"Commandeered"? CNN, MSNBC unrepentant for Avenatti promotion

Did Michael Avenatti “commandeer” CNN and MSNBC for months? Erik Wemple has gotten a lot of grief over this tweet, which insinuates that the two cable giants had a passive role in BastaMan’s political ascendancy.

That’s unfortunate, because Wemple’s analysis hits harder than his quip on Twitter suggests. Wemple writes that “there’s a lot to discuss when it comes to Avenatti” regarding CNN and MSNBC specifically, which promoted hundreds of hours of Avenatti appearances before prosecutors caught up with him. Over the period of one year, Avenatti made 254 appearances on cable-TV outlets, all but 25 of which were split between CNN (121) and MSNBC (108). In other words, Avenatti averaged one appearance on cable TV news outlets each weekday for a full year, and two per week or more on CNN and MSNBC each. Some of their own on-air talent don’t get on the air that much.

Wemple also notes the print media’s complicity in making Avenatti a star:

Newspapers, for that matter, didn’t avoid the story: The Post and the New York Times together published hundreds of stories citing Avenatti.

However, it’s tough to ignore the impact that constant appearances on CNN and MSNBC had on Avenatti’s ascendancy. And, as Wemple notes, it’s tough to ignore why CNN and MSNBC gave Avenatti the airtime that lifted his profile to the stratosphere:

An awareness of cable news’s appetites underlay every Avenatti maneuver. … The rest of the story is a love affair. Because they’re cable-news channels with too much time on their hands, CNN and MSNBC did what they do, which is to go overboard.

Wemple also provides room for both networks to defend themselves. While CNN’s PR department declined the opportunity, Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter offered an unrepentant defense:

There are lots and lots of reasons why Michael Avenatti was newsworthy when he was representing Stormy Daniels. Journalists did their jobs and questioned him — some more effectively than others. Critics are doing their jobs and questioning the coverage — and that makes all of us better.

But bad faith arguments make us all worse off. Some folks have been distorting my comment last September about Avenatti. My thesis back then, which still holds, is that all future U.S. presidents will be television stars of some sort. TV star power will be a prerequisite for the presidency. I told Avenatti “one reason I’m taking you seriously as a contender is because of your presence on cable news.” Obviously I’m not taking him seriously anymore, but I own that comment. He showed a Trump-like mastery of the media last year. I think there’s been a lot of introspection in newsrooms about the reasons for that mastery.

MSNBC also defended themselves by asserting that Avenatti was worth two appearances a week for a full year because of his connection to Trump. Rachel Maddow added her own defense and said she has no regrets:

Maddow, furthermore, provided an extensive response regarding her Avenatti-related decision-making. “When I interviewed Avenatti about the Kavanaugh accuser he represented, the news at that point was that women were coming forward with allegations of mistreatment by a nominee for the Supreme Court. That story was still developing, and would continue developing for days to come,” notes the host in an email, further explaining that when Swetnick’s declaration later surfaced, “we reported on the statement, noting that the allegation had not been vetted by reporters and that Avenatti had not produced corroborating witnesses. I don’t have regrets about any of that.”

She also addresses the hindsight question: “Now since then, according to the allegations laid out by prosecutors, Avenatti turns out to have been a shrieking bag of cats when it came to his business practices more broadly. But the fact remains that the campaign finance story he brought to the fore resulted in federal charges, a guilty plea, a prison sentence, and prosecutors implicating the President of the United States in directing the commission of two felonies,” writes Maddow.

When read as a whole, Wemple’s analysis makes these defenses sound ridiculous. No one would seriously claim that Avenatti wasn’t newsworthy at all. The question is about the scope of that coverage, its tone, and the motivations behind it. Much further up in the article, Wemple notes that Maddow not only had Avenatti on to discuss current matters, but also to discuss his future attacks on Brett Kavanaugh and Donald Trump. That’s promotion, not journalism, and very revealing in the motives for MSNBC’s Avenatti obsession.

The implication is clear in Wemple’s analysis. CNN and MSNBC engorged themselves on Avenatti because he suited their purposes, and they then exploited his sensationalism to drive up their ratings. They didn’t bother to check his credibility until it started blowing up in their faces, starting with Julie Swetnick’s perjury and then when his professional life began disintegrating.

Wemple’s correct — this is the story of a love affair. It’s also the story of agenda-driven media outlets that saw an opportunity that they couldn’t believe, and blinded themselves to every other consideration, including credibility. This wasn’t a case of being passively commandeered — it was a case of being actively obsessed.