Columbia Journalism Review
Over the weekend, President Trump took a (relative) backseat in the news cycle as other members of his party came to the fore. We learned that five top aides to Vice President Mike Pence tested positive for COVID-19; Pence has been in “close contact” with at least one of them, but rather than isolate, he plans to continue with his in-person campaigning activities, on the grounds that they, somehow, constitute essential work. Bloomberg broke the story of the Penceworld outbreak, just as it broke the story of the Trumpworld outbreak earlier this month; according to the New York Times, Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, worked to keep the latest round of positive tests from becoming public knowledge. Yesterday, Meadows made headlines in his own right, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper that the administration is “not going to control the pandemic.” When Tapper asked why not, Meadows replied, “because it is a contagious virus, just like the flu.” His initial quote reverberated across the mediasphere.
Elsewhere in Washington, Senate Republicans convened a rare weekend session and voted to advance the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. She’ll be confirmed today. Just two Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, voted against advancing the nomination, after citing the proximity of an election and Republicans’ refusal, on such grounds, to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016—but Murkowski also said that, having lost the vote, she’ll put her procedural objections aside and vote to confirm Barrett anyway. Murkowski’s announcement drove headlines, as did a remark that Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, made about Barrett’s impending confirmation. “A lot of what we’ve done over the last four years will be undone sooner or later by the next election,” he said, but Democrats “won’t be able to do much about this for a long time to come.”
Scrutiny and criticism of the negligence and hypocrisy of Republicans who aren’t Trump is not anything new, of course—complicity has been a defining story of the Trump era. Over the weekend, the editorial board of the Times spoke to the theme in an editorial that was headlined “RIP GOP” and accompanied by an illustration of a Republican elephant half-buried underground. The GOP has “allowed itself to be co-opted and radicalized by Trumpism,” the editorial read, noting that Trump didn’t conjure that trend in the party, but rather accelerated a longer-term process of moral decay. “Its ideology has been reduced to a slurry of paranoia, white grievance and authoritarian populism. Its governing vision is reactionary, a cross between obstructionism and owning the libs.” The weekend saw some sharp coverage on the news side, too.
Still, even at this late stage of the campaign and Trump’s term, too much coverage of the GOP and senior figures within it continues to be credulous, even generous. That’s partly because “bothsidesism” remains hardwired into the basic structure of political media, and the Republican Party is one of the sides that makes that dynamic work. The idea of hearing (more or less) equally from both parties continues to be an organizing principle of the Sunday shows, for example, and many Republicans continue to exploit that principle to throw out lies and smears. Important policy stories—around coronavirus stimulus negotiations, for example—continue to be framed as partisan clashes, often eliding Republican hypocrisy and obstructionism. And too many journalists still borrow Republican talking points when grilling Democrats, presumably in a bid to show evenhandedness. We saw this in the recent, overheated coverage of Joe Biden’s stance on Supreme Court reform, as well as in the debate question that Biden faced last week on his son Hunter’s business dealings. On 60 Minutes yesterday, Norah O’Donnell, of CBS, asked Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, whether she has a “socialist” perspective. Harris laughed at the question.
Similarly, senior Republicans’ promises are still often taken at face value when experience has shown that a greater skepticism is warranted. Murkowski’s Supreme Court pledge is one such example. (Shortly before Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, Murkowski said she wouldn’t “vote to confirm” a hypothetical new justice prior to the election; when the question was no longer hypothetical, she said she opposed “taking up a nomination”—a subtle change of language that left Murkowski some wiggle room yet didn’t seem to register with much of the press.) We saw another example in late September, after Trump threatened not to accept a peaceful transfer of power. Many outlets reported that Republican senators “rebuked” Trump by giving “assurances” to the contrary—but, as Politico noted, the senators declined to say what they’d actually do to ensure a peaceful transition. And again, wording matters. McConnell, for instance, promised that the “winner” of the election would be inaugurated in an “orderly” manner—an “assurance” against a violent coup, maybe, but not against the much likelier eventuality that Trump and his allies could exploit procedural chicanery to make it look like he won when he actually didn’t.
More recently, two Republican senators—Ben Sasse of Nebraska and John Cornyn of Texas—criticized Trump, and their remarks attracted a great deal of attention, feeding a broader narrative of pre-election tension between the president and his co-partisans. (The Washington Post reported over the weekend that Trump privately told donors that it’ll be tough for Senate Republicans to retain their majority, and that he doesn’t want to help some of them get reelected.) As the New Republic’s Alex Shephard argued last week, Sasse (eighty-seven percent of the time) and Cornyn (ninety-five percent of the time) have almost always voted to further Trump’s interests, and look more like “rats fleeing a sinking ship” than profiles in courage. Yet many in the press have swallowed their recent strategic-distancing act.
As Shephard notes, the media narrative that Republicans are starting to break with—or trying to moderate—Trump isn’t new; it’s been a recurring feature of the past four years. (See also: the “Committee to Save America,” the Anonymous op-ed.) On Friday, On The Media’s Bob Garfield jumped off of the recent Sasse and Cornyn coverage to review previous Republican “breaks” with Trump that never ended up happening. (He compared members of the media to Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin.) Whether through “careless extrapolation” or wishful thinking, Garfield said, reporters have consistently been “super willing” to believe that Republican leaders might grow a backbone, this time. The result: “so many exoduses that weren’t, so many ‘growing distances,’ so many journo geologists detecting so many ‘fault lines.’”
The reasons that we indulge episodes like the Sasse and Cornyn criticism surely also include simple novelty, and a predisposition to seek tension where it can’t meaningfully be said to exist. Whatever the motivation, the election results—whatever they may be—will represent a critical juncture in coverage of the Republican Party. Should Trump win again and top Republicans rally around him as if they never doubted his chances, it’ll be the media’s job to call out the corrosive hypocrisy of that dynamic, and its ramifications going forward; should Trump lose and top Republicans seek to distance themselves from him, it’ll be our job not to let them. The Republican Party’s Trumpian turn likely won’t end with Trump, and in any case, the last four years will still have happened. Trump’s enablers must not be allowed to slip quietly into opposition, distracting the press with a volley of media-friendly, anti-Biden talking points.
Below, more on the Republican Party and the election:
- Perls of wisdom: For CJR, I spoke with Rick Perlstein, a prominent historian of conservatism, about his recent book, Reaganland, and the light it shines on the long history of bothsidesism and other bad media practices. Going into the election, Perlstein told me, reporters should “not allow themselves to be manipulated,” and should “study the history of how right-wing politicians have weaponized the anxieties of culturally-elite journalists in order to deliver more power to themselves.”
- On Barrett and climate change: As Mark Hertsgaard wrote last week for CJR and The Nation’s Covering Climate Now project, Barrett’s impending confirmation doesn’t bode well for addressing the climate crisis, yet her stance on the question has passed under the radar of much general media coverage. Now more than seventy science and climate journalists—including Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and Sonia Shah—have put their names to an op-ed, published in Rolling Stone, pushing back on Barrett’s nomination. Barrett, the signatories write, “has displayed a profound inability to understand the ecological crisis of our times, and in so doing she enables it.”
- The local angle, I: Politico’s Meridith McGraw reports that the Trump campaign is attempting to flood local TV and radio with ads and rallies in the run-up to election day, in part because doing so is cheaper than flooding national media. The strategy, however, has led to a slew of negative headlines in local outlets, including “articles about rallies that eschew pandemic guidelines, news of people sickened by coronavirus afterward, spats with local officials that dominate regional coverage before and after a visit.”
- The local angle, II: The Union-Leader, a conservative newspaper in Manchester, New Hampshire, endorsed Biden—the first time it has ever backed a Democrat for president. (It endorsed Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, in 2016.) The Capital-Journal in Topeka, Kansas, which endorsed Trump in 2016, is also going for Biden this time. The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, however, endorsed Trump for president, having opted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. (The paper also just endorsed Jay Inslee, a liberal Democrat, for reelection as governor of Washington. It cited “significant misgivings” with both Trump and Inslee.)
Other notable stories:
- On Friday, with COVID-19 cases surging again, the Times and eleven other outlets—the Buffalo News, in New York; the Victoria Advocate, in Texas; the Harrisburg Patriot-News, in Pennsylvania; the Grand Rapids Press, in Michigan; the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, in Florida; the Arizona Daily Star; the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, in Wisconsin; the Voice of OC, in California; the Augusta Chronicle, in Georgia; the Las Vegas Sun; and the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, in Kentucky—published “Out of Work in America,” a project tracking the lives of a dozen people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic. “The impact of millions of lost jobs today is less visible when so many are staying home,” the Times writes, in an introduction. “Social distancing has helped financial suffering hide.”
- Edmund Lee, of the Times, spoke with Black journalists who have worked with Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor in chief and Condé Nast editorial director who has been accused of creating a work environment “that sidelined and tokenized women of color, especially Black women.” Eighteen sources told Lee that “Vogue welcomed a certain type of employee—someone who is thin and white, typically from a wealthy family and educated at elite schools.” Eleven of those sources say that Wintour should no longer be in post. (Wintour told Lee that she has made mistakes and is committed to doing better.)
- Amber Jamieson, Craig Silverman, and Ken Bensinger, of BuzzFeed, obtained an internal Wall Street Journal report—dating to July and compiled by strategy editors at the paper—making the case that the Journal is overly focused on delivering a print product to older, male subscribers; does not fully understand the internet; and does not sufficiently cover race and gender, in part because reporters “self-censor” from pitching related stories. (Matt Murray, the paper’s editor in chief, said that the report contains “outdated and inaccurate information,” but did not point to specific inaccuracies.)
- Benjamin Mullin, Joe Flint, and Drew FitzGerald, of the Journal, report that Jeff Zucker may quit as president of CNN once—or even before—his current contract expires next year. Zucker has said he will make a decision on his future after the election. He recently told network staffers that he loves his job—but he also acknowledged that both the industry and CNN are changing, and the Journal reports that he bridled at a recent restructuring that weakened his grip on CNN’s finances, HR, and communications.
- On Friday, federal prosecutors charged Ken Kurson, a former editor of the New York Observer, with variously cyberstalking and harassing five people, including his ex-wife. Kurson is close to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in law, and advised Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign while also serving as the Observer’s editor. (Full disclosure: Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, is also a former editor of the Observer.)
- CNN’s Hanna Ziady profiles The Voice, a weekly newspaper that was founded in 1982, following racist coverage of unrest in London a year earlier, to serve the British-born African-Caribbean community. “Existing Black newspapers… catered to mostly older immigrants who wanted to follow news from the Caribbean,” Ziady writes, whereas The Voice “tapped into a generation figuring out what it meant to be Black and British.”
- Recently, a tribunal in France ordered a company that certifies medical devices to hand journalists from Le Monde a list of products that it certified as compliant with European standards. Le Monde requested the data—which was initially withheld on trade-secret grounds—as part of a global investigation, spearheaded by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, that I followed from behind the scenes and profiled for CJR.
- And Julie Wernau, James V. Grimaldi, and Stephanie Armour, of the Journal, had the story of the day yesterday, reporting that Michael Caputo, a Health and Human Services spokesperson, wanted Santa performers to promote vaccination against COVID in return for preferential access to a vaccine. Caputo recently went on leave, and his plan has been scrapped—to the “disappointment” of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas.
In April, the Daily Beast reported that Donald Trump periodically makes an observation about the press: when, from time to time, he softens his tone and conduct, the media will notice and praise him for it. “It’s so easy, can you believe it?” Trump said at a dinner in 2017, after seeing a positive turn in coverage. “All I had to do was be a little nice.” On the occasions Trump acts relatively less obscene, reporters and pundits tend to credit him with a “pivot”; they’ll also make a point of trying to anticipate “pivots”—usually by noting that his advisers have briefed him, ahead of a big speech, to be good, for once. That happened in July, when Trump reinstated his coronavirus briefings. (They had previously been canceled after he told Americans to inject bleach.) And it happened again yesterday, before what should have been Trump and Joe Biden’s third debate of the cycle, but was actually their second, since Trump bailed on one of them. “Will President Trump dial back his aggression?” the New York Times asked. NBC framed the question differently: “A new tone for Trump?”
Sure enough, Trump behaved marginally more respectable than he did during the first debate—which, you will recall, he single-handedly derailed—and won media plaudits. Tim Alberta, of Politico, suggested that the president had “recalibrated his entire approach”; David French, of The Dispatch and Time, wrote that “the different tone is astonishing”; Amy Walter, of the Cook Political Report and The Takeaway, called Trump “very disciplined” and wondered if he can keep it up through election day. Staffers at CNN, the Times, and ABC agreed that Trump was “disciplined,” at least comparatively so; Axios concurred, too, in an article headlined, “Finally, a real debate.” The Times noted that Trump’s better behavior didn’t last all evening, but that he “succeeded” insofar as he “spoke with an inside voice” and “thanked the moderator for letting him chime in and did not sound sarcastic while doing so.”
New from CJR: How the press covered the last four years of Trump
Did we actually get a “real debate”? There were some positives. The moderator—NBC’s Kristen Welker, who became the first Black woman to moderate a debate between presidential nominees since 1992—did better than Chris Wallace, who moderated the first debate of this cycle, and Susan Page, who moderated the subsequent vice-presidential debate. (Welker was aided, in part, by the debate commission’s decision to mute the candidates’ mics for portions of the evening—a bid to limit interruptions that might have helped Wallace, in particular.) Welker pushed Trump repeatedly on how he plans to reunite the migrant families that his administration separated; asked a sharp question about The Talk that Black parents must have with their children about police violence; dedicated an entire segment of the debate to climate change; and asked about environmental racism. Some of these questions elicited instructive (or at least revealing) answers from the candidates. But Welker also wasted time on a question about the foreign business dealings of Hunter Biden, Joe’s son, that was, predictably, grist for Trump’s new favorite talking point. (There was no such question about the dodgy conduct of Trump’s children.) And she failed to push back on many obvious Trump lies. Daniel Dale, the CNN fact-checker, observed at one point that Trump was lying “even worse” than during the first debate. So much for discipline.
As the New Republic’s Alex Shephard put it, Trump didn’t “foam at the mouth” last night, but “his performance was still pathological… a vicious cavalcade of dishonor and dishonesty.” Analyzing Trump’s debate style without taking into account the substance of what he said, Shephard wrote, is a fool’s errand, since the two are inseparable; that Trump “delivered his lines with a comparative quietude was just part of the lie.” Many members of the political press can’t—or don’t want to—see this inseparability; they’re much more comfortable focusing on optics, and leaving substance to the side. That isn’t a Trump-era development in political journalism; it’s much older. Still, there’s no doubt that Trump has lowered the bar by which judgments are rendered—only he could turn in a performance as fraudulent and incoherent as last night’s and come out smelling, if not of roses, then at least comparatively clean to many a pundit’s nose. Pod Save America’s Jon Favreau tweeted that the idea of Trump being disciplined may reflect a kind of “Stockholm Syndrome” on the part of those who cover him. It may also reflect our desperation to find something new to say.
When it comes to the presidential election, there is a lot that needs to be said on a range of important topics, but, as I wrote earlier this week, much campaign coverage seems determined, instead, to go around in circles with empty speculation and inane observations. The separation of migrant families is a case in point. The fact that more than five-hundred migrant children are still detached from their parents inspired a lot of coverage this week, but many of those stories failed to connect the stakes to the election, even though the Trump administration’s cruelty is manifestly an election story, as well as a human-rights one. Last night, Welker asked about Trump’s policy of separating families at the border, but her question got lost, in much post-debate punditry, amid the “new tone” froth. The good news is that the debates are now over, so there’s no primetime event to distract journalists from discussing the stuff that matters. In theory, at any rate. We may choose to keep wasting time on Trump’s “pivots.”
Below, more on the election:
- 60 Minutes: This week, Trump stormed out of a pre-taped interview with Lesley Stahl, of 60 Minutes. He subsequently threatened, as some kind of “gotcha,” to release White House footage of the interview ahead of its planned broadcast this Sunday; yesterday, he followed through—sharing footage that showed Trump bridling at Stahl’s perfectly-fair questions. CBS News said that the White House’s decision to post its footage online violated a promise to only record the interview for archival purposes.
- Hunter Biden: Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal’s opinion and news pages published contrasting articles about Hunter Biden. In an op-ed, Kimberley A. Strassel, a member of the Journal’s editorial board, suggested, based on information provided by Tony Bobulinski, a former business partner of Hunter Biden, that Joe Biden was involved in Hunter’s dealings in China—but two Journal news reporters, Andrew Duehren and James T. Areddy, subsequently reported that records they obtained from Bobulinski “don’t show either Hunter Biden or James Biden [Joe’s brother] discussing a role for Joe Biden in the venture.” Variety’s Gene Maddaus observes that the conflicting takeaways reflect “ongoing tension” between the news and opinion sides of the Journal; in July, more than two-hundred Journal staffers wrote to the paper’s publisher accusing the opinion side of a “lack of fact-checking and transparency,” and an “apparent disregard for evidence.”
- The vote: An investigation by VICE found that since 2016, nearly 21,000 Election Day polling locations have closed, for reasons including “a heavy shift to mail voting, coronavirus-related consolidations, cost-cutting measures, and voter suppression.” The trend, VICE’s Cameron Joseph and Rob Arthur report, “could disproportionately impact poor, young and non-white voters.”
- Covers: For the first time in its history, Time magazine removed its name from the top of its cover; it replaced the name with the word “VOTE,” styled like the Time logo. Elsewhere, New York magazine previewed its next covers: there will be four of them, and each will feature twelve “I VOTED” stickers designed by artists including David Hammons, Laurie Simmons, and Amy Sherald. New York will distribute 500,000 of the stickers at bookstores and museums nationwide.
Other notable stories:
- For CJR, I worked with Pete Vernon—who wrote this newsletter until I took it over, in October 2018—to review the debates, narratives, and missteps that have defined media coverage of Trump’s presidency. We re-read every newsletter we’ve written since January 2017, and concluded that the “basic practices and rhythms” of coverage have “conspired, time and again, to downplay demagoguery, let Trump and his defenders off the hook, and drain resources and attention from crucial longer-term storylines.”
- Yesterday, following a long period of pressure, a federal court released the transcript of a deposition given—as part of a defamation case, in 2016—by Ghislaine Maxwell, a Jeffrey Epstein associate who was arrested in July on child sexual-abuse charges. (She has denied wrongdoing.) The court redacted the names of powerful men, including Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew, who had dealings with Epstein—but Slate was able to decode the redactions using an alphabetized index that appeared in the transcript.
- On Wednesday night, Fox’s Tucker Carlson and a guest on his show—Darren Beattie, a former Trump speechwriter—attacked Brandy Zadrozny, who covers the Internet and disinformation for NBC News, for doing journalism. Yesterday, NBC hit back, noting that by “smearing” Zadrozny, Fox had “shamefully encouraged harassment and worse.” Later, Zadrozny and her colleague Ben Collins published a story tracking how wild conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden have spread online, including via a pro-Trump site linked to Beattie.
- As Mark Hertsgaard has written, for CJR and The Nation’s Covering Climate Now project, Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court is an important climate story, given her apparent anti-regulation views—but her climate stance has mostly passed under the radar, especially on TV. Evlondo Cooper, of Media Matters for America, reviewed 264 cable-news segments that aired during Barrett’s confirmation hearings. Just thirteen of them mentioned climate change or the environment.
- In June, the New York Daily News fired Anna Sanders, a City Hall reporter, on the grounds, Sanders says, that she revealed confidential personnel information. Now Sanders is suing the paper; its editor in chief, Robert York; and its owner, Tribune Publishing. She alleges that she was wrongfully dismissed for questioning why a male colleague earned more than she did. Katie Robertson has more for the Times.
- For CJR and the Tow Center’s Journalism Crisis Project, Lauren Harris examines the toll that the media industry’s long-term financial decline has taken on journalists. “Like a frog boiled slowly, we’ve allowed ourselves to adjust to the calamity, again and again,” Harris writes. “But emphasizing survival over dwindling capacity hurts the industry, and hurts the people who keep it alive.” (To subscribe to her weekly newsletter, click here.)
- This week, the graduate journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley, appointed Geeta Anand as its dean; she will be the first woman to fill the post. Anand, who had been serving as interim dean, started teaching at the school in 2018. She previously worked as an India correspondent for the Times and the Journal.
- And Wired’s Kate Knibbs has a great profile of ClickHole, a humor site that “just isn’t as relevant as it used to be” given that many of its jokes still rely on the “outdated viral headline formulations of a decade ago.” ClickHole has financial troubles, too. In February, Cards Against Humanity acquired the site, then transferred majority ownership to ClickHole staff. That looked like a “digital media fairy tale”—but then came the pandemic.
In mid-March, as the British government dragged its feet on implementing strict coronavirus lockdown measures that it would soon impose anyway, Patrick Vallance, the country’s chief scientific adviser, gave a series of interviews and discussed a concept with which many people were not then familiar: “herd immunity,” or the threshold at which enough members of a given population are immune to an infectious disease that the disease’s spread is controlled. Vallance—and, later, other officials—seemed to suggest that the government’s goal was to allow the virus to circulate while shielding only the most vulnerable against it. As The Atlantic’s Ed Yong put it at the time, the message appeared to be: “Keep calm and carry on… and get COVID-19.”
That notion met with a swift, fierce backlash, including among sections of the press—it was inhumane, critics charged, as well as being scientifically illiterate. Vallance and his colleagues quickly backtracked, insisting that letting the virus spread in the name of herd immunity wasn’t their plan, but merely a scientific concept; Matt Hancock, Britain’s health minister, insisted as much in an (initially paywalled) article for a right-wing newspaper. More charitable observers criticized the episode as merely a messaging disaster. (As one expert told Yong, “It’s been a case of how not to communicate during an outbreak.”) Others claimed that herd immunity actually was, at one point, Britain’s plan: In late March, the Sunday Times reported that Dominic Cummings, a controversial top aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, had privately summarized the government’s policy as “herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad,” before undergoing a “Domoscene conversion” and instead backing lockdown measures. What was clear was that the words “herd immunity” had become toxic in the public debate. In an unusually-stern rebuke, a government spokesperson called the Sunday Times story a “highly defamatory fabrication” and charged that it contained “invented” quotes.
New from CJR: The Supreme Court battle and the climate crisis
In the months that followed, as Britain shut down in a bid to beat back the virus, the concept of herd immunity receded from the media conversation. In other countries, including the US, the concept similarly took a backseat in mainstream coverage; when it was broached, it was mostly dismissed as fringe quackery. In right-wing American media, though, herd immunity continued to surface, usually as a supposed alternative to the tyranny of lockdown. In May, Pete Hegseth, a Fox News host, said that “healthy people” should have the “courage” to leave the house more, adding, “herd immunity is our friend.” (Hegseth was, of course, speaking from his home.) Normally, this would be so much babble—but the president is an avid consumer of right-wing media, and, seemingly as a consequence, the idea of herd immunity has, in recent months, wormed its way into the White House. In August, Trump appointed Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist he’d heard discussing the pandemic as a frequent guest on Fox, to serve as a White House health adviser. Quickly, we heard reports that Atlas was pushing Trump to adopt herd immunity as policy. This week, the Washington Post reported, in a big story, that Atlas has since “consolidated his power over the government’s pandemic response”—sidelining experts including Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx; pushing back on the need for more testing, masks, and social distancing; and continuing to push herd immunity. (Atlas “emphatically denied” to the Post that he “pursued or advocated for a wide-open strategy of achieving herd immunity,” and accused the paper of “overt lies”; elsewhere, he has referred to the media as “contaminated.”)
The Post notes that Atlas’s denial “conflicts with his previous public and private statements,” including his recent endorsement of a document, known as “the Great Barrington Declaration,” that has exploded in right-wing media and driven herd immunity back into the mainstream conversation. Authored, earlier this month, by three scientists and signed by many more, the declaration—which grew out of an event hosted by a free-market think tank—advocates shielding high-risk individuals from COVID while those at low risk “live their lives normally.” A great many experts have spoken out against the document, calling its suggestions unethical and highly dangerous. While the elderly and those with comorbidities are at greater risk from COVID, young and (seemingly) healthy people routinely die from the disease, or experience severe symptoms that, in many cases, can persist for months. And the idea that a society can shield all its vulnerable members is, as Fauci told ABC recently, “total nonsense.”
When herd immunity strategies have been discussed by mainstream news outlets, such objections have usually been at the fore; it’s common to hear experts on TV news, for instance, decrying them, often while disparaging the credentials of Atlas and others. Speaking on CNN last week, William Haseltine, a former Harvard professor, said that “herd immunity is another word for mass murder”; a headline on a Times op-ed quoted Haseltine, and Lipi Roy, a medical contributor on MSNBC, used those words, too. Strong pushback on strategies with an intolerable human cost is welcome. There is a risk, though, that oversimplified statements about herd immunity obscure the fact that we do want to achieve it—albeit via a safe, working vaccine or vaccines, rather than any “let it rip” strategy. Much coverage has noted this nuance, but it doesn’t always make the headlines. And headlines, as we all know, matter.
Understandably, the vaccine race has itself consumed a great deal of coverage in recent weeks. As The Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang wrote this week, that’s unusual: pre-COVID, “clinical vaccine trials typically made news only when they were done—when scientists could definitively say, Yes, this one works or No, it doesn’t,” whereas now, “every step of the COVID-19 vaccine-development process comes under intense public scrutiny: This vaccine works in monkeys! It’s safe in the 45 people who have gotten it! The entire trial is on pause because one participant got sick, but we don’t know yet whether the person got a vaccine or a placebo!” Some good has come from this scrutiny, including, Zhang notes, some increased transparency on the part of drug companies. Still, the dynamic she describes, in which (in many cases) non-scientists in the media cover developments in ways that are out of proportion to their actual significance, can lead to whiplash. News consumers who aren’t following the various vaccine processes all that carefully might hear one moment that developers are working with an unprecedented degree of speed and sophistication, then learn of a dangerous-sounding setback the next.
All of the above points to problems for the press that, months into the pandemic, haven’t really abated. One of them is that we’re still all, ultimately, fumbling in the dark—yes, the science of COVID shines brighter than it did in March, but there’s still an awful lot of murk out there. We still don’t know exactly how many people have died from COVID, both in the US and globally; official figures, where they’re reliable at all, tend to lag, and different definitions of what a COVID death is can lead to significant discrepancies. In many places, testing capacity, while generally improved, still isn’t anywhere near adequate to illuminate the full extent of the virus’s spread; NBC reported yesterday, for example, that in six US states where confirmed cases are rising, the rate of testing has actually decreased over the past two weeks. Again, there’s much good coverage that prominently acknowledges the caveats in these numbers. But much coverage, too, is still relaying them more or less as fact, and without qualifiers like “confirmed.”
The continued uncertainty around COVID is not all problematic, necessarily: it’s a natural, often healthy, part of how science advances. The issue is more that the basic architecture of the news media remains unequipped to communicate this uncertainty. In the absence of hard facts, many journalists, especially on TV, elide doubts, or filter the story of the pandemic through the familiar certitudes of partisan politics—casting scientific debates as partisan fights, and lavishing outsized attention on the risky behavior of Trump and some of his supporters (and other apparent outbreaks of COVIDiocy) while the responsible conduct of millions is all but ignored. To be sure, the political right, and its allies in the press, bear most responsibility for this state of affairs. But as I’ve written before, many members of the mainstream media have embraced the resulting dynamic. If some nuance dies, too bad.
Below, more on COVID:
- The death toll: Yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, according to its calculations, the pandemic has caused nearly 300,000 more deaths than would be seen in the US in a normal year. Two-thirds of those deaths were a direct result of COVID-19, with the remainder resulting from other causes. According to a writeup in the Post, the CDC said COVID-19 “has taken a disproportionate toll on Latinos and Blacks, as previous analyses have noted,” and also found, “surprisingly, that it has struck 25- to 44-year-olds very hard” in terms of excess deaths.
- Student journalism: The Daily Gamecock, a student newspaper at the University of South Carolina, has gone dark this week. In an editorial posted on Sunday, the paper’s staff explained that their decision to stop publishing content is a fulfillment of a prior commitment “to prioritize mental health not only in our coverage, but in our newsroom.” They continue, “With the recent shift to fully online reporting, we’ve had to adapt to new forms of communication and restructure procedure and content expectations. There was a general understanding that we were not well and that there was nothing we could do about it. We are choosing to disrupt that narrative.”
- A win for Substack: Yesterday, Zeynep Tufekci, a techno-sociologist and writer for The Atlantic who has published several influential articles on the pandemic, announced that she’s launching a newsletter, called “Insight,” on Substack. The newsletter will aim to tackle “the complexity and the messy reality of the world” in a format that is “something between public writing and social media.” (ICYMI, Ben Smith, the media columnist at the Times, profiled Tufekci and her COVID work earlier this year.)
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday, Trump abruptly ended an interview he was taping with Lesley Stahl, of 60 Minutes, and did not return for a second planned interview alongside Vice President Mike Pence, CNN reports. Afterward, Trump tweeted a video clip of Stahl failing to wear a mask in the White House, which, as well as being highly hypocritical, was apparently misleading. In other election news, the New Republic’s Alex Shephard argues that the media has fallen for recent anti-Trump remarks by Republican senators Ben Sasse and John Cornyn, who are “trying to con the public into believing they didn’t lick Trump’s boots for four years.” And for the Times, Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan, political scientists at Stony Brook University, make the case that focusing on partisan polarization obscures a bigger gulf—“between those who follow politics closely and those who don’t.”
- The Justice Department, with the support of eleven Republican state attorneys general, is suing Google on antitrust grounds, alleging, in a landmark case, that the company’s search engine has unfairly captured the bulk of the US market. Google and other giants have faced bipartisan criticism in recent years, and Democratic state attorneys general could still join with the Justice Department or file a parallel suit, though it’s not certain that the case will proceed if Biden wins in November. A recent House antitrust report on big tech revealed partisan disagreements, as CJR’s Mathew Ingram wrote at the time.
- Digiday’s Steven Perlberg profiles The Atlantic, which is enjoying healthy subscription growth and a “red-hot editorial streak,” but also recently made layoffs amid declines in ad and events revenue. Its remaining staffers are “on edge,” Perlberg writes. Elsewhere, for the New Republic, David Klion reviewed an anthology that The Atlantic published to showcase its Trump-era journalism. The collection channels the magazine’s “tradition of reasonableness,” but Klion questions whether that tradition truly meets this moment.
- David Plotz, a former leader at Slate and Atlas Obscura, is launching City Cast, a “national network of daily local podcasts” combining “essential local news with smart, delightful perspective about your community.” Elsewhere, Quake, a subscription podcast company offering shows by Laura Ingraham, Soledad O’Brien, and others, launched yesterday. Its model, Sara Fischer writes for Axios, “closely resembles digital radio.”
- Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and Democracy for the Arab World Now, a human-rights group that Khashoggi founded, have filed a federal lawsuit in the US seeking to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and two dozen codefendants personally liable for Khashoggi’s death. The suit alleges that MBS viewed Khashoggi as “an existential threat.” The Post has more.
- As pro-democracy protests continued in Thailand, the government moved to shut down Voice TV, an outlet owned by the family of the country’s exiled former prime minister, on the grounds that it is “inciting unrest.” Voice TV intends to continue broadcasting pending a written order. Police are investigating three other outlets that have covered the protests.
- On Monday, authorities in Kashmir ejected staff from the offices of the Kashmir Times, an English-language paper, and locked the building. Anuradha Bhasin, the paper’s owner, believes the move was retaliation for her legal opposition to an internet blackout that the Indian government imposed on the region last year. Al Jazeera has more.
- Earlier this month, officials in Argentina announced the creation of a public agency that says it will fight hate speech and misinformation online. The international precedent for such state-backed regulators, Laura Zommer and Cristina Tardáguila note for Poynter, isn’t good; in the wrong hands, verification can be “dangerously close to censorship.”
- And Hamilton Nolan, CJR’s public editor for the Post, argues that powerful people are realizing that they don’t need to play ball with the paper and its peers. If the Post loses its ability to metaphorically put such people’s heads “on pikes,” they will “stop caring what the well-informed segment of the public thinks. Democracy dies in dumbness.”
A little over a month ago, Drew Magary decided to ditch the regular politics column he was writing for GEN because, he said, writing it sucked. “I’m out of political opinions,” he said. “The kind of torpid recycling of stances you see from David Brooks and other professional thought havers? I’m no different.” Magary listed the basic ideas and themes that he found kept recurring in his work, including “Trump is a Nazi” and “the pandemic deaths here are his fault.” Writing about politics every week in 2020, he added, “is like your old man catching you with a pack of Marlboros and forcing you to smoke the entire thing in one sitting to make you sick.”
As I’ve written repeatedly in this newsletter, there is too much news right now—a historic, interconnected crush of major crises and events that has defied adequate engagement. And yet Magary, perhaps paradoxically, is right: when it comes to politics in general, and Trump in particular, much of the crush of news is intensely repetitive and flows naturally to the same basic set of damning conclusions. Yesterday alone, Trump once again trashed his top coronavirus expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, calling him a “disaster”; once again trashed CNN, calling its journalists “dumb bastards”; once again trashed NBC’s Kristen Welker, who will moderate the next Trump-Biden debate, on Thursday; once again held irresponsible rallies; once again danced to “YMCA”; and so on, ad nauseam. As Quinta Jurecic put it in an Atlantic column that appeared not long after Magary’s, Trump is actually really boring. “The president is a man without depths to plumb,” she wrote. “What you see is what you get, and what you get is the same mix of venality, solipsism, and racial hatred that has long been obvious.”
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Jurecic raised an important question that, to my mind, strikes at the heart of the too-much-news/Trump-is-boring paradox: “What happens when politics is crucially important, but there is little original to say?” If much of the media coverage of recent days, particularly on TV, is any guide, it seems like the answer is: go through the motions. It feels like we’re in a holding pattern, waiting. Election Day is still two weeks away, yet there’s so much early voting going on—and all the votes could take so long to count—that the concept of “election day,” as a climactic event, feels thin. Entering the final stretch, and with ever-fewer votes up for grabs, Biden is pretty quiet and Trump and his allies are insisting on a rerun of the 2016 campaign. (But his/her emails; Lock him/her/them up.) Many in the media seem willing to indulge that strategy, supplementing it with their own relitigation of 2016 media coverage, polling errors, and so on. We’re debating about the debates again. Many outlets are—quite rightly—busy finetuning election models and plans for election night/week/month coverage, and war-gaming possible election outcomes. While we wait for it all to play out, many of the denizens of media Twitter have been chewing over unrelated controversies (none of which, of course, have anything at all to do with said war-gaming exercises, no sir).
In late September and early October, after Trump repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose in November (a key reason for all the finetuning and war-gaming), it was big news; the Times gave it the full-width A1 headline treatment. Trump is still threatening not to accept the result—he did so at a weekend rally in Michigan, for instance—yet when he does it now, it seems barely to merit a headline at all. And it’s not just election-related news that can feel grimly repetitive. The coronavirus is once again surging; national politicians once again can’t agree on a stimulus bill to aid the millions of Americans whose livelihoods have been hammered by the pandemic. These developments are still driving coverage, but much of it—at the topline level, at least—often feels flat, subdued, weary.
When it comes to Trump’s antics, the repetitiveness is, to a great extent, the point, and it’s okay not to fall for all of it all of the time. But some Trump storylines—his ongoing threats to the election perhaps chief among them—merit prominent repetition, even if their details don’t meaningfully change. Trump attacking the integrity of the vote in relatively consistent language is a much bigger deal than him deploying a newer, ruder insult for CNN. The threat of the virus merits reiteration, too. It doesn’t care how tired and bored we may be.
To that end, it’s vital that we find fresh, compelling ways of telling these stories; ways of cutting through the repetition to communicate the urgency of the stakes. The ever-climbing coronavirus death toll is a repetitive story—but each individual death is not. The victims of the virus and Trump’s atrocious management of it only get to live and die once. The economic impacts of the pandemic feel repetitive—but every job, or health-insurance plan, or apartment lost is a tragedy, if not an emergency, for those who have to live through it. The same is true of voter suppression; it’s not a new story, but every voter only gets one vote per election. If they’re wrongly denied the chance to cast it, that’s a scandal, each and every time it happens.
There’s much good coverage out there illustrating the human stakes of our overlapping crises—from gut-wrenching obituaries, to portraits of people who are struggling, to surveys and analyses quantifying the scale of the pain. Too often, though, such coverage seems stuck below the crust of the news cycle, with its cyclical talk of rallies, debates, and polls. There is still too much urgent news to report right now. In the two weeks before election day, we shouldn’t waste any of our capacity on the boring, just because it’s about the election (in the traditional, stultifying sense of that term) and we feel compelled to cover it. Death and hardship are election stories, too. As Jurecic puts it, “The work of people who write and talk and make art about politics is valuable because it helps other members of society make sense of their shared world,” and “if that work loses depth or relevance, democratic culture in the US diminishes.” As Magary puts it, “The perception of reality should never take precedence over reality itself, but national political coverage does precisely that.”
Below, more on the election:
- Debate night: Ahead of the final presidential debate of the cycle on Thursday, the Commission on Presidential Debates—which promised to consider format changes after Trump’s bad behavior derailed the first debate, but then went silent on the matter—met to hash out reforms. It decided that, when Trump and Biden give initial answers at the beginning of each debate segment, the other candidate’s mic will be muted in a bid to stem interruptions. Still, a longer period of unmuted “open discussion” will follow, and even turning Trump’s mic off won’t necessarily stop him heckling Biden or Biden from hearing. The debate commission insisted that the new policy isn’t a change to the debate rules, but rather to the enforcement of existing rules. That didn’t stop Trump from calling the change “very unfair,” though he currently still plans to show up.
- Election night: For CJR, Vivian Schiller and Garrett M. Graff outline ten principles news organizations should keep in mind as they plan election-night coverage: they include knowing the calendar, managing expectations, and not parroting premature claims of victory. Elsewhere, Slate’s Mike Pesca dedicated his podcast, The Gist, to the question of how TV networks might handle (or mishandle) the election results, speaking with NBC’s Steve Kornacki and CNN’s Brian Stelter, among others. The stakes are high: according to a new survey conducted by Pew, eighty percent of US adults plan to follow the results either “very” or “fairly” closely once the polls have closed, and a similar percentage have either “some” or “a lot” of confidence that their favored news sources will make the right call when announcing the winner.
- Hurricane watch: Writing for Wired, Whitney Phillips likens election season to a “hurricane” of misinformation. Just as hurricanes, in nature, don’t just appear then disappear, election misinformation is already brewing, will “cause chaos” when election day lands, and will lead to long-term damage “to our institutions, to our communities, to the very notion of normalcy.” She adds, “As we prepare for landfall, we have two basic responses to consider: We can try to evacuate, or we can run towards the storm. To recover in the long term, we’ll need to figure out a way to do both.”
- The Hunter Biden saga continues: Yesterday, Colby Hall, of Mediaite, reported that before taking an extremely-questionable story about the Bidens and Ukraine to the New York Post last week, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, offered it to Fox News, only for Fox to reject it due to concerns about its “sourcing and veracity.” While some Fox hosts expressed doubts about the Post’s eventual story, others hyped it on air; according to Media Matters for America, late last week, Fox ran more than one hundred segments pegged to the story across its news and opinion divisions. “Fox doesn’t get to wipe its hands clean and pretend that it has taken a higher ground,” CNN’s Oliver Darcy wrote, in response to Mediaite’s reporting. “If anything, this just makes the network look worse.”
- A historic endorsement: Over the weekend, an editorial in El Nuevo Día, a major newspaper in Puerto Rico, accused Trump of “an overwhelming amount of inattention, disdain and prejudice against our people” and endorsed Biden for president. According to Biden’s campaign, El Nuevo Día has never before endorsed a presidential candidate.
Other notable stories:
- Last month, the Justice Department took the unusual step of seeking to assume Trump’s defense in a defamation case brought against him by E. Jean Carroll, the advice columnist who says that Trump raped her in the nineties and is suing him over his denial. Yesterday, government lawyers said that, since Trump issued the denial while he was president, it constitutes an official, rather than a personal, act; as the Times notes, if a judge agrees, the lawsuit will effectively be dismissed, since government employees are mostly immune from defamation claims. (ICYMI last week, Carroll appeared on our podcast, The Kicker. Yesterday, we published a transcript of the interview.)
- According to Dion Nissenbaum and Jared Malsin, of the Wall Street Journal, Kash Patel, a top White House counterterrorism official, recently traveled to Syria in a bid to help secure the release of US citizens—including the freelance journalist Austin Tice, who went missing in the country in 2012—who are believed to be prisoners of Bashar al-Assad’s government. Tice’s family and groups including the Committee to Protect Journalists have worked to keep his case in the public eye. In 2018, Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director, wrote an update for CJR to mark six years since Tice disappeared.
- Staffers at publications owned by Bustle Digital Group—including Bustle, Mic, and Nylon—have announced their intention to unionize with the Writers Guild of America, East. In other union news, the guild representing staff at the Sacramento Bee said yesterday that McClatchy, the paper’s owner, wants to tie reporters’ pay and performance reviews to pageviews and related metrics. (Lauren Gustus, the Bee’s top editor, pushed back.) And the union representing staff at Wirecutter says it’s reached a “tentative agreement” with management to secure just-cause provisions.
- In other media-business news, the Hartford Courant will outsource its printing to the Springfield Republican, a newspaper in Massachusetts; according to the AP, the move will eliminate 151 jobs at the Courant’s existing plant in Connecticut. Elsewhere, Group Nine—which owns the animal-centered site The Dodo, among other properties—has taken a minority stake in Petplan, a pet-insurance company that will be renamed “Fetch by The Dodo” as part of the deal. The Journal’s Sahil Patel has more details.
- PBS will air two new documentaries tonight. One focuses on Walter Winchell, the twentieth-century columnist and commentator, and the “power of gossip”; Stanley Tucci appears as Winchell, and Whoopi Goldberg narrates. In the other, Jelani Cobb, a New Yorker staff writer and journalism professor at Columbia, explores voter suppression and related topics, in conjunction with Columbia Journalism Investigations and USA Today.
- For her graduate-school thesis, Rachel J. Pilgrim set out to identify five unnamed Black women who founded Grace Baptist Church, in Mount Vernon, New York, in the 1880s. Pilgrim succeeded, and now plans to track down the founders’ descendants. “I spent 122 days looking for them,” she writes, “ready to uproot a lesson about Black womanhood that I had internalized—that Black women are often relegated to the subtext of history.”
- Jonathan Peters, CJR’s press freedom correspondent, maps out the legal obstacles facing student journalists covering their schools’ responses to the pandemic. “They have been denied access to public records and meetings,” Peters writes, “and they have clashed with school PR officials, who are consistently zealous in their efforts to control the narrative and would qualify for the Olympics if there were a sport in obfuscation.”
- And—for those who missed the reference above and/or weren’t online yesterday—the New Yorker suspended Jeffrey Toobin after he allegedly masturbated during a work Zoom call. He’s also taking some time off from CNN, where he’s a legal analyst. Toobin told Laura Wagner, of VICE, that he made “an embarrassingly stupid mistake,” adding, “I thought no one on the Zoom call could see me. I thought I had muted the Zoom video.”
It smelled like Clinton’s emails redux. Last Wednesday, the Murdoch-owned New York Post published a bizarre story, sliming Joe Biden and his son Hunter, that it said was based on files (including, yes, emails) from a laptop that a man who may or may not have been Hunter left in a Delaware computer-repair shop last year. The material arrived at the paper via a tipoff from Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign manager, followed by a transfer from Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer. Even on its own terms, the story failed to damn Joe Biden—and, since publication, the background has only grown murkier. Other major outlets were unable to verify the authenticity of the documents in the story. The owner of the repair shop gave an interview in which he contradicted himself, referenced conspiracy theories, and expressed his support for President Trump. The Washington Post then reported that intelligence officials previously warned Trump that, in trying to dig up dirt related to the Bidens and Ukraine, Giuliani was being “worked” by Russian agents. And NBC reported that federal officials are investigating whether the material in the New York Post story, specifically, flowed from a foreign intelligence operation.
We still don’t know the exact path the supposed Biden emails took to publication, but yesterday, we learned of drama concerning the New York Post’s end of the process. We already knew that the lead author on the story, Emma-Jo Morris, previously worked as an associate producer on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show. Last night, Katie Robertson, a media reporter at the New York Times, reported that the other author on the story, Gabrielle Fonrouge, had minimal involvement with it, and only found out that her byline appeared on the story after it had been published. According to Robertson, Bruce Golding, a veteran colleague of Morris and Fonrouge, was the principal author of the story but refused to put his name to it because he was concerned about its credibility, and at least one other New York Post journalist similarly refused to be named on the story, despite pressure from editors. (Col Allan, a longtime Murdoch lieutenant who formerly edited the paper and is now an “adviser” to its top editors, was reportedly a driving force behind the publication of the story. He told Robertson that the decision to publish was reached following “several days’ hard work” establishing the “merit” of the story; a New York Post spokesperson, meanwhile, said that the story was “vetted” and that the paper stands by it.)
New from CJR: How to cover Election Day and beyond
Also yesterday, several anonymous New York Post reporters shared their concerns about the story with Peter Sterne, who wrote about them for New York. “It just makes you cringe and roll your eyes, and it’s hard to stomach, but at the same time we kind of know that you’re signing up for stuff like that,” one of the reporters told Sterne, addressing the paper’s pro-Trump bent. “It’s upsetting. It’s disappointing. It sucks to, like, work for, like, a propaganda outlet.”
Robertson’s Times article also contained a quote from Giuliani, who said that he took the material about the Bidens to the New York Post because “nobody else would take it, or if they took it, they would spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out.” This sounded like an indictment (presumably accidental, though who really knows with Giuliani) of the laziness of his attempted smear. As Joshua Green has written in his book Devil’s Bargain, some of the anti-Clinton smears that Trump’s allies laundered, with no little success, in 2016, were legitimized by a swath of the mainstream press—part of a conscious strategy, on the part of Bannon and others, to propel their messaging beyond the right-wing fever swamp. As David Brock, a conservative operative turned Clinton ally, told Green, the Times, in particular, proved the “perfect host body” for the “virus” of anti-Clinton propaganda, due to its reputational heft. The New York Post, manifestly, does not enjoy the same measure of mainstream credibility. Other outlets—some stray credulous tweets and aggregation aside—have mostly responded to the Biden story with skepticism. As Yochai Benkler, a Harvard professor (and recent CJR contributor), told CNN yesterday, “major professional media doesn’t seem to be falling for it.”
We are still talking about it, though. (Exhibit A: this newsletter.) In some quarters, eagerness not to fall for the story created its own problems: Facebook and Twitter—in limiting (and, in Twitter’s case, initially blocking) the story’s spread on their platforms, pending confirmation that it wasn’t bogus and/or based on hacked materials—set a questionable precedent, and added grist to conservative claims of social-media bias. Despite the crackdown, the story still seems to have been widely read online; in the aftermath of its publication, Zignal, an analytics company, told CNN’s Oliver Darcy that it was “the second-most shared election-related story it has tracked this month,” after the Times’s bombshell reporting on Trump’s taxes. Predictably, the story has exploded across right-wing media; as NPR’s David Folkenflik put it over the weekend, Fox News took it as inspiration “to unleash a fusillade” against Biden “across its most watched shows—like the grand finale of a fireworks display.” And it piqued Trump’s interest—fueling attack lines at his rallies that duly reinjected the story into the mainstream-media bloodstream.
Hunter’s emails haven’t enjoyed nearly the mainstream cut-through afforded to Clinton’s in 2016, and skepticism is of course a better response than feeding the beast of bothsidesism. Nonetheless, that we’re talking about stuff like this at all doesn’t reflect well on the health of our information ecosystem as a whole. Looked at one way, Giuliani’s anti-Biden play is a lazy smear lacking in the sophistication and (relative) finesse that boosted Bannon et al’s efforts in 2016; looked at another way, it shows just how easy it is to get journalists to jump, when there are ample more important things to report.
This may not necessarily benefit Trump electorally. As the New Republic’s Alex Shephard wrote recently, Trump benefited, in 2016, from the clarifying juxtaposition of his simple, persistent Clinton talking point—She’s Crooked—and his own parade of quickly-forgotten scandals; these days, the entire news is a parade of quickly-forgotten scandals, and it seems unlikely that the Bidens smear will durably cut through the noise. Trump, Bannon, Giuliani, and their media enablers are in no small part responsible for that state of affairs. Just because it might be backfiring on them now, though, doesn’t mean that they haven’t inflicted real, lasting damage on our collective attention span and sense of proportion.
As Bannon famously once said, “The real opposition is the media, and the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” Such a strategy is not primarily dependent on the quality and credibility of the shit; it’s the flooding part that’s the most important. Last month, Matt Gertz, of Media Matters for America, noted, in a piece jumping off Bannon’s quote, that because the “newshole”—newspaper pages, broadcast segments, and so forth—is finite, you can game it if you can pump out more toxicity than there’s room to report. “Trump and his allies have overwhelmed the system,” Gertz wrote. “There’s just too much shit.”
Below, more on the New York Post, Trump’s allies, and the election:
- What news is fit to share?: Late last week, CJR’s Mathew Ingram assessed Facebook and Twitter’s flawed decisionmaking around the Bidens story. The incident “highlights a broader problem with both platforms, and that is a lack of detail about their policies, and how and when they are implemented,” Ingram wrote. Facebook, in particular, “has a habit of just pointing to its algorithm as though it absolves the company of any need to explain itself, and routinely promises things that never come to pass.”
- “Here we go again”: Over the weekend, the New York Post ran an article accusing Kristen Welker, an NBC News reporter who is set to moderate this week’s final presidential debate, of having “deep Democrat ties.” (These amount to donations made by her parents, her old voter registration, and her attendance at an Obama-era press party she also attended under Trump.) Both Trump and his son, Donald Trump, Jr., shared the article on Twitter, and Trump attacked Welker again during a rally in Wisconsin. (Trump previously praised Welker after NBC handed her a promotion.)
- Burnett after reading: Ben Smith, media columnist at the Times, argues that Mark Burnett, the producer who shaped Trump’s image via The Apprentice, is “losing his touch.” Like Trump, Burnett “seems to be struggling to keep his grip on the cultural moment,” Smith writes. Burnett’s “Trumpian gift for telling his own story—about his triumphant reinvention of a once-great studio, MGM, and his plan to bring Jesus Christ to entertainment—has foundered on the reality of corporate infighting, creative struggles and a religious streaming network that never got off the ground.”
- Truth and reconciliation?: After commentators including MSNBC’s Chris Hayes suggested the need for a “truth and reconciliation commission” to be set up after Trump leaves office, the historian Jill Lepore argued, in the Washington Post, that that would be a terrible idea. “What the nation needs, pretty urgently, is self-reflection, not only from Republicans but also from establishment Democrats and progressives and liberals and journalists and educators and activists and social media companies and, honestly, everyone,” Lepore writes. “No commission can demand that each of us tell the truth about ourselves and reconcile ourselves to one another.”
- A note from the Biden side: For Washingtonian, Luke Mullins profiled T.J. Ducklo, Biden’s national press secretary who, at the age of thirty-two, is living with stage-four cancer. It’s worth a read if you haven’t read it already.
Other notable stories:
- On CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke with E. Jean Carroll, the advice columnist who has accused Trump of rape, and who recently interviewed other women who have accused the president of sexual misconduct for a series of articles in The Atlantic. The allegations against Trump—including Carroll’s—have reliably been undercovered by the press. Pope asked Carroll if that trend enrages her. “I don’t get mad at that,” Carroll replied. “I get mad about things that I can do something about. I can’t do anything about running the national conversation.”
- The fallout continues from Bret Stephens’s recent column, in the Times, excoriating his colleagues’ work on the 1619 Project. Jake Silverstein, who oversaw the project as editor of the Times Magazine, defended edits that Stephens scrutinized, casting them as routine tinkering that came with migrating a big print project online. Late last week, Times bosses held a staff meeting to address Stephens’s piece; according to Laura Wagner, of VICE, they said that Times staffers using a column to criticize colleagues is different to them doing so via Twitter or Slack. (The paper does not condone the latter.)
- The Markup, a tech-focused investigative site, is launching the Citizen Browser Project, an initiative, based on a web browser built by the site, that will track how disinformation travels online. “A nationally representative panel of 1,200 people will be paid to install the custom web browser on their desktops, which allows them to share real-time data directly from their Facebook and YouTube accounts,” The Markup writes. The data will offer “important insights about how Facebook’s and YouTube’s algorithms operate.”
- Following Trump’s hospitalization with COVID-19, CJR’s new fellows Shinhee Kang and Ian Karbal spoke with reporters who have covered health crises involving three other world leaders: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and the former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. The reporters “have learned the hard way how to cover the medical status of secretive leaders,” Kang and Karbal write.
- In France, a terrorist beheaded Samuel Paty, a schoolteacher in the suburbs of Paris, after Paty showed students cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, taken from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, as part of a lesson on freedom of speech. In 2015, two terrorists killed eleven Charlie Hebdo staffers after the magazine ran the cartoons. Paty’s murder was the second attack since a trial in the 2015 case opened last month.
- Also in France, Reporters Without Borders unveiled a giant piece of street art bearing the face of Khaled Drareni, an Algerian journalist for RSF and others who was arrested while covering a protest in March, and subsequently convicted of incitement and “endangering national unity.” (Voice of America has more on the artwork in English.)
- Recently, Charles Moore, a former editor of Britain’s Daily Telegraph and fierce critic of the BBC, was rumored to be in line to become the BBC’s new chair, but he ruled himself out. Now the Telegraph is reporting that George Osborne, who served as Britain’s finance minister, then as editor of the Evening Standard, may take the BBC role instead.
- Masha Gessen, of the New Yorker, spoke with Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader (and journalist of sorts) who was recently poisoned in an attack that he blames on Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. “I’ve compared it to being touched by a Dementor in a Harry Potter novel,” Navalny said, of being poisoned. “You feel that life is leaving you.”
- And Sid Hartman, a longtime sports columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, has died. He was 100 years old. Hartman continued to write until his death; the Star Tribune calculated that he “produced 21,235 bylined stories in his career, from 1944 until the one that ran on C2 of Sunday’s Sports section. That column was his 119th of 2020.”