The media today: In Trump’s SOTU, a call for unity followed by words of division

In the hours before Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address as president, the White House touted a bipartisan approach, promising a message of unity. The early moments of Trump’s lengthy address appeared to fulfill those projections, with the president saying, “Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people.” But 80 minutes later, after a focus on divisive issues like immigration, the cable news consensus was that any attempts at bipartisanship had come up short.

“If that was an attempt at unity, he’s got a lot of work to do,” Chuck Todd said on MSNBC. Fox News’s Chris Wallace referenced The Godfather: On immigration, Trump was “making an offer the Democrats couldn’t accept.” Jake Tapper said Trump had “one hand reaching out…to Democrats, and with the other hand, [he was] holding up a fist.”

Sticking closely to the prepared text, Trump spent much of the evening touting the accomplishments of his first year. The most praised moments of the speech were his recognition of several guests, especially an emotional moment in which a North Korean defector stood and raised his crutches to a standing ovation from the chamber.

Following Trump’s joint address to Congress last February, you might remember, cable news faced blowback for over-the-top praise. Many cable news commentators offered more critical takes this time around. CNN’s Van Jones, who last year said Trump “became president” in a moment of that joint address, changed his tune this year, saying, “[Trump] was selling sweet tasting candy with poison in it.” But some disagreed with the measured takes. Cable fixture Frank Luntz was the most effusive, writing on Twitter: “This speech represents the presidential performance that Trump observers have been waiting for—brilliant mix of numbers and stories, humility and aggressiveness, traditional conservatism and political populism. Only one word qualifies: Wow.”

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In print, The Washington Post took criticism for parroting the White House spin in an initial five-column headline touting “a call for bipartisanship.” Later editions were switched to “A ‘new American moment.’” The New York Times’s top headline also focused on Trump’s “appeal for unity,” though the paper’s lead story on the speech noted that the address was “remarkably devoid of new policies.”

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As many commentators noted, the State of the Union is largely an exercise in political theater. It rarely moves the needle in any major way, and reactions from varying points on the political spectrum are fairly predictable. Analysis of the address is continuing to dominate coverage this morning, but the focus will soon return to a fierce debate over immigration policy, the looming specter of Robert Mueller’s investigation, and a partisan squabble over a secret memo.

Until then, more on the reaction to Trump’s first State of the Union.

  • Troubles of a salesman: The New York Times’s Peter Baker writes that “the challenge for Mr. Trump is that even as he sells the economy with the fervor of a real estate developer, he has not been able to sell himself.
  • Tough backdrop: While Trump tried to present a positive message, The Washington Post’s Dan Balz says that “controversies, including of his own making, followed him into the House chamber.
  • Fact check: Several outlets ran live fact checks of the speech, and apparently there was enough interest that PolitiFact’s site crashed for several minutes in the middle of the address. It’s back up now, with a full report.
  • Tabloid obsession: In pre-speech programming, all three cable networks noted that First Lady Melania Trump broke with tradition by traveling to the Capitol alone. CNN went further than others in speculating that the First Lady’s decision was connected with reports that Trump had paid off an adult film actress to cover up an affair.
  • Talking head roundup: Politico’s Jason Schwartz has a good summary of the post-speech chatter.


Other notable stories

  • A team of my CJR colleagues published the findings of our survey on newsroom harassment. More than 300 journalists responded, with 41 percent saying they had been subject to harassment in their newsrooms or as freelancers, but only one third had reported those incidents. The accounts, from everyday struggles to physical violence, are presented in their own words.
  • Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo has a look at the final days of Time Inc.
  • Poynter’s Kristin Hare talks with editors around the country about Facebook’s planned changes that promise to emphasize local news. “I’m cautiously optimistic, with the emphasis on the caution,” Dallas Morning News Managing Editor Robyn Tomlin tells her.
  • For CJR, Yardena Schwartz writes about the difficulties foreign reporters are facing placing their stories in a world obsessed with Trump. “There’s always more of a response when I have a Trump peg,” one freelancer says.
  • Variety’s Janko Roettgers reports that Vice has fired Chief Digital Officer Mike Germano following an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against him.

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.