Mehdi Hasan, Zerlina Maxwell, Michael Smith and Michael Holley, on a virtual TCA panel during Peacock’s winter press tour day, tackled the topic that has become increasingly relevant. The lively panel reflected how unsettled the matter remains in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Hasan, host of Peacock’s The Mehdi Hasan Show and also an MSNBC contributor, poured cold water on the idea of inviting Republicans on his show. While he insisted he relishes debate, citing a recent on-air “row” with conservative former U.S. national security advisor John Bolton, he said it is a “supply-and-demand issue.”
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The supply aspect rests on the question, “Do Republicans want to come on a show like ours when they have their own safe space of right-wing media – not just Fox News but NewsMax and OAN – to indulge them?” Hasan explained. “The people who go on about snowflakes are pretty thin-skinned themselves. Separately, there’s a demand problem. … Do I want to give a platform to people who are going to come on and say that the election was won by Donald Trump?” (President Joe Biden, of course, beat Trump by a decisive margin, and the outcome has been affirmed by dozens of courts as well as federal and state officials.)
Holley, who co-hosts Brother from Another with Smith, circled back to the initial question posed to the panel. It cited Bill Maher as among those recently raising the dilemma of starkly partisan camps on TV news. “I would turn it back on Bill Maher and ask, ‘What would he do?'” Holley said. Hasan interjected to say that Maher in his recent return to his HBO show “was helping whitewash Kellyanne Conway” by welcoming the longtime Donald Trump advisor and not vigorously questioning her.
Maxwell, who hosts Zerlina, picked up on the point. “I’m never letting us live it down that we let Donald Trump be the president for four entire years, all the way up to and including insurrection,” she said, “and there are still people who went along with that and are taken seriously in polite company. I think that needs to be a little more examined. … It’s not that we don’t want to debate. It’s that I want the person that I debate to be living in reality.”
Hasan described “a real problem now in the media, where it’s not about left versus right or Democrat versus Republican. It’s about fact-based versus non-fact-based, truth versus lie. … There’s this big debate about the morning shows and having the [Sen.] Ron Johnsons come on. [Sen.] Rand Paul came on ABC and did a Stephanopoulos appearance, lied completely about the election and then posted a clip saying. ‘Hey, my followers! I took on the liberal media and showed them what’s what!’ Do we want to play that role? It’s a really tricky question.”
Smith said that while he and Holley, a close friend and former Boston Globe colleague, have occasionally clashed over topics like defunding the police, “I’m not interested in ‘debating’ racism.”
Peacock, which has free and subscription tiers supported by advertising, has emphasized politics, news and sports to a much larger degree than have its streaming rivals. The service launched last year with a small number of initial advertisers and no more than five minutes of ads per hour. The TCA panelists all said they found that lighter ad load liberating compared with their traditional TV gigs.
“I sat in for Ali Velshi on MSNBC the other day, a two-hour morning show. I was like, ‘Wow, I forgot about four-minute ad breaks!” Hasan said. “In our breaks, you can barely breathe, sip water and then you’re back on air.” Doing a 55-minute hour can be tiring, he added, but it also allows Peacock to “get into depth when we’re told that TV can’t do depth.”
Holley also said the on-demand nature of streaming has turned Brother from Another into a new form of media. “We’re not trying to be a traditional show. We don’t even have a rundown,” he said. The result is “is a TV show, it’s a podcast, it’s a radio show, all in one. So that’s a completely different dynamic than we’re used to.”
Smith was asked about the objections of many commentators, from Fox News host Laura Ingraham to the new owners of sports-centric website Deadspin, about those with sports opinions not “sticking to sports.” It’s a belief he was forced to confront toward the end of his 15-year run on ESPN, when his co-anchor on SportsCenter, Jemele Hill, got suspended for tweeting that Trump was a “white supremacist.” She later left the network and is now a staff writer at The Atlantic.
“I literally lived through the most intense, stick-to-sports period. I was on the front lines of that war with that mentality and that stupidity. ‘Stick to sports’ is so stupid!” Smith said. “People think it’s just fun and games. Sports is home to the most complicated, the most in-depth, some of the most important intersections of segments of society. …. We’ve gone entire shows without discussing sports. ‘Stick-to-sports’ is intellectually lazy and historically dishonest.”
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