Trump, Stephanie Grisham, and the chaos at the North Korean border

Yesterday, the cameras were rolling as Donald Trump—to applause and a handshake from Kim Jong Un—became the first sitting US president to set foot in North Korea. The footage was shaky and broadcast at 2:45am Eastern time; nonetheless, it was a “made-for-TV moment,” as Politico’s Anita Kumar wrote, twice. Reporters across the US media framed Trump’s brief visit in similar, showy terms. “In terms of sheer performance,” ABC’s Jonathan Karl said, “this may be the biggest moment of the Trump presidency so far.” The Washington Post’s David Nakamura called it “One small step for the 45th president; one giant boost for his television ratings.” Trump, Nakamura writes, has “carefully cultivated elaborately staged moments that, strung together, reveal a president eager to play the roles of producer and director, calling the camera shots, hyping the drama and building public expectations for a big reveal.”

The characterization of Trump as media manipulator recurs so often that it almost feels clichéd. But media optics were clearly front of mind during his weekend maneuverings. On Saturday, the president, who was in Japan for the G20 summit, offered Kim the chance of a meeting via Twitter. Trump seemed well aware of the stakes: if Kim had rejected the invitation, “everybody is going to say, ‘Oh, he was stood up by Chairman Kim,’” Trump said at a news conference in Osaka. He returned to that theme at a conference with Kim in the Demilitarized Zone just south of the Korean border: “you made us both look good” by showing up, Trump told Kim, “and I appreciate it.” During various other press availabilities, Trump assailed the “fake news” media back home, and accused the press of having “no appreciation” for what is being done between the US and North Korea. (The latter gripe followed Trump’s claim that following his first meeting with Kim, in Singapore in 2018, “all of the danger went away”; given that North Korea has not given up its nuclear arsenal since then, this was half-true, at best.)

ICYMI: NYT criticized for ‘callous disregard’ in photo choice, and the issue of images selected by the press

Many outlets sounded similar notes of skepticism; nonetheless, Trump’s visit to the Hermit Kingdom did attract wall-to-wall coverage, its historic nature front and center. The traveling press corps clamored to get footage of Trump’s meetings with Kim and with Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea. At times, the push for access descended into pandemonium. Journalists reportedly scuffled with North Korean security agents. Seung Min Kim, a Post reporter of Korean descent, wrote that an official tried to block her from questioning Trump and Moon because the session was “U.S. PRESS ONLY.” She subsequently was admitted.

A figure we’re going to be hearing a lot more about was at the center of the chaos. Stephanie Grisham, not yet a week into her job as White House press secretary and communications director, reportedly sustained bruises as she pushed North Korean officials aside to grant American journalists access to Trump and Kim; one source told CNN that Grisham had been involved in an “all out brawl.” She was praised for doing so: by habitual Trumpworld boosters like Laura Ingraham, but also by mainstream reporters and commentators. “In this particular moment, it looks like Grisham was taking this aspect of her new role—helping advocate for US access in international press pools—very seriously,” Ali Rogin, of PBS NewsHour, tweeted. CNN’s Brian Stelter assigned “credit where it’s due”; also on CNN, April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, said she “felt sorry” for Grisham. Big diplomatic visits are usually meticulously planned, Ryan noted. This one, apparently, was impromptu.

More press access is always better. But we should be careful before lavishing praise on Grisham. As Frank Bruni asked Stelter yesterday, “Was she doing that for the press or was she doing that for the president?… I assume the main motive there was making sure the press was able to chronicle a moment.” For “moment,” see stunt. It’s the White House press secretary’s job to spin a line, of course. But it should also be their job to provide consistent access and accurate information to the press and the public, and on that score Grisham has a checkered history. In a past life as press secretary for the Republican majority in the Arizona House of Representatives, Grisham contrived rules to yank a journalist’s credentials, apparently in retaliation for his reporting. As Melania Trump’s communications chief (a job she’ll continue to hold down going forward), her interactions with reporters were not always honest. As the Post reported last week, Grisham “is a lot like her predecessor, Sarah Sanders, and her boss, President Trump: combative, critical of the news media and unafraid to say so.”

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Yesterday, during the Trump–Moon news conference, a South Korean official called on Grisham to pick a reporter to ask Trump a question. Grisham gave Trump the chance to choose; “She’s learned very well,” Trump said of Grisham. The president called on Bloomberg’s Margaret Talev, who pointed out that for all the optics, no substantive progress has been made since US talks with North Korea broke down in February. Trump railed that that was “fake news.” Grisham watched on.

Below, more on Trump’s North Korea visit:


Other notable stories:

  • The turbulent American news landscape shifted again over the weekend. The Vindicator, a 150-year-old paper serving Youngstown, Ohio, will shut down in August; in a message to readers, management blamed “great financial hardships” and their failure to find a buyer. In New Orleans, the Advocate officially consumes the rival Times-Picayune today after acquiring it in May. The two papers now operate under a joint masthead; the Times-Picayune brand and some of its staff have been retained, but many are now looking for work. And First Look Media announced plans to shutter Topic Magazine and stop funding comics publication The Nib. The Nib will now be run by its editor, Matt Bors.
  • Thursday night’s Democratic presidential primary debate set a new viewing record for the party: 18.1 million people tuned in, comfortably beating the 15.5-million total that watched Hillary Clinton take on Bernie Sanders in 2015, CNN’s Stelter reports. The debate’s defining moment saw Kamala Harris confront Joe Biden over his record on racial issues; afterward, a slew of far-right accounts attacked Harris on social media. Donald Trump Jr. shared a tweet calling Harris “not an American Black,” then deleted it.
  • More from the right-wing-trolling beat: the Times’s Matthew Rosenberg identified Patrick Mauldin, a Republican operative who makes digital content for Trump’s reelection campaign, as the architect of a “parody” Biden website that has spread disinformation. The site “had a big boost in May when a handful of media outlets—The Daily Caller and CNET, among others—wrote stories about the fake page beating Mr. Biden’s and linked to it. Links from established media websites are weighted heavily by search engines.”
  • For CJR’s latest print issue on journalism around the world, Atossa Araxia Abrahamian makes the case for “a truly cosmopolitan press corps, untethered from national allegiances, regional biases, class divisions, and the remnants of colonial exploitation.” Should the press shape “not national identities, but transnational ones—a sense that we’re all in it together?” she asks. “If it was so important in shaping national identity, can it do so on a global scale?”
  • Late last week, a cartoon by Michael de Adder, a Canadian editorial cartoonist, went viral on social media: it depicts Trump, dressed in golfing attire, asking the Salvadoran migrants who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande last week, “do you mind if I play through?” On Friday, a New Brunswick newspaper group terminated de Adder’s contract with its papers. Brunswick News Inc. said the timing was coincidental; de Adder responded that the group “systematically axed” his cartoons of Trump and a local official.
  • Last night saw the debut, on Showtime, of The Loudest Voice, the long-awaited miniseries, adapted from reporting by Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman, about Roger Ailes and his tenure at Fox News. (Ailes is played by Russell Crowe.) The show “sees the behind-the-scenes culture of sexual assault and the onscreen show of Barnum-ized reactionaryism as two curves of the same lens,” The New Yorker’s Troy Patterson writes.
  • And for our new issue, journalists covering Nigeria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Brazil, South Africa, and Kazakhstan told CJR about the stories in their countries that deserve more international attention.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.