How Should TV News Deal With Guests Who Lie to the Media?

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Joe Biden's campaign took the unusual step of pleading with the networks to stop booking Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, part of a larger media strategy.

Television news, particularly cable news, is a format well-suited for partisan combat. But Donald Trump's surrogates, among them attorney Rudy Giuliani and political strategist Corey Lewandowski, are stress-testing TV news outlets across the board in the run-up to possible impeachment, raising questions about how networks should tolerate guests who, as in Lewandowski's case, have admitted to misleading the media.

"Sir, the $1.5 billion is simply not true. It is not true," This Week on ABC moderator George Stephanopoulos told Giuliani during a Sept. 29 segment about the activities of Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden. "Maybe I'm wrong," responded Giuliani, who was even testier with Face the Nation moderator Margaret Brennan on CBS the same morning. "Maybe you all are so blinded because this is a Democrat, you're not doing your job properly," he told her.

Those two appearances, on television shows watched by an average of seven million Americans every week, finalized a decision by Biden's presidential campaign to send a letter to 17 network executives and anchors to "demand" that they cease booking the former mayor of New York City. (To date, none of the recipients have publicly responded to the letter.)

A Biden campaign advisor tells The Hollywood Reporter that the letter was part of a larger effort to patrol media coverage of the candidate's ties to Ukraine amid the backlash to President Trump's controversial call with the country's leader this summer.

"It's part of a larger way the campaign is responding to Donald Trump's lies, learning the lessons of the way the media covered his lies in 2016 and refusing to let that happen again," the campaign advisor says. "I think that we have positively, absolutely affected coverage. It's being covered responsibly in large part because of how adamant and aggressive we have been in insisting that it be covered responsibly."

Veteran media executives doubt the networks will be swayed by the letter as long as Giuliani remains a central player in a larger story of presidential misconduct. Joe Peyronnin, a former CBS News executive who now teaches journalism at New York University, predicts the letter "will have no real impact" considering that Giuliani "speaks for the president."

"I thought it was a smart move on their part, because it illuminated or clarified the issue pretty starkly," says former CNN U.S. president Jon Klein. "It also is impossible for news organizations to make a decision like that because a campaign asked them to. In that sense, it can be a little self-defeating. For the very reason that the Biden campaign is asking for it, no network can agree it."

Assuming the networks continue to book Giuliani, the Biden campaign asked them to "give an equivalent amount of time to a surrogate for the Biden campaign" to debunk the former New York City mayor's comments about Biden and Ukraine. (Congressman Cedric Richmond was offered to the Sunday shows as a counter-weight.)

"I doubt the Biden campaign really expects networks to respond, let alone stop booking Giuliani, who is obviously newsworthy as the president’s lawyer," says Andrew Heyward, the former CBS News president who is leading a research project on television news at Arizona State's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. "It’s a shot across the bow designed to encourage relentless fact-checking and context-providing, not to mention to engender the kind of attention we’re giving the letter now."

Giuliani's combativeness on television has also raised eyebrows. On the Sept. 24 episode of The Ingraham Angle on Fox News, Giuliani called progressive commentator Chris Hahn an "idiot" and a "moron," imploring him repeatedly to "shut up."

"It’s hard not to book him," Hahn says of Giuliani. "However, he should be held to the same or higher standards. Hosts need to call out his lies and contradictions."

While even Giulani's critics acknowledge his relevance, Lewandowski's fitness for television is a "pretty open-and-shut case," Klein says, after the former Trump campaign manager copped to lying to the media earlier this month.

"I have no obligation to be honest with the media," Lewandowski told a congressional panel on Sept. 17 after being confronted with video evidence of his deceit: an interview he gave to MSNBC's Ari Melber in February.

But Lewandowski is welcome back on Melber's show, the host says now: "I think Corey is the person who ran the Trump campaign and remains, according to Robert Mueller, a 'fact witness,' which means his views are very important and relevant to the things he was around for."

"Does that mean I would have him on endlessly as an expert if he continues to lie? No," Melber says. "I wouldn't have him on needlessly if he proves to consistently lie about everything."

Giuliani and Lewandowski are not the first talking heads to mislead television viewers. But, Melber says, "it's far more extreme now, and we have to be far more careful on what the end product is."

"[Lewandowski] is certainly not the first to lie to the media (and not the last)," says news anchor Greta Van Susteren, now with Gray Television. "What makes him different is that he admitted it."

Despite the wishes of the Biden campaign, Melber says that Giuliani still has an open invitation to appear on his show, The Beat. "I’ve invited him personally," he says, "and my message to Mr. Giuliani would be: What are you afraid of?"

A version of story first appears in the Oct. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.