Columbia Journalism Review
All is not well in Bidenland. At a fundraiser on Tuesday night, he brought up his past working relationships with James Eastland and Herman Talmadge, two long-deceased segregationist senators. Eastland “Never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son,’” Biden said, imitating Eastland’s Southern accent, but “at least there was some civility.” Biden’s remarks are still in the news this morning. Anonymous sources on his presidential campaign vented their frustrations to reporters from Politico and The Washington Post. As Jake Sherman, Anna Palmer, and Daniel Lippman, the authors of Politico’s Playbook newsletter, wrote yesterday: “It’s never a healthy sign when a campaign is airing its dirty laundry in the press.”
The sustained focus on Biden’s comments is, in large part, a self-inflicted wound. In trying to clean up the mess, his campaign has struggled to keep its message straight. Taking questions from reporters on Wednesday night, Biden dug himself deeper into his hole: asked if he planned to apologize, he replied, “Apologize for what?” Informed that Cory Booker, a rival for the Democratic nomination, had called for an apology, Biden countered that Booker should be the one to apologize: “He knows better,” Biden said. Booker went on CNN to respond. “I was raised to speak truth to power, and I will never apologize for doing that,” Booker said. “Vice President Biden shouldn’t need this lesson.” Last night, following a phone call with Biden, Booker addressed the episode again on MSNBC. “We had a good, constructive conversation last night,” Booker said. He went on, “I had an opportunity to explain to him” the legacy of racism in America (the call lasted between 15 and 20 minutes). Afterward, per Politico, Biden provided surrogates with bullish talking points that angered Booker’s staff. The political press—which has been sniffing for bad blood between the Democratic candidates—pounced. The rift, it’s safe to say, overshadowed an important new policy announcement from Booker regarding clemency for nonviolent drug offenders.
The Biden story reinforces a narrative that has framed much coverage of his candidacy. For years, he’s been characterized as prone to gaffes—so much so that The New York Times ran a story last month marveling that Biden had not, at that point, committed one during his nascent presidential bid. So much for that. Several outlets used the word “gaffe” to describe Biden’s comments about Eastland and Talmadge; Marc A. Thiessen, a columnist for the Post, called Biden “a walking, talking gaffe machine.”
A new narrative has emerged, too: that Biden, who is 76 and a centrist, is out of step with swathes of the Democratic base, which takes racial justice seriously. On MSNBC yesterday, Kasie Hunt asked panelists: “Has the Democratic Party moved past Joe Biden?” For Politico, John F. Harris raised a “painful possibility: Grampa Simpson is running for president.”
Biden’s team is well aware of how the campaign is viewed and has crafted press strategy accordingly. As CNN reported last month, the priority is reminding voters how popular Biden was as vice president rather than letting them hear from him now. Staffers argue that his name recognition and standing in the polls are such that he doesn’t need added exposure. Biden has done fewer public events than many of his rivals; when he does appear, he often declines to engage with reporters. (Based on the furor he caused responding to questions on Wednesday, it’s not hard to see why Biden’s minders have worked to keep the press at a distance.) Unlike most other candidates, Biden has not done a TV town hall. Last week, he didn’t show at a multi-candidate dinner in Iowa; this week, he was absent from a Times video story in which 21 candidates answered 18 identical questions.
It’s too soon to say if Biden’s strategy of press avoidance will backfire. But this week’s fallout has proven that if he doesn’t set the narrative around his campaign, reporters and pundits will set it for him.
Below, more on Joe Biden and the press:
- Gone fishing: Tonight, Biden will be in attendance at the first multi-candidate event since his comments blew up: an annual fish fry organized by Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, in South Carolina. (Clyburn, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, defended Biden this week.) Biden will then participate in the South Carolina Democratic Party convention this weekend. The Post’s Paul Farhi reports that MSNBC has won exclusive rights to broadcast the event, an unusual move.
- (Another) questionable take: This week, Republicans such as Lindsey Graham and conservative voices in the media have defended Biden’s remarks about working civilly with Eastland and Talmadge. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal editorial board, which has previously defended President Trump and Attorney General William Barr, wrote that Biden “underestimated both the modern left’s obsession with racial gesturing and his Democratic competitors’ readiness to exploit race for political gain.”
- A much better take: Also yesterday, Ta-Nehisi Coates addressed Biden’s comments on MSNBC: the “very polite relationships” between senators like Biden and their segregationist colleagues “were premised on the fact that those people’s deeply deplorable views actually disenfranchised an entire sector of the electorate,” Coates said. On Wednesday, Coates testified before the House Judiciary Committee about reparations for slavery, an idea he advocated in The Atlantic in 2014.
Some news from the home front: Today CJR debuts the Global issue, which explores the new reality journalists face around the world. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be posting stories each day from the magazine, starting with an editor’s note by our own Kyle Pope. Stay tuned for more from Turkey, Ghana, the Philippines, Venezuela, and elsewhere. You can already read Ruth Margalit’s piece about Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, and his ruinous obsession with the press.
Other notable stories:
- Last night, the Times reported that Trump approved strikes on Iran, then pulled back before they were launched. The Times confirmed that officials did not request that the story be held on national security grounds; the Post, ABC News, and the AP swiftly matched the reporting. Despite mounting tensions, the Post’s Farhi writes, the Pentagon is saying little to the media at the moment. Yesterday, after Iran shot down a US drone, the department held its first on-camera “briefing” in over a year, though it lasted only three minutes and questions were not permitted. In May, CJR’s Andrew McCormick assessed declining media relations with the Pentagon.
- On Sunday, Trump will appear on NBC’s Meet the Press for the first time as president, a continuation of his efforts to reach beyond his base as his 2020 campaign gears up. After spending 30 hours with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos last week, Trump sat down with Telemundo’s José Díaz-Balart for an interview that aired last night. The president also invited Time magazine into the Oval Office; at one point, he said Time’s reporters would “go to prison” should they publish details of a letter from Kim Jong Un that Trump had gone off-the-record to show them.
- Boris Johnson is a step closer to becoming Britain’s prime minister. Yesterday, lawmakers from his Conservative Party voted to send Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, the foreign minister, into a head-to-heard runoff; grassroots party members will now have the final say. For CJR, I examined Johnson’s checkered past as a journalist: “Boris Johnson the writer is Boris Johnson the public figure: a spinner of irresistible, but often flimsy stories that have but one aim—the furtherment of Boris Johnson.”
- In late May, Ebony magazine informed its five digital staffers that their paychecks would be delayed. The Root’s Jay Connor reports that the staffers decided to stop working until they were paid; on June 7, they were all fired. According to the New York Post’s Keith J. Kelly, the mass firing tops a turbulent period for the magazine, whose private-equity owners canceled employee health benefits at the beginning of the year.
- CJR’s McCormick spoke with four journalists who have participated in outreach and training programs for foreign journalists run by the Chinese government. The goal of such programs, according to experts, isn’t just to improve China’s image overseas. “This is about control of the narrative and legitimization of the [Communist] Party’s power and governance,” David Bandurski, of the Hong Kong-based China Media Project, says.
- In 2017, authorities in Cambodia shut down the local bureau of Radio Free Asia, a news outlet funded by the US government, then arrested Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, who had worked there as journalists, on espionage charges. Chhin and Sothearin were jailed for nine months, then released under judicial supervision. Today, a court is hearing their appeal against those conditions.
- And Sarah Sanders may have treated reporters poorly during her time as White House press secretary—but White House correspondents are throwing her a goodbye party regardless. HuffPost’s Maxwell Strachan has more.
Every once in a while, a company comes along that becomes a lightning rod for criticism from almost all directions, whether justifiably or not. At one point, this awkward mantle was held by IBM, and for a time Microsoft also played the role, but there’s no question who holds that title today: Facebook. The globe-spanning social network has become such a magnet for criticism that virtually anything it launches is questioned, if not dismissed outright as the work of a megalomaniac. That was certainly the dominant reaction to the company’s launch of a proposed cryptocurrency, known as Libra, which it announced with much fanfare on Tuesday. Although still very much in the formative stages, the proposal was roundly criticized by almost everyone, including a number of cryptocurrency experts, financial analysts, opponents of Big Tech, and financial regulators in both the US and the European Union (people born under the astrological sign Libra are apparently also upset).
To be fair, Facebook has brought much of this negative attention on itself. It has spent the past several years at first denying and then scrambling to fix (or cover up, depending on your perspective) multiple privacy breaches and failures that have exposed the personal data of hundreds of millions of users, including the Cambridge Analytica fiasco. The company has also been slow to react to the reality that its massive platform for targeted content and advertising has also been weaponized by professional trolls and agents of foreign governments, some of whom have used its tools in an attempt to influence elections in at least half a dozen countries. If anyone has done their best to poison the well when it comes to launching ambitious new projects like a global cryptocurrency, it is Facebook.
This explains why even in the most positive coverage of Facebook’s new currency, there was an unmistakable sense that—as The Verge wrote about the Facebook Portal, a video screen product that the company released last year—this would have been a much more interesting (and potentially even positive) development if it had come from literally any other company. A global cryptocurrency? I’d like to know more! Controlled by Facebook? Er, no thanks. To make matters more frustrating for the company, it has gone to considerable lengths to make it clear that a) Libra won’t be controlled by Facebook, but by a non-profit consortium of members, and b) that none of the data provided by users will find its way into Facebook’s other operations—unless users explicitly say they want it to.
Some see the new currency as yet another case of Facebook playing Lucy to the world’s Charlie Brown: holding the privacy football still and promising not to move it, right up until Charlie Brown tries to kick it, at which point it is whisked away. But that’s not the only criticism of the Libra project. As the Financial Times pointed out in a series of in-depth (and sharply critical) articles, what Facebook is proposing isn’t really even a cryptocurrency as we have come to know the term. It certainly isn’t the kind of decentralized, networked currency that Bitcoin aspired to become. If anything, it looks almost as centralized as the traditional banking system, but with the term “blockchain” welded onto it. In many ways, it’s a lot more like a digital version of Western Union than a true cryptocurrency.
Given the kind of negative reaction the company must have known was coming, why would it bother trying to launch something like Libra at all? Founder Mark Zuckerberg’s motivations are difficult (if not impossible) to ascertain, but one theory is that he sees it as a key weapon in a competitive battle with non-US giants like WeChat, the Chinese social network through which users conduct an ever-growing amount of their daily lives, including shopping, banking and other transactions. As Facebook’s growth slows in the US, and many people delete their accounts, the rest of the world becomes an even larger priority for the company. It may be hoping that news of data leaks and election meddling are less top-of-mind in the rest of the world than in the US, but whether that perception is accurate or not remains to be seen.
Here’s more on Facebook’s cryptocurrency ambitions:
- Nonsensical: The Financial Times‘ series on the Facebook project doesn’t beat around the bush: the preamble to the series says it is intended to “show how nonsensical, pointless, stupid, risky, badly thought-out and blockchainless the whole thing is.” The FT says it appears Facebook is just trying to build a global payments network, and “there doesn’t appear to be any good reason why you would want to do this using blockchain tokens. Could it be the blockchain stuff is mostly PR?”
- A crystal ball: Over a year ago, Wired magazine noticed Facebook had reorganized one of its units and made David Marcus the head of a project aimed at exploring cryptocurrency. When asked what the company’s plan might be, writer Erin Griffith threw out a number of possibilities and then said: “Maybe we’re not thinking big enough. After all, Facebook has 2.2 billion users. In theory, Facebook could create a new global currency!”
- Global domination: University of Virginia media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of the recent book Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, warns in a piece published by The Guardian that the launch of a cryptocurrency could extend Facebook’s “global domination” and further concentrate corporate power over a number of markets in Facebook’s hands.
- Dead in the water: Veteran technology writer Steven Levy has an in-depth look at the structure behind Libra and Facebook’s intentions, including some comments from creator David Marcus, who was one of the founders of online payment giant PayPal. “Some of the articles out there have described this as Zuck-bucks and Face-coin,” says Marcus. “If it’s that, it’s dead in the water.
Other notable stories:
- They may be rivals, but The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal seem to be presenting a united front on one topic: the danger inherent in having a president who is willing to accuse the press of treason for doing their jobs. Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger wrote an op-ed piece on the topic that was published by the Journal, saying the use of the word “treason” crossed a line and is “irresponsible and wrong.” CNN says the Times publisher reached out to the Journal‘s op-ed editor and offered them the piece.
- Jabir Idrissa was once a leading investigative journalist in Tanzania, covering corruption, the environment and human rights for two of the country’s most respected publications, according to a piece in The Guardian. But that was before a story he wrote about a gold mine led to a two-year, government-imposed publication ban. Today, Idrissa is out of work and struggling to provide for his family.
- Lyz Lenz writes for CJR about Bryan Goldberg, co-founder of Bleacher Report, who has been acquiring bankrupt and failing media companies for some time now, including Mic.com and Gawker.com. Although he has been normalized by flattering profiles, Lenz says Goldberg’s “base instincts haven’t changed. He shouts. He spins. He just does it all on background now.
- A group of US senators led by Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, have sent a letter to Attorney-General William Barr arguing that Al Jazeera, the news outlet funded in part by the Qatari government, should be forced to register as a foreign agent under US law. The letter says that the network “frequently features content promoting the apparent policy priorities of its owner,” including support for the group known as the Muslim Brotherhood.
- The U.S. government is investigating Google-owned YouTube for allegedly violating children’s privacy, according to a report from The Washington Post, based on four people familiar with the matter. The Federal Trade Commission is said to have launched its investigation after numerous complaints from consumer groups and privacy advocates that the company was collecting personal data from children and using that to target advertising.
- Five anchorwomen for the NY1 cable network are suing the channel for age and gender-based discrimination, according to The New York Times. Amanda Farinacci, Vivian Lee, Roma Torre, Jeanine Ramirez, and Kristen Shaughnessy all say they were forced off the air by station managers in favor of younger, less-experienced hosts.
- A report in The Daily Beast says Fox News host Tucker Carlson has been advising Donald Trump on foreign policy, specifically the country’s approach to a potential conflict with Iran. A source familiar with the conversations told The Daily Beast that, in recent weeks, the Fox News host “has privately advised Trump against taking military action against Iran,” in contrast to some of the more hawkish members of the Trump administration.
- Daniel Dale, the former Toronto Star reporter who gained a wide following for his Trump coverage, published his first article for new employer CNN: a list—and a fact-check—of each of the 15 false claims that Donald Trump made during his 76-minute speech at a rally in Orlando, including comments about Russia, China, the environment, energy, Clinton’s emails, and the wall.
- For CJR, Max Blau writes about an Atlanta radio-show host who complained about gender discrimination at her workplace, and was subsequently restructured out of a job. Amy Kiley, former host of All Things Considered on WABE, also found that about 30 of the stories she had written for the station had been removed from its website. The station wouldn’t say why, and Kiley’s claim of sex-based employment discrimination is still pending.
- In describing the genesis of a Washington Post feature on a New York hedge-fund manager and his wife who have donated millions of dollars to the anti-vaccination cause, Amy Brittain of the Post‘s investigative team notes that the feature took shape after commenters on the paper’s stories about the anti-vax movement asked reporters to look into who was funding the protests.
Last night, in Orlando, Florida, Donald Trump launched his 2020 presidential campaign. Or perhaps he was relaunching his 2016 campaign; as many outlets noted, it was hard to tell the difference. The music (“God Bless the USA”), the chants (“Lock her up,” “Drain the swamp”), and the talking points all sounded familiar. So did the media-bashing. Right from the start, Trump dredged up well-worn complaints about coverage of how big his crowds are; later, as the crowd chanted “CNN sucks,” Trump referred to the assembled press as the “fake news back there.” As The Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng quipped, “Historians will look back at Tuesday night as the evening in which Donald Trump killed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election chances.”
Why differentiate between Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns? It’s more accurate to situate them on a continuum. Last night’s rally carried on “the same populist themes, grievances and enemies that fueled [Trump’s] ascent—because the campaign never ended,” The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker tweeted. Josh Marshall, of Talking Points Memo, called it “the usual rage fest, grievance, bragging. Rinse/repeat.”
It’s not unusual for presidential candidates to hold a formal kickoff event after making their intentions clear—in this cycle alone, several Democrats, including Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, have done just that. But it is unusual for a president to treat his term of office as a permanent campaigning opportunity: The Atlantic’s David A. Graham reckons Trump has “launched” his re-election bid at least five times. Trump filed his 2020 paperwork on January 20, 2017, just hours after he was inaugurated; since then, he’s held regular bombastic rallies in front of cheering, MAGA-hatted crowds. As New York’s Olivia Nuzzi asked wearily last night: “What is left to say about one of these things?”
At least we cover these rallies differently now. Of the cable networks, only Fox News (surprise!) carried last night’s event in its entirety. CNN quickly cut away. MSNBC didn’t even dip its toe in; instead, Chris Hayes focused on the Trump administration’s treatment of migrant families, addressing a debate that raged online yesterday as to the accuracy of calling US border facilities “concentration camps.” Online, outlets including the Post, The New York Times, and CNN—boosted by its recent hire of fact-checking maven Daniel Dale—assessed the truth of Trump’s claims. The Orlando rally drove a round of punditry and coverage, of course. But the days of networks showing live shots of Trump’s plane on the tarmac seem, thankfully, to be over.
Has our campaign coverage evolved in other ways since then? We have seen some promising signs: early coverage of Warren’s candidacy, for example, suffered from a “Hillary’s emails”-level focus on her claims of Native American ancestry, but her policy ideas have since come to the fore. Broadly speaking, however, the jury is still out. Trump’s campaign launch re-upped chatter about his latest 2020 polling numbers, which have driven horse race-style coverage of late. Some of that has been legitimate: it’s noteworthy, for instance, that Trump’s campaign moved to cut ties with some of its pollsters after their finding that Trump trails Joe Biden in key states leaked to the press. Last week, Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that the polls in question “don’t exist”; yesterday, Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, told CBS that America is “too complex now” for polls to be of any use.
It’s worth pointing out that neither of these statements is true. (CBS, in its chyron and tweet, did not.) But should we really be covering hypothetical head-to-head numbers at this point? “To have a news cycle about general election polling **a year and a half before the election** is completely preposterous,” FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver tweeted yesterday. The bigger problem, for the press, is that these numbers tend to lead us by the nose: the Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote on Sunday that 2020 coverage has already been skewed by “the pseudoscience of electability,” especially where Biden is concerned. Nor is it the only specter of 2016 that’s still hanging around: as Sullivan and I both wrote recently, many outlets continue to cover Trump’s insults as stories in their own right.
Trump’s campaign “launch” yesterday was a non-event: an unremarkable milestone on a much longer road. In life, however, arbitrary staging posts can be useful opportunities for self-reflection. Trump hasn’t changed much. The more important question is: have we?
Below, more on Trump and his 2020 campaign:
- A savage takedown: Ahead of Trump’s arrival in town yesterday, the Orlando Sentinel unveiled its endorsement for 2020: not Donald Trump. “After 2½ years we’ve seen enough,” the Sentinel’s editorial board wrote. “Enough of the chaos, the division, the schoolyard insults, the self-aggrandizement, the corruption, and especially the lies.”
- A Savage takedown: The Times’s Jeremy W. Peters checks in with Michael Savage, a conservative radio host who was one of Trump’s earliest political supporters. Savage has since gone sour on the president. A key reason? Trump hasn’t been tough enough on immigration, Savage says.
- Programming: Trump has given most of his interviews as president to Fox News, but he’s starting to engage other outlets as he bids to reach beyond his base. Last week, he granted 30 hours of access to ABC’s Stephanopoulos. Tomorrow, Trump will sit down with Telemundo’s José Díaz-Balart for his first interview with a Spanish-language network since he became president.
- Counter-programming: Next week, 20 of the Democratic candidates for president (and Díaz-Balart) will be in Miami for the party’s first round of debates. According to The Wall Street Journal, Trump—against the wishes of some of his aides—is planning to live-tweet the debates, which will take place in primetime next Wednesday and Thursday.
Other notable stories:
- Breaking this morning: a United Nations official investigating the murder, last year, of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident, has called for a further inquiry into the role Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other top Saudi officials may have played in the killing. According to the Post, where Khashoggi worked as a contributor, a UN human-rights specialist wrote in a 101-page report that MBS “had played an essential role in a campaign of repressing dissidents and almost certainly knew that a criminal mission targeting Khashoggi was being planned.” The Trump administration has refused to hold MBS responsible for Khashoggi’s death.
- Yesterday, Patrick Shanahan, the acting defense secretary, withdrew his full-time candidacy for the job amid mounting press focus on his private life. USA Today reported that the FBI, as part of a background investigation, was looking into a “violent domestic dispute” between Shanahan and his ex-wife; in a separate episode, Shanahan’s son beat the same woman with a baseball bat. Later, the Post, whose reporters first communicated with Shanahan about the incidents in January, ran an on-the-record interview with him.
- Katharine Gorka—a Department of Homeland Security staffer and former Breitbart writer whose articles have been described as “anti-Muslim”—is set to become the press secretary at Customs and Border Protection, CNN’s Geneva Sands reports. As the Times’s Maggie Haberman noted on Twitter, Gorka’s husband Sebastian Gorka—himself a Trump administration and Breitbart alum—“routinely attacks reporters.”
- CBS might—finally—be close to an offer for sister company Viacom, The Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin and Keach Hagey report. The two companies used to be partnered but split 13 years ago; since then, two attempts to reunite them have been unsuccessful. CBS and Viacom have held preliminary talks, the Journal reports, but questions over price and leadership remain. Currently, Bob Bakish, Viacom’s CEO, looks like the favorite to take the top job should the companies combine.
- CJR’s Alexandria Neason profiles Sean McElwee, a left-wing activist, political operative, and pollster who “deftly combines the technical work of a statistician with incisive eloquence that bends Twitter to his will.” Journalists, Neason writes, “should consider McElwee—and the questions his polls pose—a repository of story ideas for the 2020 campaigns. Rather than relying on handouts and candidate appearances, reporters and editors would be wise to instead look at what McElwee is asking voters.”
- Forbidden Stories, a group that aims to finish projects that get abandoned when reporters are threatened or killed, is out with Green Blood, a collaboration between 15 media partners—including The Guardian, Le Monde, and the Toronto Star—documenting the environmental and human-rights impacts of the global mining industry. The first stories focus on gold mining in Tanzania, where a state crackdown has restricted the press.
- Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, a freelance journalist who has written widely on Chinese government influence campaigns in the US, has been denied a journalist visa to work in China, where she had hoped to take a position with Agence France-Presse. Allen-Ebrahimian tells BuzzFeed’s Megha Rajagopalan that she believes the decision is retaliation for her past stories.
- Recently, after publishing an anti-Semitic cartoon of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, in its international edition, the Times moved to scrap the genre altogether. That, Jeet Heer writes for The Nation, reflects a sad trend: that “newspaper editorial cartooning is well on the path to extinction.” This week, The Nation’s new top editor, D.D. Guttenplan, appointed Heer as a national-affairs correspondent and Jane McAlevey as strikes correspondent. In April, CJR asked Guttenplan about his vision for the magazine.
- And CJR’s Justin Ray checked in on the American Meteorological Society’s Conference on Broadcast Meteorology, which took place last week in San Diego. Discussions centered “on our volatile climate, and how urgent information about weather and the climate reaches the public,” Ray writes. “When it comes to weather, there is no universal understanding of cautionary language, and no single standard for alerting TV viewers—a fact that should raise more concern than it does.”
With every day that passes, the drumbeat of war echoes a little more loudly through our media. Yesterday, officials in Iran said that the country will soon have produced and stockpiled more low-enriched uranium—of the type used in power plants—than it is permitted to possess under the 2015 nuclear deal, which the US ditched last year. In Washington, the Trump administration moved to dispatch 1,000 American troops to the Middle East, adding to the 1,500-strong deployment it sent last month. Tensions between the US and Iran, we are told, are rising.
Left-wing observers have long complained that American outlets’ coverage of hostile foreign governments—certainly in the Middle East, and particularly in Iran—tends to parrot the line of the US government, however bellicose, without applying due skepticism. How has the latest Iran coverage shaped up? It’s hard to generalize, of course. But the Trump era writ large has brought out the skeptical side in many reporters, and it seems that some of them have applied it to the Iran story. Late last week and over the weekend, reporters repeatedly raised doubts as to Trump’s credibility in connection with his administration’s claim that Iran attacked two oil tankers (neither of which are American) in the Gulf of Oman. (Iran denies this.) The purported evidence—a video appearing to show Iranian soldiers removing an unexploded mine from one of the tankers—was called into question by the owner of one of the ships and the German foreign minister, among others, and so interviewers asked US officials to show more proof. “The intelligence community has lots of data, lots of evidence,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. “The world will come to see much of it.”
Yesterday, the Trump administration declassified images it says back up its case that Iran was behind the tanker attacks. Many outlets relayed administration claims about the images in headlines; in a tweet, Politico said that, per the Pentagon, “the images provide ironclad evidence Iran was responsible.” The third paragraph of Politico’s linked story, however, notes that “nothing in the photos or accompanying documents reveal evidence of the placement of the magnetic mines on the ship.” Hardly “ironclad,” then. Last night, in an article for Task & Purpose, a military news site, Jeff Schogol argued that “not a single US official has provided a shred of proof linking Iran to the explosive devices found on the merchant ships.” Without air-tight evidence, news outlets really should not air administration claims without a heavy dose of context. “Pompeo/Bolton/Shanahan said” is not enough.
Again, it’s hard to generalize, but US coverage of the latest Iran episode seems to be falling into some old, bad habits. In recent coverage, “the media has generally been better at treating unproven accusations by the Trump administration as just that—accusations, and not facts,” Trita Parsi, a researcher and founder of the National Iranian American Council, told me last night in an email. “Yet, on numerous occasions, there has either been a failure to push back against blatantly false assertions by Trump officials, or Trump accusations have been presented as proven facts.” The problem is especially acute in headlines and tweets, Parsi notes.
As Andrew Lee Butters wrote in a recent piece for CJR, “a dynamic has developed in Iran reporting, a kind of paranoid feeding frenzy, that helps anti-Iran Trump administration hardliners like John Bolton, the National Security Advisor, build momentum for confrontation.” Butters’s point that US outlets often characterize Iran as “threatening” to resume nuclear production—even though the country has thus far abided by a deal that the US decided to break—echoes in coverage this morning. “There are also cases in which Trump’s violation of the [deal] is solely presented as a ‘withdrawal,’ while Iran’s threat of reducing its adherence to the deal is (correctly) presented as a ‘violation,’” Parsi told me.
It’s welcome if Trump’s role has brought a dash more skepticism to coverage of US–Iran relations, but the traditional problems with this coverage run much deeper than Trump. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, Iran is too often framed as a menacing, unilateral aggressor whose actions necessitate a strong American response. The truth is a whole lot more complicated.
Below, more on coverage of the US and Iran:
- “Bomb Iran”: The name of John Bolton was buried in some articles about the latest US troop movements and entirely absent from others despite his hawkish views on Iran being well known. Last night, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes went a different route: the words “BOLTON’S WAR” were displayed as a backdrop as Hayes began a segment on Iran. Last month, Dexter Filkins had an insightful profile of Bolton for The New Yorker.
- A dangerous feedback loop: Matt Gertz writes, for Media Matters for America, that Trump’s propensity to listen to Fox News talking points could have disastrous consequences when it comes to Iran. (Yesterday, Trump tweeted the exact wording of a chyron that had just appeared on Fox.) Several figures on the network have advocated a military escalation with Iran, arguing that the country “only responds to strength.”
- Doing better: Writing for The Intercept last month, Mehdi Hasan outlined “four simple steps the US media could take to prevent a Trump war with Iran.” Reporters, Hasan argues, should stop passing on official claims without checking them, diversify their sourcing, and build historical context about US–Iran relations into their reporting.
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday morning, a heavily armed gunman started shooting outside a federal courts building in Dallas. Tom Fox, a photojournalist at the Dallas Morning News, was at the courthouse for a routine assignment and captured an extraordinary image of the shooter before taking cover. “You use the camera almost as a shield,” Fox told the Morning News. “I also felt a journalistic duty to do all that.” The gunman—who was killed in an exchange of fire with police—was the only casualty. Echoing other recent shootings, his Facebook page contained vague warnings of an attack alongside far-right conspiracy theories and memes, NBC’s Elisha Fieldstadt, Brandy Zadrozny, and Ben Collins report.
- Yesterday afternoon, BuzzFeed staffers in New York, DC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco walked off the job to protest management’s failure to recognize their unionization efforts. Executives say they already made an offer of recognition; workers say that that offer would limit union membership by exempting certain job titles. Employees in BuzzFeed’s New York office held a protest on the sidewalk. CJR’s Andrew McCormick went to check it out. “We want to focus on the work,” Davey Alba, a BuzzFeed technology reporter and union organizer, told him.
- Last month, Authentic Brands Group, a marketing company, acquired Sports Illustrated in an “unusual partnership”: Authentic Brand Groups would license SI’s brand and content while Meredith, the magazine’s previous owner, would continue to handle editorial output. Now, the New York Post’s Keith J. Kelly reports, Meredith is all but out of the picture. Authentic Brands Group licensed SI’s print and digital publishing rights to The Maven—a startup linked to Ross Levinsohn, a former tronc/Tribune executive trailed by allegations of sexual harassment, who will now take charge of SI’s editorial output.
- In yesterday’s newsletter, I wrote that Trump may have granted access to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in a bid to reach out beyond his base ahead of his formal 2020 campaign launch tonight. If that was Trump’s goal, he’ll be disappointed with the ratings: Politico’s Caitlin Oprysko reports that the full interview came in third in its timeslot on Sunday night, way down on Celebrity Family Feud, which held the same slot last week.
- Matt Pearce, who is covering the 2020 campaign for the LA Times, published a story about Jay Inslee, the Washington governor whose push for the Democratic nomination is centered on climate change. Pearce chose the topic after his readers told him, in a survey, that they wanted climate change to feature prominently in his coverage. Pearce’s strategy echoes the “citizens agenda” approach—advocated by NYU Professor Jay Rosen—encouraging reporters to cover issues that matter to the community they serve.
- The New Yorker’s Paige Williams, who profiled Sarah Huckabee Sanders last year, takes a fresh look at Sanders as she prepares to stand down as White House press secretary. “While critics assail Sanders for peddling lies and denigrating the press during televised briefings, many of the White House reporters who consistently interact with her have described her to me as decent and honest in private,” Williams writes. “I would say that they ‘liked’ her, if likability, as it relates to women, weren’t such a loaded term.”
- For CJR, Adrian Glass-Moore reports on aggressive efforts by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority to push back on stories—including in a student-run newspaper—about plans to inject private money into public housing. In particular, city housing officials objected to use of the word “privatization”; one called it “a highly charged trigger word that is frequently weaponized in debates about affordable housing.” In response to the pressure, several news organizations made changes to published articles.
- And the defamation case brought by families of the Sandy Hook school shooting victims against Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who called the shooting a hoax, took a strange turn after lawyers for the families said they found child pornography in files handed over by Jones. Jones’s lawyer says the images were sent to Jones in emails that he never opened; Jones, on his web show, accused a lawyer for the families of trying to frame him and pound[ed] on a picture of the lawyer’s face. Today, a court will hear a motion that Jones publicly threatened the lawyer. Confused? The AP has much more.
President Trump hadn’t granted a network news interview in more than four months. Per Mark Knoller, of CBS, Trump had done just two Sunday-show hits in his entire presidency; per Media Matters for America, nearly three-quarters of Trump’s national TV interviews as president have been with Fox channels. It was thus a surprise when the president gave 30 hours of access to George Stephanopoulos, chief anchor of ABC News, last week. Under another president, shots of Stephanopoulos leaning over the desk in the Oval Office and chatting in Air Force One and the presidential limo would not have been especially remarkable. Under Trump, they felt like lost footage from a forgotten era.
To read the headlines that came out of it, Trump’s unusual interview backfired spectacularly. In the middle of last week, ABC released footage of Trump saying that he would accept intel from a foreign government without telling the FBI about it; from that moment on, the remarks drove a furious, multi-day news cycle. Many reporters and commentators pointed out that such conduct would be illegal; several senior Republicans distanced themselves from the president’s words. As the week progressed, ABC threw further clips on the fire. Trump accused Don McGahn, the White House counsel turned key Robert Mueller witness, of lying under oath; when Stephanopoulos asked the president why he himself hadn’t testified to Mueller under oath, Trump replied, “Because they were looking to get us for lies or slight misstatements.” As The New Yorker’s John Cassidy put it, the ABC interview looked like “another fine mess” for Trump. By Friday morning, the president was on the phone to Fox & Friends for some damage control.
The fallout from the Stephanopoulos interview, pundits surmised, is precisely why Trump doesn’t tend to do interviews with journalists who aren’t his friends. “When seated with anyone other than Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham, Donald Trump seems to fall apart,” Nicolle Wallace said on MSNBC. “He seems to lack the mental acuity and the truth-telling capacity to field real questions from real journalists.” Real journalists, of course, have tripped Trump up before: most notably in 2017, when NBC’s Lester Holt pressed Trump on his decision to fire James Comey. As The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wrote of the Stephanopoulos sit-down, “Sometimes it takes a protracted session with one journalist to get to the heart of things.”
Given that it embarrassed the president and won plaudits for his mainstream-media interviewer (who, for good measure, used to work in the Clinton administration), you’d think that Trump would have reacted furiously to the release of the interview. But you’d (mostly) be wrong. On Saturday, the president tweeted that the “Fake News Media” had distorted his words, but also said he “enjoyed” the interview and pledged to do more like it to “get the word out” about his presidency: “It is called Earned Media,” he wrote. Trump’s tweets seemed to vindicate Politico’s Michael Calderone and Nancy Cook, who wrote last week that Trump—who will formally launch his 2020 campaign tomorrow—sees network interviews as an opportunity to reach out beyond his base, and to dominate a news cycle that’s increasingly driven by his Democratic opponents.
Granting more traditional media access is the president’s prerogative, of course. If tough questions are asked, it isn’t a bad thing. And yet the networks should be careful that they don’t allow Trump to play them. Since Trump last (formally) ran for office, many media-watchers have argued that his campaign rallies and set-piece speeches should not be broadcast live because they contain so many falsehoods. Network interviews are different: they aren’t normally live, and an interlocutor is present to provide scrutiny. But Trump often lies at such a fast pace that even the best interviewer can’t push back on every falsehood in real time. Stephanopoulos certainly did not.
Stephanopoulos did grill Trump on many important topics, and ABC, by and large, did a decent job contextualizing and dripping out the interview’s most newsworthy portions. And yet viewers watching the whole thing (which aired last night) still heard the president say things that aren’t true—and ABC’s transcript of the interview, for instance, is not annotated to point out all the falsehoods. In 2016, Trump exploited “earned media” prolifically: he drove home false talking points, often without challenge, on mainstream networks. This time, we should ensure that the challenge is as sharp as possible. With Trump, an interviewer alone isn’t always enough.
Below, more on Trump:
- A further escalation: On Saturday, Trump accused The New York Times of a “virtual act of treason” after the paper reported that his administration has been stepping up its digital attacks on Russia’s electric power grid. Trump’s claim was dangerous, and also nonsensical: the Times made clear that “Officials at the National Security Council declined to comment but said they had no national security concerns about the details of The New York Times’s reporting.”
- Holding the cards: Friday was Trump’s 73rd birthday. According to The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay, some of ABC’s biggest affiliate stations posted content on their websites linking to a “birthday card” for the president—but the “card” was actually “a petition website created by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee to harvest email addresses that can be used during the 2020 campaign.” The ABC affiliate sites took their story down.
- The escalator ride: Yesterday was the four-year anniversary of Trump riding down the escalator in Trump Tower and declaring his run for the White House. Politico’s Michael Kruse has an oral history of “the escalator ride that changed America.” And on CNN, McKay Coppins, of The Atlantic, reflected on what he got wrong—and right—in his 2014 profile of Trump.
Other notable stories:
- Over the weekend, the Trump administration doubled down on its assertion that Iran was responsible for last week’s attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News’s Chris Wallace that Iran’s culpability was “unmistakable”; when Wallace asked if Pompeo could share more evidence, Pompeo said “the world will come to see much of it.” Question marks linger: the Times’s Peter Baker writes that Trump’s “foggy truth” meeting the “fog of war” creates a deficit of credibility. Skepticism of US saber-rattling should go deeper than Trump. But, as Andrew Lee Butters wrote recently for CJR, Iran coverage is often a “paranoid feeding frenzy.”
- On Saturday, under mounting public pressure, Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, indefinitely suspended a bill allowing extraditions to mainland China. Yesterday, a massive protest went ahead regardless. According to organizers, nearly 2 million people—around a quarter of Hong Kong’s population—took to the streets, though police put the turnout much lower. Last week, following earlier protests against the bill, CJR’s Amanda Darrach assessed the challenges journalists face when estimating crowd size.
- Late last week, Vox Media’s union ratified its first collective bargaining agreement with management: employees who don’t get overtime will be paid a minimum salary of $56,000, some part-time employees will get health benefits, and the company will commit to considering diverse applicants for staff roles, among other terms. Ten days ago, with the contract still to be settled, the Vox union walked out for a day—today, BuzzFeed’s union could do likewise, Bloomberg’s Gerry Smith and Josh Eidelson report.
- Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Post, calls out the “electability delusion” driving disproportionate early coverage of Joe Biden’s presidential bid. If voters think Biden is electable they often think the same of other Democratic candidates—and besides, the consensus around one candidate’s prospects is often wrong, Sullivan writes. “The truth is that journalists and pundits are bad at predictions.”
- Last month, a BBC journalist pointed out a major error in Outrages, Naomi Wolf’s new book about the criminalization of same-sex relationships in 19th-century Britain, during an on-air interview with Wolf. The book was still scheduled to have its US release tomorrow, but Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, its publisher, has now postponed publication and recalled copies after “new questions” were raised, the Times’s Alexandra Alter reports. (If you haven’t yet read Parul Sehgal’s Times review of Outrages, you should.)
- O.J. Simpson is now on Twitter. On Friday, a video in which Simpson says he has “a little getting even to do” was posted in his name; the next day, he confirmed the account’s authenticity to the AP. Yashar Ali, a freelance journalist, encouraged users to instead follow Kim Goldman, sister of Ron Goldman, who Simpson was accused of murdering in 1994. Kim Goldman hosts Confronting: O.J. Simpson, a new podcast marking the 25th anniversary of the murders of her brother and Nicole Brown Simpson.
- For CJR, Meghan Winter writes that in five years of reporting on reproductive health, no male editor has ever accepted a pitch from her about abortion. This pattern, Winter writes, reflects “how so-called ‘women’s issues’ are often siloed or sidelined to publications for women readers—as if these issues are separate from the entirety of our politics, economy, and culture.”
- And Susannah Hunnewell, publisher of The Paris Review, has died. She was 52. Hunnewell started her career at the literary magazine as an editorial assistant in 1989, and later served as its Paris editor.
Update: This post has been updated to clarify that Kim Goldman is Ron Goldman’s sister.
Last June, CBS News reported that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, and Raj Shah, her deputy, were planning to quit the Trump administration. They stuck it out longer than expected. Shah left in January. Yesterday—exactly a year after the original CBS report—we learned that Sanders will depart at the end of this month. President Trump tweeted the news and Sanders did the same: a mode of communication that has characterized Sanders’s time as White House spokesperson.
Sanders took over as press secretary in July 2017, following the ouster of Sean Spicer. Sanders showed more endurance, but her performance has been no better than Spicer’s was. In her two inglorious years on the job, Sanders barred reporters who asked tough questions; promoted Trump’s bogus “fake news awards”; fell in line with the president’s anti-press, “enemy of the people” rhetoric; and routinely disparaged the intelligence and integrity of the journalists in the White House briefing room. She also lied a lot. Sanders said that Trump never encouraged violence (he did) and that he won an “overwhelming majority” of votes in 2016 (he did not). In April, the Mueller report confirmed that in May 2017, Sanders (who was then the deputy press secretary) knowingly misled reporters when she claimed—twice—that “countless” FBI staffers supported Trump’s firing of James Comey. Sanders told Mueller’s office that the claim was “not founded on anything”; it was a “slip of the tongue” that she then repeated “in the heat of the moment,” she said. How did Sanders respond to her confession becoming public? She reiterated the false claim.
Still, Sanders may not be remembered for her lies as much as her absence. “Last month, reporters noticed that there was literally a coating of dust on the press briefing room podium,” CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote last night. “That is Sanders’s legacy.” On her watch, the televised White House briefing, a fixture under previous administrations, has all but gone extinct. Earlier this year, Sanders set a record for the longest time without a formal briefing since the practice began. Then she beat her own record—twice. If she doesn’t brief soon, next Wednesday will mark 100 days since Sanders last faced reporters at the podium. (She did stand there in late April, but it was only for a “bring your kids to work day” stunt that she declared off the record.) In the absence of briefings, White House reporters have had to chase Sanders down on the White House driveway to ask questions, usually following her interviews with Fox News.
Fox could be a logical next step for Sanders: ex-administration figures often take contributor gigs on cable news, and Sanders has already said that she plans to remain “one of the most outspoken and loyal supporters of the president and his agenda” outside the White House. (CNN reportedly has no interest in Sanders; it’s hard to imagine MSNBC would want her, either.) Trump, in his tweet, encouraged Sanders to run for governor of Arkansas, a post previously occupied by her father, Mike Huckabee; according to CNN, Sanders is thinking seriously about a bid, though there won’t be a vacancy until 2022.
As far as the White House press secretary job is concerned, CNN’s Stelter writes that who replaces Sanders is anyone’s guess. Trump could promote her deputy, Hogan Gidley, or he could look to an outside booster such as Laura Ingraham. (Stranger things have happened: remember Anthony Scaramucci?) The president, who has gone without a communications chief since March, may decline to fill the post. Why would he need a press secretary, when he believes himself to be his own best messenger?
Below, more on Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the White House communications team:
- What was the point?: Several commentators, including NYU’s Jay Rosen and Mike Allen, of Axios, have argued that briefings, when they happen, are a waste of journalists’ time anyway. Others have countered that, despite the lies from the podium, briefings give reporters an opportunity to confront the administration. Last year, CJR’s Pete Vernon wrote that a briefing “is a testament to the idea that no one is above having to explain themselves. That makes it worth saving.”
- What Sanders said about Trump: The Atlantic’s Megan Garber writes that Sanders “broke the news” during her time as press secretary. “Her tenure serves as a reminder of what happens when partisanship, aided by the power of the presidency, is allowed to subsume everything else: traditions, norms, truth, people’s lives,” Garber writes.
- A change of strategy: The White House Correspondents’ Association will soon elect a new president. The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi writes that the leading candidates—S.V. Date, of HuffPost, and Steven Portnoy, of CBS News—plan to take a bolder, more confrontational approach to misinformation. (A third candidate, Toluse Olorunnipa, of the Post, has yet to outline his plans.)
- Game, set, Hatch?: Kellyanne Conway’s name has been touted as a possible replacement for Sanders. Yesterday, the office of special counsel recommended that Conway should be removed as a White House aide for repeatedly violating the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from using their position to engage in partisan activities. Trump looks like he will ignore the recommendation: yesterday, Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, called it “as outrageous as it is unprecedented.”
Other notable stories:
- Trump’s admission, in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, that he would accept a foreign government’s offer of dirt on a presidential rival and not tell the FBI about it, drove the news cycle yesterday. Trump’s remarks added distressing detail to what has been established in the Mueller report on interference in the 2016 election, and bodes poorly for 2020.
- The Democratic National Committee confirmed yesterday that Wayne Messam, Seth Moulton, Steve Bullock, and Mike Gravel have failed to qualify for the first presidential debate; today, the 20 candidates who did qualify will be divided into groups of 10 that will debate on June 26 and June 27, respectively. For CJR, Jason Plautz explores the DNC’s refusal to host a debate dedicated to climate change: “While sixty-second answers won’t allow candidates to get far beyond the top-line goals of their climate-change plans, filling 90 minutes of debate time would force each to reckon with the differences between their plans.” On Wednesday, activists delivered a petition for a climate debate, signed by 200,000 people, to the DNC.
- When it comes to capturing public and press attention, Reid J. Epstein writes, for the Times, that Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren have outmaneuvered the other Democratic candidates for president, “demonstrating an innate understanding of the value of viral moments and nonstop exposure that drive politics in the Trump era.” Buttigieg has done so by emphasizing his personal background; Warren has inundated reporters with policy ideas. Both have climbed in the polls.
- Yesterday, Sajid Javid, Britain’s interior minister, confirmed that he signed off on the US government’s request to extradite Julian Assange, who is currently in jail in London. Today, the signed order will go before a British court. Assange faces an 18-count indictment in the US, most of which falls under the Espionage Act; last month, press-freedom experts called the indictment a “terrifying” threat to journalism. Sweden had also hoped to extradite Assange, to face a rape investigation, but a Swedish court ruled last week that Assange does not need to be detained in the country after all.
- In Turkey, prosecutors have charged Kerim Karakaya and Fercan Yalinkilic, two Bloomberg journalists, with attempting to undermine the country’s economic stability; the pair had reported last year on the official response to a severe currency shock in Turkey. The same indictment targets 36 other people “for social media comments on the story, or comments deemed critical of Turkey’s economy and banks,” Bloomberg reports.
- CJR’s Andrew McCormick looks at two Congressional bills intended to help out the news industry: one would allow publishers to team up to demand better financial terms from big tech platforms; the other would make it easier for news organizations to seek nonprofit status.
- Last month, Corey Hutchins reported for CJR from La Plata County, Colorado—an“orphan county,” where residents get irrelevant political news from a TV market based outside their home state. This week, following pressure from Cory Gardner, Colorado’s Republican senator, the Federal Communications Commission signaled that it will grant La Plata County residents access to Denver’s TV market instead.
- And the Mirror Awards, given by Syracuse University to celebrate reporting on the media industry, were announced yesterday. CJR was among the winners: Sarah Jones won for her piece about class and journalism. Ronan Farrow, of The New Yorker, won for his work exposing sexual misconduct by Les Moonves, who subsequently stepped down from CBS. Farrow addressed those gathered at the ceremony: “I see some people [here] who have lied to protect power,” he said.