MSNBC Should Take No Joy in Not Investigating Reid

Analysis: In a divided country, everyone can agree the nation's TV-news outlets need to step up when it comes to being transparent about the flaws and foibles of their celebrated anchors

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Courtesy of MSNBC

Joy Reid on Saturday gave the broadcast of her career, which in a different era and climate might still be hanging by a thread.

Reid, a rising star at MSNBC,  this past weekend offered a mea culpa for homophobic remarks unearthed on a now-defunct blog she operated several years ago. The news host has grappled with the issue for some time, and has already apologized for the remarks in the past. The new round of self-flagellation came after more items were unearthed last week. Reid claimed the new material was manipulated by hackers, and has employed a cybersecurity expert to bolster her assertions.

The trouble? She can’t prove them. So on Saturday, she gave herself over to the mercy of her viewership – and a few hand-picked guests representing the LGBTQ community. “I genuinely believe I did not write those hateful things because they are completely alien to me. But I can definitely understand based on things I have tweeted and have written in the past why some people don’t believe me,”  she said during the opening segment of “A.M. Joy,” her MSNBC program.  “I cannot take any of that back. I can only say that the person I am now is not the person I was then. I like to think that I’ve gotten better over time, that I’m still growing.” Her panel, which was supposed to grill her, tended to offer notes of support.

Reid’s candor is admirable, but last time we checked, MSNBC wasn’t a network dedicated to self-help or attitude rehabilitation. It’s in the news business. And the facts of what Joy Reid has or has not done remain murky, not clear.

This is a divided country, but no matter whether you lean red or blue, there is one thing everyone can agree on: more of the nation’s TV-news outlets need to step up when it comes to being transparent about the flaws and foibles of their celebrated anchors – and the information they transmit to their viewers.

CNN faced a similar issue in June of last year, after it published a story online saying  Congress was investigating a Russian investment fund with ties to Trump officials. The Time Warner-owned network quickly parted ways with three veteran journalists afterward, saying they had not followed some standard editorial processes before posting the story. More recently, Fox News Channel had to grapple with the fact that primetime host Sean Hannity had not disclosed ties to Michael Cohen, the attorney who has long worked for the Trump Organization and who recently became the subject of an F.B.I investigation. “Michael Cohen has never represented me in any matter. I never retained him, received an invoice, or paid legal fees,” Hannity said in a subsequent statement. “I have occasionally had brief discussions with him about legal questions about which I wanted his input and perspective.  I assumed those conversations were confidential, but to be absolutely clear they never involved any matter between me and a third party.” Fox News executives acknowledged they had been surprised by the news of the host’s informal relationship with Cohen, but continued to support him. Hannity often notes that he doesn’t consider himself a journalist, though it’s not clear all his viewers note that distinction.

At a time when the endless churn of live tweets and anonymous online comments has placed every news outlet under intense new scrutiny, it’s easy to understand why a TV network would rush to defend a prized employee. Reid has helped breathe new life into MSNBC’s weekend schedule, once better known for reruns of “Lockup.” Hannity is the most-watched host on cable-news. Should Fox News’ parent company, 21st Century Fox, prove successful in selling the bulk of its assets to Walt Disney Co., he will become even more important. The Fox News unit, which already accounts for approximately 20% of the company’s cash flow, will represent even more of a financial engine for the Murdoch family, its controlling shareholders.

Maintaining an honest compact with viewers, however, should be the paramount concern.  What was erroneous in CNN’s story that caused three journalists to leave the company? Why didn’t Hannity disclose an informal relationship with Cohen if he was going to talk about issues related to him? Did Reid post those comments or not? If you want to go back a few more years, you could  query NBC News about what needs to be corrected about what Brian Williams said on “NBC Nightly News”  in early 2015, or ask ABC News whether it needs to add a disclaimer to certain reports anchored by George Stephanopoulos detailing that he had made contributions to the Clinton Foundation.

The only real disclosure about a TV-news gaffe in recent years has come from CBS News after it broadcast a flawed “60 Minutes” segment in October, 2013, containing assertions by a source that the news unit found later it could not substantiate. The network disclosed an internal review, noting that producers had not checked accounts by the source thoroughly enough, and had not disclosed to viewers the fact that the source’s account had originally appeared in a book published recently by an imprint of Simon & Schuster, also a unit of CBS Corp. Correspondent Lara Logan and producer Max McClellan took leaves of absence in the aftermath.

In the era of the Donald Trump presidency, TV news has become a bigger business. Ratings have soared. Ad-sales executives expect advertisers to rush to put money down on news programming, sometimes even before they go shopping for primetime fare. Hannity, Don Lemon and Rachel Maddow have fast become household names. A seat behind the desk at CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, not to mention their broadcast counterparts, offers a path to greater renown. There’s a new memoir out from “Fox & Friends” co-anchor Ainsley Earhardt. CNN’s Jake Tapper is the author of a new historical fiction novel. Mika Brzezinski and NBCUniversal have collaborated in a conference business inspiring women to “Know Your Value.”

Protecting all that business can’t come at the cost of protecting news credibility.

MSNBC hasn’t uttered a word in defense or support of Joy Reid, but c’mon, folks. Her recent broadcast borrowed a strategy that saved Bill Maher last year when he faced a similar imbroglio after uttering a racial epithet on his “Real Time” program. In the aftermath, Maher convened guests like Ice Cube and Michael Eric Dyson to call him to task for using the slur and explore the issues about its usage.  Meanwhile, social media was filled this weekend with notes in support of Reid issued by many of NBC News’ best-known personnel. You don’t need to pull back the curtain to know a wizard is working a machine behind it.

Reid offered a notable and heartfelt apology to viewers, and that’s welcome.  MSNBC should still be interested in disseminating the facts of the situation that surrounds her – and all the TV-news networks should do the same when anchors lose their moorings.