Columbia Journalism Review
With a handful of tweets, President Trump injected his views into the media sphere, bolstering one much-criticized broadcaster and nudging down the stock price of one of the country’s biggest businesses.
Sinclair Broadcasting Group, under fire for a promotional campaign that read like propaganda, got a boost from the commander in chief yesterday. “So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased,” Trump tweeted. “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.” The president hasn’t mentioned Sinclair much, if at all, in previous missives, but he was back on the topic again this morning, praising “the competition and quality of Sinclair Broadcast.” There may be more than simple opportunism at play here: Politico’s Margaret Harding McGill and John Hendel report that his words signal support for the conservative broadcaster’s pending purchase of Tribune Media’s stations.
While boosting Sinclair, Trump turned his ire on Amazon, whose owner Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post. Axios reported last week that Trump was “obsessed” with Amazon, and a series of tweets over the weekend and into Monday have sent the company’s stock plunging. According to several reports, including the Post’s own analysis, Trump sees attacks on Amazon as retribution for critical coverage in the Post, though Amazon, of course, does not own the Post. “Trump is typically motivated to lash out at Amazon because of the Post’s coverage of him,” The New York Times’s Sydney Ember reports, highlighting a deeply reported story on Trump’s business interests as one cause for the president’s recent outburst.
In the past, Trump’s attacks on outlets like the “failing” New York Times and “Amazon Washington Post” have helped contribute to a surge in support for those outlets. With Amazon, however, things may be different. Several analysts tied the five percent drop in the company’s stock price yesterday to Trump’s tweets. “If President Trump wants to punish Amazon for lousy Washington Post coverage, it’s working,” CNN’s Nathaniel Meyersohn observed.
Every president has favored outlets and coverage they find too harsh, but Trump takes presidential media criticism to a whole different level. His support of Sinclair and conflation of Amazon and the Post are just the latest in series of outbursts, but the impact of those tweets is having an immediate impact in a way that other musings haven’t.
Below, more on the president and the media.
- Damage control at Sinclair: CNN’s Brian Stelter has the latest from inside Sinclair, where executives are defending the segments that drew backlash. Staffers, however, voiced concerns that the promos damage their journalistic credibility.
- Baron responds: Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron reiterated to the Times’s Ember, “There isn’t anybody here who is paid by Amazon. Not one penny.” He added, “We cover [Trump] the way that we feel any president should be covered.”
- It’s personal: Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman reports that “Trump is discussing ways to escalate his Twitter attacks on Amazon to further damage the company.” Sherman quotes one source who says, “He gets obsessed with something, and now he’s obsessed with Bezos. Trump is like, how can I fuck with him?”
- Trump’s TV advisor: Though Sinclair has been the focus of Trump’s recent support, he hasn’t forgotten his first love. The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani and Asawin Suebsaeng report that Trump regularly turns to Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs for advice on economic issues, and even puts Dobbs on the speakerphone to participate in Oval Office meetings.
Other notable stories
- If you haven’t read or listened to the conversation between Vox’s Ezra Klein and Mark Zuckerberg, it’s worth your time. CJR’s Mathew Ingram parsed Zuckerberg’s responses, highlighting the moment when Zuckerberg got “genuinely peeved” by Klein’s reference to criticisms of Facebook’s advertising-based model from Apple CEO Tim Cook.
- Maggie Haberman, Josh Dawsey, and a team of CNN reporters were honored by the White House Correspondents’ Association for their coverage of the administration’s first year. Politico’s Michael Calderone notes that the choices complicate Trump’s possible attendance at the annual WHCA Dinner.
- This new poll on media trust from Monmouth University is…not good. One topline takeaway: “More than 3-in-4 Americans believe that traditional major TV and newspaper media outlets report ‘fake news,’ including 31% who believe this happens regularly and 46% who say it happens occasionally.”
- For CJR, Elon Green talks with Melissa Gira Grant, who has covered criminal justice and sex workers’ rights for more than a decade, about Stormy Daniels coverage, the prospect of covering sex work as a beat, and whether visible sex worker representation in media would be helpful
- It’s a big month for ESPN, with the debut of morning show Get Up! and the launch of its new standalone subscription streaming service, ESPN+. The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis has some snap observations on Get Up!’s first broadcast, while The Verge’s Chris Welch explains why ESPN+ is so important to Disney’s streaming future.
Correction: An earlier version of this newsletter referred to Lou Dobbs of Fox Business Channel. His show airs on Fox Business Network.
By now you’ve probably seen the video. If not, watch:
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) March 31, 2018
The compilation of local news anchors at stations owned by Sinclair Broadcasting Group reading a corporate-mandated script attacking other outlets for producing “biased and false news” went viral over the weekend. Deadspin’s Timothy Burke wrote that the journalists looked “like hostages in proof-of-life videos, trying their hardest to spit out words attacking the industry they’d chosen as a life vocation.”
CNN first reported on the existence of the “anchor delivered journalistic responsibility message” last month, quoting one Sinclair anchor acknowledging, “this is so manipulative.” In late March, the spots began running on channels from Seattle to Washington, DC.
The Maryland-based Sinclair is the largest owner of local television outlets in the US, controlling nearly 200 stations. Sinclair announced plans last May to acquire Tribune Media Company’s 42 television stations, a move which would expand its reach to nearly three-quarters of American households. It is currently awaiting approval of the deal from government regulators.
With “must-run” commentary from ex-Trump aide Boris Epshteyn and fear-mongering updates from its “Terrorism Alert Desk,” Sinclair has already forced its stations to air commentary that tilts to the right. The latest message, described by more than one observer as “Orwellian,” makes explicit the corporation’s efforts to undermine trust in the press. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer transcribed the message as it ran on local Sinclair station KOMO, part of which reads:
“We’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country. The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media.
“More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories… stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first.
“Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’…This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.”
In part, at least, the message contains a truth. This sort of attack on the press certainly qualifies as “dangerous to a democracy.”
RELATED: What if the right-wing media wins?
Below, more on Sinclair and its insidious message.
- Dissent from within: CNN’s Brian Stelter spoke with journalists at Sinclair stations who voiced disgust over the propagandistic promotion. “It sickens me the way this company is encroaching upon trusted news brands in rural markets,” one reporter told him.
- The view from Maryland: Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik says Sinclair is on its way to becoming the “most reviled TV company in America.”
- What’s at stake: “Encouraging Americans to lose trust in the press is certainly easier than making an argument in favor of a corrupt and possibly criminal @WhiteHouse. Using anchors to convey that message is just Orwellian,” tweeted Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith. “Sinclair Broadcast Group is a public danger, and I don’t say that lightly.”
- John Oliver’s take: The HBO host, who first turned his withering gaze on Sinclair last year, returned to the company last night, saying of it’s new message, “That statement is creepy enough, but when you see just how many local stations were forced to read it and you watch them together…you begin to realize the true effect of Sinclair’s reach and power.”
- Left and right unite: Last summer, Politico’s Jack Shafer noted that Sinclair’s proposed purchase of Tribune’s stations made strange bedfellows of critics from the left and right sides of the political aisle.
Other notable stories
- Today, ESPN launches Get Up, a new morning show that represents one of the network’s “biggest programming swings in years,” according to Variety’s Brian Steinberg. Broadcast from a new studio in New York City, the show features ESPN personalities Mike Greenberg, Michelle Beadle, and Jalen Rose.
- Have you heard that former FBI Director James Comey has a book coming out this month? If not, you soon will, says The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan. “James B. Comey is about to be the focus of a full-on media swoonfest,” writes Sullivan. “It is going to be embarrassing, if you happen to think media coverage should include a healthy dose of critical distance.”
- CJR’s Mathew Ingram explores whether there is “more than a whiff of bias in the media’s coverage of Facebook.”
- On Saturday, President Trump took to Twitter, blasting Amazon and The Washington Post. The Post’s Philip Rucker notes that the president “incorrectly conflated Amazon with the Post and made clear that his attacks on the retailer were inspired by his disdain for the newspaper’s coverage.”
- Will Sommer explains the kooky, Pizzagate-style conspiracy theory that Roseanne Barr has been tweeting about.
The dumbest controversy of the week began Sunday, when former Pennsylvania Senator and CNN contributor Rick Santorum responded to Saturday’s national gun control demonstrations. “How about kids instead of looking to someone else to solve their problem, do something about maybe taking CPR classes or trying to deal with situations that when there is a violent shooter that you can actually respond to that,” Santorum said on CNN’s State of the Union.
This comment, patently ridiculous on its face, wouldn’t be worth mentioning if not for the fact that it, and the response to it, crystallizes one of the worst things about cable news. With the 24-hour news cycle demanding a constant stream of content, Santorum’s comment warranted a write-up on CNN’s website. The next day, the network invited David Hogg, a survivor of the Parkland shooting who has become one of the most visible advocates of gun control, and his sister Lauren on air to rebut Santorum’s suggestion. The content mill churned on.
Santorum’s initial comments received immediate pushback on State of the Union, and The Washington Post rounded up commentary from doctors arguing against his suggestion. Santorum also earned opprobrium from CNN’s own journalists, with White House Reporter Kaitlin Collins writing simply, “I cannot get over how stupid this is.” The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr pointed out the way CNN milked the comments for content, tweeting Monday, “CNN now having commentators discussing the dumbass comments made by a contributor yesterday. A virtuous content circle.”
CNN now having commentators discussing the dumbass comments made by a contributor yesterday. A virtuous content circle pic.twitter.com/X6xigWhOSI
— Jeremy Barr (@jeremymbarr) March 26, 2018
CNN isn’t alone in its willingness to give airtime to contributors making asinine suggestions, but, perhaps because the network casts itself as the serious voice above the partisan fray, comments made on its shows garner outsized anger. When people get frustrated by the shallowness of cable news, this is the sort of thing they’re talking about: a “controversy” sparked by a network contributor, numerous segments discussing said controversy, and two days of content to feed the beast.
Below, more on the reaction to Santorum’s comments and the state of cable news.
- How the media ecosystem works: It wasn’t just CNN that got content out of Santorum’s statement. Politico, The Daily Beast, the Associated Press, HuffPost, The Daily Show, and others (including, obviously, this newsletter) covered the comments and the outrage they caused.
- The pundit-industrial complex: New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi noted on Twitter that Santorum is simply part of a larger industry. “Rick Santorum is a good reminder: the pundit industrial complex functions to keep ex-somebodies alive, + succeeds when ex-somebodies say something stupid or ghoulish, generating outrage (or ‘interest’). The interest secures ex-somebodies a seat at the table, + the cycle repeats,” she wrote.
- The panelization of cable news: Santorum’s comments provide a chance to recommend this excellent piece by The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi examining the way journalists and pundits increasingly share space on cable news.
- An ongoing problem: During the final month of the 2016 election, CJR’s David Uberti (now at Splinter) addressed problems with CNN’s panel approach, writing that “the channel’s model puts CNN journalists in the awkward position of fact-checking CNN contributors in real time.” Nothing, it seems, has changed.
Other notable stories
- Bloomberg’s Joe Nocera goes in on Alden Global Capital’s mismanagement of newspapers that the hedge fund has purchased. Focusing on Alden Global President Heath Freeman, Nocera writes: “In this view, his papers are intended not so much to inform the public or hold officialdom to account, but to supply cash for Freeman to use elsewhere. His layoffs aren’t just painful. They are savage.”
- Liberia’s decision to ban female genital cutting was a triumph for local journalism. For CJR, Mae Azango and Prue Clarke describe their efforts to focus the country’s attention on the issue, and the threats they received in taking on powerful forces in traditional society.
- The Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman reports the strange decision by American Media Inc., the company run by Trump friend David Pecker, to publish a glossy, ad-free magazine celebrating Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudis say they don’t know anything about it, and AMI insists that it received “no outside editorial or financial assistance, from the Trump administration or otherwise.”
- Politico’s Michael Calderone reports that Tanzina Vega, formerly of The New York Times and CNN, will be the new host of The Takeaway. She takes over the nationally syndicated radio show following the dismissal of John Hockenberry, who was accused last year of sexual harassment.
- Facebook has had privacy scandals before, but BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel says the Cambridge Analytica revelations are different. “It’s a moment that forces us, collectively, to step back and think about what we sacrificed for a more convenient and connected world,” he writes.
- Great piece by the San Jose Mercury-News’s Daniel Brown: What’s it like when your competition is also your wife? Brown’s spouse Susan Slusser is the legendary Oakland A’s beat writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he sums up their rivalry with an example from competing stories on a Johnny Damon trade several years ago: “His: ‘Damon could not be reached for comment.’ Hers: ‘Damon, speaking by phone from Hawaii where he is on vacation, said he was excited to come to Oakland.’”
In the days after 17 people were killed at Stoneman Douglas High School, there was an expectation that the horror would captivate coverage, then fade away, as we had seen so many times before. The morning after the shooting, I wrote about the “now-familiar pattern” of media coverage, and was pessimistic that this time would be any different than previous events that had shocked the country, only to slip from the national conversation. But this time, something is different.
Led by media-savvy students from Parkland who refuse to let the moment pass, hundreds of thousands marched against gun violence, giving voice to a nascent movement sparked by the February 14 shooting. But it was the silence of Stoneman Douglas student Emma González that captivated media attention. González, who has become one of the leading figures in the movement, recited the names of those killed, then stood in silence for several minutes, with tears welling in her eyes. She continued: “Since the time that I came out here, it has been six minutes and 20 seconds. The shooter has ceased shooting and will soon abandon his rifle, blend in with the students as they escape and walk free for an hour before arrest. Fight for your lives before it’s someone else’s job.”
How the march played on the front page: pic.twitter.com/CtGfUi2uh4
— Michael Calderone (@mlcalderone) March 25, 2018
The marches, in Washington, DC, and around the country, dominated television coverage and Sunday’s front pages. Serious gun control legislations still seems like a long shot, but the focus of young people has kept the story in the spotlight and their voices show no signs of being silenced.
Below, more on the coverage of Saturday’s marches.
- An iconic moment: “The absence of language, the extended pause for contemplation, remains a rare thing in public discourse, and even rarer onstage,” wrote The Washington Post’s Peter Marks of Gonzáles’s iconic moment. “We were left with the image of a young, grieving woman, drawing our attention not to herself but to something more abstract: to time—the amount it took for a killer to mow down her classmates and teachers.”
- A truly national moment: BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen crowd-sourced images from around the country, focusing on marches that didn’t receive much national media attention. People responded with pictures from Walla Walla, Washington, to Plattsburgh, New York, and dozens of cities in between.
- Beyond Florida: The Parkland teens have taken pains to draw attention to gun violence that affects minority communities. On Saturday, 11-year old Naomi Wadler from Alexandria, Virginia spoke at the rally in DC, saying, “I am here to acknowledge and represent the African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news.”
Sunday evening brought attention back to another story that seemingly won’t go away. It has been two months since The Wall Street Journal first reported that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer made a $130,000 payout to pornographic film star Stormy Daniels in the closing days of the 2016 campaign. Follow-up reporting on the non-disclosure agreement Daniels signed and the alleged affair she and Trump engaged in more than a decade ago has continued to dribble out over the past several weeks. On 60 Minutes, Daniels spoke in public for the first time.
Viewers tuning in for Daniels’s highly anticipated interview were treated to the final minutes of a thrilling NCAA Tournament game (Duke lost, so at least the evening started on a note that could bring everyone together). Once the show finally began, Anderson Cooper began by pressing Daniels over her motivation for going public. He faced a difficult task: keeping the interview focused on the newsworthiness of Daniels story, while not drifting too far into tabloid fare. Early reviews of his performance from journalists were positive.
Anderson Cooper is a very good interviewer.
Case study that being rigorous on substance is different from being huffy and angry in affect.
— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) March 26, 2018
While the conversation did delve into some of the sexual details of Trump’s alleged affair, the real news came from Daniels’s claim that she had been threatened by an unknown man shortly after first going public with her story in 2011. Cooper also focused on the payoff made by Trump’s personal attorney in the closing days of the 2016 campaign, raising questions about whether it violated campaign-finance laws.
Daniels and her lawyer Michael Avenatti have skillfully kept this story in the news, with Avenatti doling out new tidbits of information and hints that there’s more to come in a series of television interviews. In an online companion piece to the interview, Cooper told 60 Minutes, “I think there’s more to come on this story. I’m not saying necessarily on Stormy Daniels’ aspect of the story, but on the methods that were used to keep her silent.”
Some responses to the interview were that it revealed nothing new, and therefore failed to live up to the hype. If that’s true, and talk of alleged intimidation and details of a payout that may have violated the law aren’t serious news, then that says more about what we’ve grown accustomed to during the Trump administration than it does about the merits of the story itself.
Below, more on the interview and the story that Trump hopes will go away.
- No tweets: Trump has remained silent on the story so far, but you have to imagine that he was watching last night.
- Sullivan’s take: The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan gets to the heart of why the story matters: “The Stormy Daniels story is certainly about sex but it’s also—and more importantly—about financial and emotional intimidation.”
- A unique media moment: The embargo for reporting on the 60 Minutes interview lifted at 7pm Eastern time, but because CBS was carrying the college basketball game, the start of the show was delayed. That meant other outlets could post their stories and discuss the contents of the conversation before it actually aired. It left news consumers in the strange position of reading pieces analyzing the interview, like this one by The New York Times’s Jim Rutenberg, before they could see it for themselves.
Other notable stories
- CJR’s “Behind the Story” series is one of my favorite recurring features, and Elon Green’s look at Olivia Nuzzi’s recent profile of Hope Hicks might be the best of the bunch. Nuzzi opens up about her struggle to get to the heart of the notoriously press-shy communications director, and provides insight into the frustrations of covering an administration in which it’s hard to know who to believe.
- The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi tackles a troubling pattern in White House reporting. Reporters will publish a scoop, it will be shot down forcefully by the administration, and then, sometimes only hours later, the story will prove to be true. “This happens often enough that reporters have learned that we can’t trust the denials,” The New York Times’s Peter Baker tells Farhi. “It doesn’t help anyone when reporters have to assume that what the White House tells us may not be true or that a White House statement will prove inoperative just days or even hours later.”
- For CJR, the Committee to Protect Journalists Executive Editor Joel Simon writes about promising press freedom rhetoric from Ecuador’s new president Lenin Moreno. But after years of crackdowns under Moreno’s predecessor, Simon says that the hard work of legal reform has only just begun.
- For Politico, Adam Willis profiles Matt Jones, the outspoken Kentucky sports radio host who plans to oppose Mitch McConnell if the Senate majority leader decides to run for reelection in 2020.
- “The past week has offered a case study in how race shapes empathy and blame,” writes Slate’s Jamelle Bouie in his look at how white killers receive more sympathy than black victims. “To be white, male, and suspected of a serious crime is, in the eyes of police and much of the media, to still be a full individual entitled to respect and dignity,” Bouie writes. “To be black (or to be Muslim or undocumented) is to lose that nuance, even if you’re the victim.”