In the year everything went to sh*t, America's media was already positioned for action. Rather than riding athwart the troubled waters of America in 2020, offering a beacon of accurate, intrepidly researched reporting to help guide the country, the biggest names in media time and again chose instead to abuse their positions, advancing narrow political interests in lieu of valuable, fact-checked information.
If there’s a theme to this year’s edition, it’s the mainstreaming of gaslighting. Time and again news consumers were told that what they were seeing meant the opposite of what it clearly did (see, for example, #s 15 and 14).
Our normal custom with the Most Mortifying Media Moments series is to summarize the 10 worst moments of the year. But 2020 being 2020, this year we’re doubling it up so that we can hereby present … 2020’s 20 Most Mortifying Media Moments.
So, without further ado, enjoy this (mortifying) meander down memory lane:
20 - Media Mourn Death of Iranian Terror Leader
For America's media industry, 2020 touched off on a mournful note, as a U.S. rocket killed an Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, a death that rattled not only the Ayatollah's anti-American regime but also America-skeptic U.S. newsrooms.
The morning Soleimani’s killing was first reported, CBS’s Holly Williams described him as a “revered figure” and a “war hero.”
“He wasn’t well-known in the United States, but he was one of the most powerful figures in the Middle East, sometimes even touted as a possible future leader of Iran,” Williams said. “For America, though, General Soleimani was a problem.”
CNN’s Fareed Zakaria agreed with Williams that Soleimani is “revered” in Iran: “Imagine the French Foreign Legion, at the height of the French empire. This guy is regarded in Iran as a completely heroic figure, personally very brave.”
Picking up on the French theme, Zakaria’s CNN colleague, Anderson Cooper, likened him to the World War II leader, Charles DeGaulle, calling him “personally incredibly brave” and reporting that “the troops love him.”
During the funeral for the dispatched Quds Force leader, ABC’s Martha Raddatz — reporting from Tehran in a headscarf — appeared awestruck at the display: “I have been in the midst of anti-America protests in Iran before, but nothing like this. A powerful combination of grief and anger with shouts of ‘death to America’ echoing through the streets around us. This morning, mourners filling the streets of Iran's capital of Tehran for the funeral of general Soleimani killed by that U.S. drone strike last week. Aerial images capturing the sea of Iranians packing the streets to pay tribute to a man revered by many here.”
19 - Media Pretend Impeachment Is Historically Historic History
After spending most of Trump’s first term hyping every supposed scandal that entered the fray, Democrats and the media finally aligned when a “whistleblower” claimed President Trump abused his presidential powers to advance his political interests (namely seeking an investigation into Joe Biden’s work in Ukraine). Several months of overwrought media coverage later — each anodyne procedural step along the way being heralded as absolutely “historic!” — Democrats successfully impeached Trump.
As Pelosi signed the articles, MSNBC's Chris Matthews commented on her saying Trump is now "impeached forever."
"There’s a sacramental statement for life," Matthews offered. "Like a priest for life. It’s a perfect statement of what she is. I think she is very reverential."
His colleague, Garrett Haake, likewise felt the power of the almighty: "I’m so glad Chris [Matthews] used the word 'ritual' because that’s the word that has been stuck in my head about this all day today. It's beyond formality. There is something almost religious to it and I do think that’s going to stick in the heads of these senators who have been watching it on TV up until this point. I cannot emphasize that enough."
That this story has become an all-but-forgotten memory amidst the mess of 2020 is another useful reminder that reporters should stick to reporting, not predicting the importance of their own work in the eyes of future historians.
18 - Mara Gay & Brian Williams Can’t Math
There’s mortifying media moments, and then there’s Brian Williams and the New York Times’ Mara Gay haughtily attempting basic math on air — and failing fantastically.
While trying to make some kind of point about Mike Bloomberg spending too much money, Williams and Gay forgot how division works, somehow thinking $500 million divided by 327 million equals something north of 1 million.
For good measure, after making this massive mistake, Gay assured viewers: “It’s true. It’s disturbing.”
17 - Media Downplay Covid
Shortly before the election, the media offered blanket coverage to their latest supposed scandal: That President Trump knew early on Coronavirus was bad despite occasionally offering optimistic messaging. This wasn’t exactly true — as we reported at the time, Trump acknowledged the disease’s severity but said Americans shouldn’t become crippled with fear. Ironically (or maybe not at this point), it was actually the major media initially downplaying the disease’s severity.
When Trump and other Republicans urged travel restrictions from China, they were attacked for being racist.
16 - Media Overhype Covid
In a clear case of overcompensation, the media’s pendulum then swung too far in the other direction. From March through today, the media has had one very consistent message about Coronavirus: Remain terrified.
When the death rate began precipitously falling, TV talking heads stopped reporting the data. When data became available showing heavy-handed, top-down lockdown-focused Covid containment strategies were doing more harm than good, the media covered it up. Worse, non-Covid deaths resulting from these measures are now being exploited to justify the very strategies causing them in the first place.
After Trump himself became infected and later encouraged Americans to not let Covid “dominate your life,” the media were furious.
CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, intoned: “Jake, this is so disrespectful, I’m not even sure I can speak about this. It’s incredibly, incredibly disrespectful. What does that mean, don’t be afraid of it? I mean, first of all, it’s a contagious disease that kills people. There’s nowhere to even begin — it’s gross.”
His colleague Wolf Blitzer captured the mood perfectly: “Everyone should be afraid of Covid.”
15 - Peaceful Protests = Violent
Be warned: Protesting peacefully during a global pandemic is selfish and irresponsible and dangerous and violent.
When many Americans began fighting back against Covid-driven lockdowns, they were roundly attacked in the national press.
“Extreme,” “dangerous,” and “unruly” were a few of the adjectives used to describe these activists.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” CNN’s Don Lemon lectured. “I don’t understand, what is wrong with people? Stay at home.”
MSNBC’s Joy Ann Reid was equally indignant: “I don’t want to call them rallies, they’re not protests. … It’s not clear what they’re demanding. Demanding to infect other people, demanding to make other people sick?”
Thankfully, as you’ll see in the next item, this doesn’t mean the media is entirely against protesting as a form of political persuasion. You just have to be sure you’re protesting something they agree should be protested.
14 - Violent Protests = Peaceful
The media’s public-health principles were however soon aborted after colliding head on with identity politics.
After the tragic killing of George Floyd, Americans began taking the streets, demanding reform of policing practices. And yet rather than condemn these activists as they did the anti-lockdown activists — both groups, mind you, are agitating on behalf of their civil rights — the media largely endorsed Floyd protests.
A common refrain was that anti-lockdown protests weren’t “peaceful” because many of the activists were brandishing weapons. And yet once the George Floyd marches turned into a nationwide phenomenon — one that frequently turned violent, and even deadly — the media’s ostensible concern over Covid contagion was discarded as casually as a used disposable mask.
CNN’s Brooke Baldwin said the marches were “beautiful” and “necessary.”
MSNBC’s Ali Velshi, literally standing in front of a burning building, defended the Black Lives Matter activists: “I want to be clear in how I characterize this. This is mostly a protest. It is not — it is not, generally speaking, unruly.”
When the violence became undeniable, CNN’s Chris Cuomo said, “Please, show me where it says that protests are supposed to be polite and peaceful.”
And in the most stunning singular moment of media hypocrisy, MSNBC’s Joy Ann Reid — who had derided the anti-lockdown activists as dangerous super spreaders — celebrated the Floyd activists for “risking Covid” exposure to “explain to this country that we’re fed up.”
13 - Bubba’s ‘Noose’
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before:
The media — excited about a story that confirms all of its favorite narratives — gives the “news” prominent airtime before journalists actually do the hard work of thoroughly fact-checking. And, before long, the actual news turns out to pretty much the opposite of what these credulous reporters claimed.
It happened with Jussie Smollett.
It happened with Covington.
It happened with the Virginia girl whose dreads were supposedly cut off.
And then it happened again — in the most predictable, absolutely unsurprising development of 2020.
In June the NASCAR world was rocked when rumors began circulating that a noose was found in the garage of a black driver, Bubba Wallace. The national media immediately picked up the “story” and began using the claim to depict the sport as hostile to blacks and other minorities.
MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell stated matter-of-factly the “noose” was a “horrifying, racist incident.”
Former ESPN journalist Jemele Hill condemned the “noose” as a “disgusting reminder of who this sport is for.”
“You have a black driver, you have an opportunity here to open this sport up in a new way, and so for this reminder is very stunning, shocking, appalling, disgusting reminder of who, again, this sport is for,” Hill said. “I’m very curious as to see how NASCAR handles this because based off what everything I’ve read is that this had to be an inside job because this garage was only open to essential personnel, so somebody associated with NASCAR likely may have been the culprit, which what does that say for a sport that’s trying to create a more positive racial future.”
Across CNN, ABC, CBS, and MSNBC, the coverage was identical: Why wait for facts when the story already confirms our favored narratives?
Just a few days later, the FBI confirmed what Americans who don’t work in the major media already suspected: This was no hate crime at all. In fact, the “noose” was merely an ordinary garage pull that had been in the same garage since last year. There was zero reason for this to be perceived as any kind of slight against the sport’s most prominent black driver.
So despite stepping on this same rake practically every month, the major media has once again been humiliated, and it happened because they found their actual job of rigorously reporting the news less exciting than hyping hate crimes, whether real or imagined.
12 - The Worst Broadcasting Blooper Ever
MSNBC’s Sunday anchor Alison Morris made easily the worst reporting gaffe in 2020.
While interviewing sports journalists about the tragic and untimely death of Kobe Bryant, Morris somehow mixed up the “Los Angeles Lakers” with what sounded to viewers like the “Los Angeles N*ggers.”
It’s almost too hard to believe, but it happened.
MSNBC appears to have a 15 second delay, as the broadcast in some markets cut to 15 seconds of silence where the slip-of-the-tongue had aired in other markets.
Morris later responded, apologizing and saying she simply stuttered: “Earlier today, while reporting on the tragic news of Kobe Bryant’s passing, I unfortunately stuttered on air, combining the names of the Knicks and the Lakers to say “Nakers,” she tweeted. “Please know I did not & would NEVER use a racist term. I apologize for the confusion this caused.”
11 - Media: Trump Will Use the Military to Steal the Election
The personalities often seen on CNN and MSNBC enjoy attacking Trump for indulging conspiracy theories. But that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily against conspiracy theories. Take, for example, John Heilemann, who often uses his time on MSNBC to spread conspiracy theories he’s thought up despite not having done any reporting to support them.
When the theory is later proven false, the matter is never mentioned again, the record never corrected.
That’s what happened when Heilemann spent many days last summer insisting Trump was prepping the military to seize a re-election through force. Grabien News made several attempts to clarify what the basis was for these assurances; Heilemann blocked the reporter.
10 - Media: Let's Topple Mt. Rushmore
When President Trump opted to celebrate the Fourth of July at Mount Rushmore, the media was … displeased. Not only did they think this was a bad decision in light of ongoing concerns over the Coronavirus, they suggested perhaps it was time to topple the whole pro-American monument.
“Donald Trump chose the most grandiose symbol of U.S. imperialism on Earth to usher in a very on-brand star-spangled spectacle,” MSNBC’s Tiffany Cross complained. “Mount Rushmore isn’t exactly the innocent ode to our Founding Fathers as described in our textbooks, and it’s high time we disrupt that false narrative that far too many people believe.”
The AP’s Jonathan Lemire employed the class “questions are being raised” journalistic device to suggest America’s founders don’t even deserve recognition: “Questions have really been raised about Thomas Jefferson in particular, but also George Washington for their holdings of slaves.”
MSNBC’s Mike Barnicle attacked the racist subtext he predicted Trump’s comments would contain: “He will inevitably and predictably talk about ‘our heritage.’ In other words, he will talk about he is the protector of white America.”
And on and on and on it went. Until Trump went to his next regularly scheduled event and the media’s focus went along with him.
9 - Chris Matthews: All Blacks Look Alike
Not long after his surprisingly long career came to a crashing halt following another round of sexual harassment claims, MSNBC's Chris Matthews made the kind of racially-tinged gaffe he would relish attacking Trump over. While interviewing the Democratic candidate taking on South Carolina’s Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, Matthews mixed up the black candidate with the black Republican senator, Tim Scott.
“Jaime, I see you standing next to the guy you’re going to beat right there, maybe. Maybe, maybe. Lindsey Graham,” Matthews said earnestly.
His colleague, Adrienne Elrod, quickly alerted him to the mistake, but it took a few times.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Matthews course-corrected. “The other senator, Tim Scott, what am I saying. Big mistake. Mistaken identity, sir. Sorry.“
Matthews was fired a month later.
8 - Chris Cuomo
Chris Cuomo was a mortifying media moment unto himself. One of the first major media personalities to catch Covid, Cuomo claimed he was quarantining at his home in the Hamptons, as per the medical advice frequently championed on CNN. When he triumphantly emerged from his basement, cameras were rolling. The only problem was an incident earlier in the week, when an angry Chris Cuomo got into a confrontation with a biker, an incident that made headlines on The New York Post’s Page Six.
When not misleading his viewers about his own handling of Covid, Cuomo helped his brother, the governor of New York, do the same. For reasons unclear, CNN waived its usual prohibition against reporters interviewing family members who are subjects in major news stories, so that the Cuomo brothers could prattle on air. The result was Gov. Andrew Cuomo — who was caught in a major scandal over his decision to send Covid patients to senior centers, which exploded New York’s death rate — able to whitewash his troubled public persona.
7 - Mika Meltdown
In August someone must have put something in Mika Brzezinski’s Wheaties, because the already fiery MSNBC host went on an absolute, hours-long rampage against President Trump.
The host, angry over Trump's mockery of Joe Biden's recently announced plans for a national mask mandate, spent several segments screaming at the commander-in-chief.
Brzezinski — who was anchoring the program without her usual cohosts and husband, Willie Geist and Joe Scarborough, respectively — repeatedly blamed Trump for the deaths of Americans who’ve died from Coronavirus. She called on members of the Trump administration who aren’t “brainwashed by the cult leader” to start taking on Trump.
“We’re here, it’s insanity, it’s our democracy that’s at stake,” she said. “I beg Republicans to speak out. Mitch McConnell, wake up! It’s not about winning the Senate. What are you going to have after this? If President Trump is allowed to cheat his way through this election, what are you going to have? Are you day traders? Are you not smart anymore? What happened to you? Can’t you see what is happening?”
At another point, Mika said she feared Trump might try murdering her: “You can be sure that you will never see me on Fifth Avenue, ever, ever, because he has said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, I believe him.”
"How stupid can you be at this point if you follow this president?" she pleaded to her viewers. After attacking Trump for posting "conspiracy theories" on Twitter, Brzezinski floated one of her own, namely that Trump is "purposefully" using Covid-19 to kill Americans.
“His constant lying is now killing people,” she claimed. “It’s killing people by the day with his calamitous Coronavirus leadership. It’s killing Americans every day. He could be keeping people alive. He’s choosing not to.”
Brzezinski ultimately admitted her behavior was unusual.
“You know, if you’re sensing a little intensity here,” she told viewers, “I’m a little amped up because this is an emergency.”
6 - A USPS Conspiracy So Vast …
Wake up, sheeple!
An elaborate plot was unfolded right before our very eyes.
President Donald Trump — a notoriously Machiavellian schemester who is perhaps most infamous for stealing the 2016 election thanks to his underhanded alliance with his sometimes puppetmaster Vladimir Putin — spent the summer busily executing his next sinister conspiracy.
Thanks to our sources — primarily Twitter users @ResistancefackTrump212eh213 & @RepiglicansAreHitler22133v3 — we’re now able to report how this plot went down:
— After refusing to resign, Trump likewise refused to be impeached
— Trump then pointedly refused to stop Coronavirus from infecting Americans, likely because of his/Putin’s financial interest in a little known rat poison named hydroxychloroquine
— Democrats, in a bid to save America, thankfully announced a plan to completely remake elections that depends entirely on massively expanding the Post Office, which will mean the agency finally achieves reliable mail delivery for the first time its 200+ year history
— Trump, being beholden to special interests (c.f., Koch Brothers, WalMart, and his DeutschBank paymasters), declined to endorse Democrats’ plan.
Stealing our democracy right out from under us.
Well, that’s basically what the major media spent the summer claiming. When none of this turned out to be true, the story was discarded as thoughtlessly as yesterday’s newspaper.
5 - Media: Why Do We Need this So Called Constitution Anyway?
When the media suffered the grave misfortune of having their favorite Supreme Court justice die during Trump’s term, calls came quickly and loudly to simply upend America’s entire constitutional system of governance. Or, to put it in the words of CNN’s Don Lemon: “We’ll need to blow up the system.”
“If the Republicans manage to essentially steal a second Supreme Court seat, the only way that we restore fairness is for Congress to pass an act expanding the court,” the Huffington Post’s Jill Filipovic said.
On cue, reporters used virtually every interview with a Democratic politician over the month of September to go on the record over whether they’ll agree to expand the Supreme Court, end the filibuster, and/or add more inevitably Democratic “states” such as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.
CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin however concluded Democrats were “weak” and “wimps” and couldn’t be counted on to go along with the plan.
4 - Biden Bus B.S.
In an incident very similar to the Covington kerfuffle — in which a short snippet of video appeared to show something quite different from what actually occurred — America’s political media spent much of the closing days of the 2020 election circulating a since-debunked story about Trump supporters threatening the Biden campaign.
Like The New York Times’ widely misreported claim Trump only spent $750 on federal income taxes during his first two years as president, this was yet another one of these “major” stories that shot around the media echo chamber that, upon closer examination, was the exact opposite of what was reported. MSNBC and CNN’s combined mentions of the story over the weekend before Election Day totaled 544.
The story itself claimed a caravan of Trump supporters driving along a Texas highway encountered a bus from the Biden campaign and tried ramming it off the road. In reality, as the San Marcos Police Department later told reporters, it was actually an SUV with the Biden-Harris camp that was driving recklessly and endangering Trump motorists.
But the fake story had achieved its purported purpose, and the media carried on without so much as looking in the rearview mirror.
3 - Media Drag Biden Across the Finish Line
After establishment figures effectively anointed Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee, the nominee appeared — to put it diplomatically — unprepared. The two-time failed candidate struggled getting through interviews without losing his train of thought, mixing up words, or breaking into coughing fits.
No matter, as his media handlers were always ready to help chaperone him through their minimally-inquisitive questioning.
In March, Biden began his media rollout, appearing in lengthy interviews on CNN, MSNBC, and ABC's "The View." Attempting to describe how much more competent his handling of the Coronavirus crisis would be were he in the White House, Biden instead appeared confused and sick — coughing incessantly — throughout the appearances.
On The View, Biden scored an own-goal after trying to take down Trump, saying: "We have to take care of the cure. That will make the problem worse no matter what — no matter what."
On MSNBC, Biden attacked Trump for being both too hard and too soft on China; watching him, Biden said, "is like a yo-yo." Immediately upon saying it, Biden blushed, appearing to think he may have said something racially insensitive. "I shouldn't have said that," he said to himself.
While trying to express sympathy for those who've died of Coronavirus, Biden couldn't come up with any words at all: "And I tell you what, I’m so darn proud. And those poor people who have — lost — anyway — it’s just ..."
As Nicolle Wallace tried shepherding him along, he added simply: "My heart goes out to them."
In another extremely awkward moment, Biden said of Trump: "Why doesn't he just act like a president?" After a moment of reflection, he added, "That's a stupid way to say it."
As Nicolle Wallace started to ask another question, Biden said, "Sorry."
"Go ahead," she insisted.
"No, no," he replied. "It's probably best I don't."
2 - Media Issue Blockade on Damning Hunter Biden Scoop
It was the biggest political story in the weeks before Election Day, but you couldn’t find it on social media.
And that was by design.
After The New York Post scooped its larger rivals with an explosive exposé into Hunter Biden’s shady business dealings with foreign entities — some of which involved the former VP himself — the major media aligned with Silicon Valley to issue a blockade on the information.
Twitter not only prevented its users from sharing links to the reporting, the tech giant went so far as to lockout The Post from its account. On Facebook, the story was throttled so Americans who would otherwise be interested in reading it would struggle to locate it.
This was all done in close coordination with larger media players, who used their clout to cast doubt upon The Post’s reporting. “Reporters” experimented with various excuses — there’s no way Hunter Biden would forget to pick up his laptop from a repair shop, or, the repair shop owner sounds sketchy! — before settling on: Probably this whole story is the product of Russian “disinformation.”
This cover campaign was enough for Facebook et al., to claim the reporting would be hidden while its “third party fact-checkers” conducted a review. Naturally, that process apparently never concluded before Election Day.
Twitter later admitted it was wrong to censor this information days before a national election; CNN and others later admitted The New York Post’s reporting was accurate all along.
Whatever! The effort was successful, and Biden prevailed — even if his victory was bought with U.S. media’s integrity.
1. Media Weep in Ecstasy After Their Man Wins
Thankfully for America’s national media, their hard work paid off and their man was narrowly elected. The elation felt by many of these journalists was apparently so overwhelming, all they could do was weep in ecstasy. Which is what happened over and over again in the days after Biden’s victory.
MSNBC’s Claire McCaskill, in moment that represented everything mortifying about the major media, said she couldn’t help but break down in tears after hearing bells toll in Paris to celebrate Biden’s win. (Turns out that wasn’t true, but hey — what are “facts” at this point besides pesky things to be censored?)
PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor somehow upped the vomitosis ante even further, saying members of Biden’s incoming administration were like “superheroes” who’ve come to “save us all”:
“I was talking to a Democrat who just said this also felt like ‘The Avengers,’ it felt like we’re being rescued from this craziness that we’ve all lived through for the last four years and now here are the superheroes to come and save us all.”
Something tells us we’re not going to be rescued from the craziness anytime soon.
— 12 Most Mortifying Media Moments of 2019
— 18 Most Mortifying Media Moments of 2018
— 10 Most Mortifying Media Moments of 2017