the news from an ideological point of view, they’re commentators, people like Rachel Maddow, are going to be influencing Brian Williams as he puts his imprint on the debate, and that the two of us together try to come up with the questions that we think will be most illuminating for the audience.

HH: John, how many years…

JH: And no, I don’t think that.

HH: John, how many years have you been in newsrooms?

JH: I’ve been in newsrooms about 25 years, Hugh.

HH: That’s what I thought. Now doesn’t the makeup of the newsroom, the people who actually live and work and breathe there, and interact, influence everyone that’s there? Maybe it’s a matter of degrees, but over the years, doesn’t it inevitably, if you’ve got, you know, Chris Matthews, would you agree, is a very liberal commentator?

JH: I don’t see Chris as being as predictable in his views.

HH: That wasn’t the question…

JH: …as you do.

HH: Is he very liberal?

JH: Is he very liberal? I just don’t see what that has to do with Brian Williams’ journalistic guide.

HH: I’ll get there, but I’ve got to establish the predicate, though. Do you think he’s very liberal? Or is there some reason you don’t want to say that?

JH: I think he should answer the question of whether he is or not.

HH: But you see, if we can’t…

JH: I just don’t see what the relevance to my view of whether, what counts as very liberal or somewhat liberal or not liberal, I’m not sure I get that.

HH: This is why the audience doesn’t trust NBC or a debate like this that NBC’s in there, because if we can’t name…

JH: Do you mind if I ask a question, Hugh?

HH: You bet. Go ahead.

JH: Do you think that Fox News could ever sponsor a fair Democratic debate with somebody like Chris Wallace, who has established a reputation as a non-ideological journalist as moderator?

HH: Yes.

JH: Or could that never be done…

HH: But they would never allow it.

JH: Because…

HH: Yes, John…

JH: That would never be done because they have conservative commentators on that network.

HH: No, John, I think that Fox could do it absolutely, but the Democratic Party would never allow it, and therefore, the Republican Party ought not to allow it on this side, because if you’re going to keep the ideologically involved on the right away from the Democratic Party, you ought to keep the ideologically involved on the left, NBC, away from the Republican party. It’s just fair.

HH: Well, I just don’t agree with that. I just don’t agree with that. And I just don’t welcome a climate where people think that no journalist, including from places like NBC, with established, decades-long, with an established, decades-long reputation for first-rate journalism, can’t cover the news fairly.

HH: John, I’ll give you the last minute.

JH: I just don’t see the entire world operating through an ideological prism.

HH: Do you think MSNBC…

JH: And sometimes, when I listen to you, Hugh, I think that they do. Anyway, I think Brian Williams’ journalistic values and his reputation and his record speak for themselves.

HH: Do you think MSNBC is left wing?

JH: I think in their commentators, they certainly tilt that way.

HH: And does it have an impact on NBC then as a result?

JH: I don’t think it does.

HH: All right, John, that’s the big difference between you and me, and I think the reason why there’s still going to be continued concern over a debate that at least now is at the right time, now if we can just work on getting some other people in there who might represent my side of the aisle and not just Brian and NBC’s side of the aisle, could be good. John Harris from, always a pleasure. Thank you, John.

End of interview.

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