Media postsSaturday October 21, 2017
NPR's Ron Elving Knows What He Signed Up For
I’ve ragged on NPR a lot over the last year, with reason, but I’ve got to give credit to senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving, who, in discussion with Weekend Edition’s Scott Simon, deftly and humanely handled how you deal with the perpetual and absurd distraction machine coming from the Trump White House.
The topic was Pres. Trump’s remarks to the widow of a fallen soldier, Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed in Niger a few weeks ago. In a phone call to her, Trump said that Johnson “knew what he was signing up for, but it still hurts.” Clumsy. He also never used Sgt. Johnson's name. He kept saying “your guy.” The widow, with two children, and pregnant with a third, felt like the president didn’t even know her husband’s name. “That’s the hurting part,” Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fl), who was with Johnson’s widow when the call was received, told MSNBC.
At first Trump denied he said those words. Then he’s spent days attacking Congresswoman Wilson. He's still doing it.
Now to NPR:
Scott Simon: [White House Chief of Staff] John Kelly, in addition to delivering, I think, very moving remarks about what it’s like to be a parent and lose a child, he stepped into the controversy by directing criticism at the congresswoman, didn’t he?
Ron Elving: Yes. Someone had apparently given him some kind of bad information about a claim that she had supposedly made of giving some funding for a building in Florida. Turns out she never made that claim. ... And the White House was also (sighs), oh, poking fun at the congresswoman’s dress and hat. And this just turned out to be the sort of thing that, if they were trying to distract from the original questions about what these soldiers were doing in Niger, why we were suddenly taking casualties in this part of the world where most people don’t think the United States is engaged, and of course the controversy over why it took so long for the president to acknowledge these deaths, or to say anything to the families, or to acknowledge them at all, if that was the purpose, well, I guess that has been accomplished.
Love the way he framed that: If they’re trying to distract us from A, B, C, well, it worked—even as he reminds us of A, B. C.
Rest of media, please take note.
The rest of their discussion is good, too.
It's the GOP, Stupid
I don't know which paragraph in Jonathan Chait's New York magazine essay, “The Only Problem in American Politics is the Republican Party,” to highlight, since they're all so relevant, and explain so much of the world.
This gets at it:
Whatever interest liberals may have in finding congenial media, they don't dismiss the mainstream media out of hand in the way conservatives have been trained over decades to do. When the conservative news media criticizes Republicans, it is almost always to play the role of ideological enforcer, attacking them for their lack of fervor. One party has a media ecosystem that serves as a guardrail, and the other has one that serves only as an accelerant.
This is probably closer to it:
Democratic politicians need to please a news media that is open to contrary facts and willing — and arguably eager — to hold them accountable. The mainstream media have have its liberal biases, but it also misses the other way — see the Times' disastrously wrong report, a week before the election, that the FBI saw no links between the Trump campaign and Russia and no intention by Russia to help Trump. One cannot imagine Fox News publishing an equivalently wrong story against the Republican Party's interests — its errors all run in the same direction.
The sad part is the mainstream news media—New York Times, NPR—still doesn't get it. They keep trying to find a middle ground as the Republican party moves gleefully, dangerously right. I think a lot of mainstream journalists think the truth lies on the other side of whatever the public image is, so they search for the lurid in Barack Obama and the respectable in Donald Trump. They keep searching for Trump's “pivot.” They think in contrarian terms. Peter Baker's recent “news analysis” in the Times, saying Trump upends “150 years of two-party rule,” calling him an independent and (in one subhed) a “Lone Ranger,” is an example. Lone Ranger? Jesus Christ. What's the difference? What's the fucking difference? The Lone Ranger is a hero for children in the 1930s and '50s, and Donald Trump is a present-day solipsistic monster, and the two have nothing to do with each other. Journalists, go back to your Orwell: “To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.” I.e., Quit trying to be so fucking clever. Quit damning both houses in order to try to appear objective. Here's your question: What is it? Here's another: How do they differ? Go from there.
No Nip for Tuck
I finally got around to reading Kelefa Sanneh's profile of Fox host Tucker Carlson, “Tucker Carlon's Fighting Words,” which was in the April 10 issue of The New Yorker—the one with the Barry Blitt drawing of a fat-assed Pres. Trump golfing on the White House lawn.
Was it worth it? Did I learn anything?
Well, I learned that Carlson's father was a former U.S. Marine who became a journalist and then, when Tucker was 10, married Patricia Swanson “of the frozen food Swansons.” (Tucker's mother left when he was 6 and he's never seen her again.) I learned that Tucker “loves rascals”—from Rev. Al Sharpton to Roger Stone—and that he sees himself in that light. I like this description of him by Sanneh: “'Old money' describes Carlson's aesthetic but not, exactly, his circumstances.” I learned that he often flummoxes guests on his show by asking them questions that are tough/impossible to answer—such as, to Bill Nye, what percentage of global warming is caused by human activity?—and that he's more offended by liberal reaction to Trump's incompetence/buffoonery than he is by the actual presidential incompetence/buffoonery.
But the piece wasn't hard-hitting enough. In the Jon Stewart/“Crossfire” contretemps, Sanneh seems to favor “Crossfire,” which is odd, and his descriptions of right-wingers are unseasonably mild. Milo Yiannopoulos is “the crusader against political correctness”; the Roger Ailes sexual harassment suits are part of “a series of embarassments” for Fox.
Bradlee: You don't have it.
Psst: New York Times, NPR, Et al.
From “Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower's Secret Campaign against Joseph McCarthy” by David A. Nichols:
Sensing the chance to gain more headlines, [Joseph] McCarthy terminated his honeymoon and rushed back to take charge of the Monmouth investigation. Once back, he rolled out sensational charges every day. He was free to emerge from closed-door hearings and tell the press anything he wished, accurate or not, knowing that reporters would report whatever he said.
And it's still going on, Danny. In today's newspaper, it's still going on.
Last night, for example, this was a headline on The New York Times' website:
This turn of events is astonishing. Sessions was Trump's first ally on the national stage, the man who backed him from the beginning, and who was rewarded with the power of the office of the U.S. Attorney General. And now? Most suppositions, mine included, is that Trump wants special counsel Robert Mueller fired for extreme competence, but Mueller's ostensible boss, Sessions, can't, since he recused himself from the Russian investigations. So Trump wants Sessions gone and a new USAG in his place—one who will fire Mueller. The brazenness and lawlessness of it all is astonishing.
And yet that's the hed. Here's the question every media outlet needs to ask itself when dealing with such matters: How does the above differ from what you would get from state-run media? How are we better than state-run media? If the answer is we're not, then work needs to be done.
Work needs to be done. He was free to emerge from closed-door hearings and tell the press anything he wished, accurate or not, knowing that reporters would report whatever he said. McCarthy then, Trump now.
How a Press Indictment in 'The Insider' Indicts the Press
There's a nice scene in Michael Mann's great 1999 movie, “The Insider,” which is about “60 Minutes,” the Big Tobacco lawsuit, and intrepid journalism. The movie is essentially “All the President's Men” for the '90s.
In the scene, the “60 Minutes” team, led by producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) and newsman Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), are trying to fathom what information their reluctant insider, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), might have against Brown & Williamson. Here's the quote that I keep coming back to:
What that is, is tobacco's standard defense. It's the “We don't know” litany. “Addiction? We believe not. Disease? We don't know. We just take a bunch of leaves, we roll 'em together, you smoke 'em. After that, you're on your own, we don't know.”
It's the media mocking the false innocence of Big Tobacco.
I keep coming back to this scene because it increasingly reminds me of the way the media presents its news to us:
Climate change? We don't know. We just quote these two scientists—one of whom believes and one who doesn't. After that, you're on your own, we don't know. Trump's latest claim? We're not sure. We're just repeating what people in power are saying. We don't know.
Objectivity is not stupidity but too often the media makes it so. There's often no attempt to follow up, not much of an attempt to even do what Jon Stewart did—see if the people in power are contradicting what they said 10 years ago, or five years ago, or last year or last week. It's stenography. And it has to stop if we're going to survive as a democracy.
Some of the press has gotten a little better at it: The “Trump Accuses Obama of Wiretapping, Cites No Evidence” kind of thing. Trump is actually helpful in this regard. He's such a psychopathic liar he's forcing the press to own up to what the facts are. But I don't think Trump would be where he is, destroying our country, if the media had simply done a better job covering the 2016 election.