While Rachel Maddow’s performance as debate moderator on Thursday is getting high marks for its substantive and sometimes tough questioning, all anyone really seems to be talking about is the hugging.
After the debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton ended, Maddow was seen on video and in photographs giving each of them a hug. And that sent some media critics into a tailspin.
Howard Kurtz of Fox News wrote a column at first complaining only that Maddow is an ”unabashedly liberal commentator who rips the Republicans every night on her program,” and he said that viewpoint ought to have disqualified her for the job of debate moderator. Then during an interview on Friday with Megyn Kelly, Kurtz elaborated and said Maddow went too far in hugging the Democratic candidates.
“I’m pro hug,” claimed Kurtz. “But I don’t hug politicians after I interview them. And the optics of Rachel Maddow embracing the two Democrats kinda made it look like they are on the same team.”
Erik Wemple, media critic for the Washington Post, wasn’t as concerned.
“Eh. Consider the hugs through the prism of journalism ethics,” he wrote. “Were they transparent? Yes, there’s video (see above) of the hugs, which took place in front of the cameras; any clandestine backstage moderator-candidate hugging is strictly forbidden. Were they evenhanded? Yes, both Sanders and Clinton received hugs of very comparable warmth, duration and hand-pats. Were they prejudicial? Nah, coming at the end of the event, it’s hard to say that the affection received by Maddow influenced the questions, which were solid. So that’s the verdict, considering that there doesn’t appear to be a hug provision in the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics.”
Maybe the most surprising person to come to the out MSNBC anchor’s defense is Fox News’s own Greta Van Susteren, who wrote in a guest column for the Huffington Post that, “First, a hug is a social gesture like a handshake. It is not an endorsement. People hug each other all the time and it is done between casual acquaintances.” She blasted hugging critics (a number of which are from her own network). “I can find no one accusing Maddow or Todd of pulling punches or not asking substantive questions of both democratic candidates. The talk today -- rather than being about the post-debate social gesture hugs -- should be about the candidates' answers. Period.”
And then there was fellow Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who didn’t agree with Kurtz that Maddow’s being liberal should prevent her from serving as debate moderator. “As long as it’s all clear, what’s the harm?” she asked. “Same thing as Hugh Hewitt sitting next to Jake Tapper.”
Kelly was referring to a pair of CNN debates for Republicans in which the conservative radio show host, Hewitt, was doing the questioning alongside CNN anchors. The Republican National Committee actually mandated that an outwardly conservative voice be allowed time.
Maddox doesn’t seem to be taking it all too personally. In fact, she put out a warning to the Republican candidates today about her proclivity for hugging.
If/when GOP invites me and MSNBC to host a primary debate, rest assured I am definitely hugging those guys, too. #ImAHugger
— Rachel Maddow MSNBC (@maddow) February 5, 2016