Claire McCaskill: Garland should act, Breyer should retire, the filibuster should stay

Attorney General Merrick Garland should act on the contempt case against Steve Bannon, Justice Stephen Breyer should retire, Democratic senators Diane Feinstein and Patrick Leahy are getting old, the filibuster should be retained but reformed and former Attorney General Eric Holder was too slow to release the report clearing former Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson.

Those are some of the newsy comments that MSNBC/NBC commentator Claire McCaskill made Wednesday night at a First Amendment celebration sponsored by the Gateway Journalism Review. The former Missouri senator was interviewed by Jo Mannies, retired political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio and the Post-Dispatch and by GJR publisher William H. Freivogel. Listen to a recording of the entire interview.

The focus of the evening was the First Amendment, media literacy and democracy and McCaskill’s transition from elected public official to political commentator.

The media is failing because the business model is failing, the former US senator said.

Claire McCaskill

“I think the media is failing in that they are falling into a business model, which is not their fault, they’re trying to make money,” she said. “People are going to cable news outlets for affirmation, they’re not going for information. They’re going to feel righteous and correct.”

McCaskill said the meager core of journalists who are still toiling away, who have editors, and actually have to report factual information, are doing amazing work right now. There is just not enough critical mass anymore. 

Cable news outlets are a bunch of silos, Mannies said. There is the CNN silo, Fox silo, MSNBC silo. She asked McCaskill why she chose to join MSNBC, which is an admittedly liberal news organization. 

“The reason that I went with MSNBC was because I felt comfortable there,” McCaskill said. “Frankly, their willingness to give me a lot of latitude in my contract, both in scheduling and how much I appeared and where I appeared, was also important.” 

Mannies asked McCaskill for suggestions regarding how the average viewer is supposed to know which outlets are “crazy town,” and which ones are trying to get the facts straight.

“I recommend to people that they watch a little bit of everything,” McCaskill said. “I think reading is really important, and I’m just not talking about links on Facebook, I’m talking about whether it’s online or old fashioned paper, reading where there are editors, where reporters must run their stories by editors.”

She said she is a big believer that people should get their main news from places where there are editors, not on Twitter or not on Facebook, but places where reporters are still expected to play it straight. 

People pretending to be news outlets online has been a real problem, she said. These outlets that have started newspapers, that aren’t really newspapers, put up a banner online to make it look like a newspaper and create a name that sounds like a newspaper. (GJR probed a network of these pseudo-newspapers in Illinois.)

“Then, they print garbage,” McCaskill said. “And before you know it, depending on how sensational the garbage is, how much it makes you afraid or makes you angry, it’s everywhere. It’s around the world, and it’s not even a newspaper.” 

A media literacy advocate, Jessica Brown, asked how, in “post-truth” age, can a media literate electorate be developed? 

McCaskill said she believes most people who are taking college courses in media literacy already realize it’s a problem, so the question is how to reach the people who don’t take those courses. 

“I think kids need to be taught what is going on,” she said. “Why is TikTok not reliable? Why being an Instagram star should not be your goal in life? What is an editor? What is straight journalism? How can you recognize it?” 

McCaskill said if she was in charge of the world right now, she would require a media literacy class in 7th grade for every public school student in the country. 

“I think we’re at that point in our democracy, that it is that important,” she said. 

Frustration with Garland

McCaskill is frustrated that Attorney General Garland has not announced what he is doing with  Congress’ criminal referral for Bannon refusing to testify about the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.  

McCaskill was responding in part to a question from Michael Wolff, former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, who asked if Garland had been a judge too long to be an effective prosecutor.

“As someone who was the state prosecutor, I have very little respect for the molasses-like speed of the federal law enforcement apparatus,” McCaskill said. “What would they be investigating? Either they are going to do it or they aren’t, either he is going to appoint a special counsel or he isn’t.

“If I were still in the Senate, I would be pounding my podium for Garland to make a decision and move so we can get this thing going.  There is no excuse for him not to announce what the DOJ is doing with the contempt that they have been sent by the White House representatives.” 

McCaskill told for the first time a story about her frustrations with former Attorney General  Holder’s slowness in releasing the federal investigation explaining why the Justice Department was not charging  former Officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown in 2014. The killing triggered months of protests and strengthened the Black Lives Matter movement.

McCaskill said the Justice report says exactly what the Grand Jury said in St. Louis County that there was plenty of evidence that Brown reached into Wilson’s police car and wrestled to gain control of his service revolver.

“Eric was so worried, I think, about the impact it would have that he held it until they finished the pattern and practice,” she said. The pattern or practice investigation found compelling evidence of unconstitutional police practices.

Both the report clearing Wilson and the pattern or practice investigation were released at the same time. She said the New York Times reported the pattern and practice investigation and buried in the story that there was no basis for any action against the police officer for the actual shooting.

“So, in one fell swoop, they undermine the effectiveness, in many ways, of the law enforcement community in St. Louis County for many, many years to come,” McCaskill said. 

McCaskill said she called the White House to complain and was told the president didn’t interfere with the Justice Department.

That hands off approach “got blown up during Trump’s years,” McCaskill said. “There was no line. He saw that lawyer as his lawyer. It is outrageous what he tried to do with the Department of Justice. So, I think there is a desire to get that line back to normal, to get it out of the political realm and back to the calling balls and strikes.”

She thinks Garland is reacting to the Trump abuses by trying to get back to traditional norms. But she said she would continue to be critical of Garland until he acts on Bannon.

Breyer should retire now

Dale Singer, a former Post-Dispatch editorial writer and reporter for St. Louis Public Radio asked if Justice Breyer should retire to preserve rights like those recognized in New York Times v. Sullivan.

McCaskill did not hesitate. “I think he should retire,” she said. “I think he should retire tomorrow.”

She added, “We have some really old Democratic senators,” pointing in particular to Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and California’s Diane Feinstein. “I love Diane, but she’s very old, she’s the oldest (Democratic senator). I love Pat Leahy, he’s very old. If anything happened to either one of them then we’re no longer the majority. So I wish Breyer would retire so that we could make sure we at least hold on to three seats (in the Supreme Court) as far as values I worked for for 30 some years.”

Should Feinstein retire? “Diane blew me away. She was hyperprepared. She wasn’t staff driven. …..I think she has struggled lately. Her husband’s in very bad health. I don’t know what it is about that place that people don’t want to go home. But I’d like to take them aside and say come on out here, it is pretty nice….I’m having a hoot now….I think they get so used to the deference and the routine….I think many people stay too long.”

Retain but reform filibuster

“All of  my friends in the very progressive camp of the Democratic party…they forget there’s a 50-50 Senate,” she said. “They get so mad about the filibuster and about Joe Manchin. You only get to a majority in the U.S. Senate if you elect some moderates. There aren’t enough bright blue places to elect 55 or 53 Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warrens.”

 “….I was there when we stopped them defunding Planned Parenthood. It would have happened if it wasn’t for the filibuster….I was there….when because of the filibuster we were able to stop funding of the wall.

“…It sounds great to do away with the filibuster as long as we’re in charge,” she said. “If we are no longer in charge, it won’t feel so good. It will be helpless to stop anything.”

She said there is a need to reform the filibuster.  

“Somebody shouldn’t be able to call the cloakroom from a bar downtown and say ‘I object,’” McCaskill said. “They should have a standing, talking filibuster.”

McCaskill said voting rights should be carved out as an exception. Appointments are now an exception to the filibuster. She believes voting rights could legitimately be couched as such an essential in the democracy.

“If we do away with the filibuster, it will swing back and forth,” McCaskill said. “There will be no really big long-term change because it will become just whoever is in charge. I’m not sure that is what the Founding Fathers wanted.” 

 Integrity has been undermined

When people used to run for office, integrity was a pretty important value, McCaskill said. 

“People would believe what you said,” she said. “Donald Trump took that and turned it on its ear. He basically played to people’s cynicism and their sense of grievance.” 

The main thing that has changed with the advent of the internet, McCaskill said. She doesn’t know whether it was Trump, the internet or an unhealthy combination of the two. 

McCaskill said next Tuesday’s gubernatorial race in Virginia would be important because the Republican candidate is trying to have it both ways – courting Trump voters without embracing Trump. She said it would be interesting to see if he can thread that needle.

Mannies asked: With the media backdrop of the silos, did polarization of the media affect Missouri’s polarization? 

The Missouri Legislature, during the beginning of COVID-19, legalized brass knuckles, McCaskill said. 

“That moment was just a defining moment for me about how far we had fallen in terms of representation in Jefferson City prioritizing, I think, the issues most Missourians want them to care about,” she said. “The reason that is happening is because the Republicans did something very effectively, not just in Missouri, but in the country, and that is they weaponized cultural issues.”

In the past, McCaskill said in Jefferson City, there was a lot of time spent on the meat and potatoes of what state government is supposed to be doing and the services it’s supposed to be providing. 

“Republicans don’t talk about stuff anymore, they don’t really even try to legislate on that stuff anymore,” she said. “It’s all about cultural stuff.”

McCaskill said she wants Democrats to do a better job of bringing up cultural issues on their side of the equation, including abortion rights and gun control.

In regard to other cultural issues that could be helpful to Democrats, politically, McCaskill said the main one is voting. 

“They want to keep you from voting,” she said. “The freedom to participate in our democracy is a cultural issue. And I think it is one that could be really good for our party.” 

“The other thing is it’s going to motivate a lot of people to vote because what those guys haven’t figured out, that are pushing all this voter suppression stuff, Black and Brown Americans know what they’re doing,” she said. “They know they are trying to keep them from voting. And you know what is going to happen psychologically, it’s going to motivate them to vote more, I really do believe that.” 

McCaskill said she was surprised one of the Republican candidates for the Senate in Missouri  “isn’t trying to take a traditional Republican role…saying I believe in conservative values but not all this crazy talk.” McCaskill referred to the Trump-like rhetoric of the candidates, including Mark McCloskey, whom she referred to as that “crazy gunwaving St. Louis West End gun lawyer.”

McCaskill suggested that Democrats may have to wait a cycle or two to win statewide political office but added that the nomination of Eric Greitens, might open the door sooner.

Emily Cooper is a graduate student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where she studies Professional Media and Media Management. You can follow her Twitter @coopscoopp

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