Dead air in Singapore

June 12, 2018
Screenshot via CNN

Right around the time that Dennis Rodman pointed at the CNN camera—tears streaming from behind his sunglasses, a “Make America Great Again” hat on his head—and proclaimed his faith in Kim Jong Un, it was clear that coverage of the night had gone off the rails. Over on Fox News, Sean Hannity was showing clips of Ronald Reagan, comparing Donald Trump’s trip to a resort island off the coast of Singapore with “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The media was assembled, special programs in progress, but there wasn’t much to report.

The occasion for this circus was, of course, Trump’s summit with the North Korean leader. The stakes—nuclear negotiations with a reclusive dictator responsible for the horrific oppression of his people—were high. News outlets sent anchors across the world and gave their entire evenings over to live coverage of the event. But after a brief photo-op handshake, Trump and Kim ducked into the Capella hotel, leaving networks with hours to fill with debate, interviews, and b-roll. Enter Rodman.

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The former NBA star is familiar with Trump from his run on The Celebrity Apprentice and Kim from frequent trips to the DPRK. He is, somehow, one of the few people with firsthand knowledge of both leaders, and was in Singapore for the summit. Just after thanking his sponsor, (a marijuana cryptocurrency), former Pistons coach Chuck Daly, and Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, Rodman concluded the interview with an offer of assistance to Trump and Kim, should they need him.

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Back in New York Cuomo turned with an appropriate look of helpless amazement to Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. “It is bizarre to say the least,” Cuomo said. “[Rodman] is our best resource right now for understanding the minds of the two men, especially Kim Jong Un.” Clapper, the man who spent more than six years overseeing the nation’s intelligence agencies nodded, “I agree.”

It felt a little like election night before the returns start coming in. As the summit began, all three cable networks stayed with their usual 9 pm hosts. Fox News and MSNBC usually make a big deal of their hard news reporters, but on an important news night, they chose to anchor with opinion hosts. CNN’s Cuomo, whose show debuted just last week, also got the nod over more seasoned anchors like Wolf Blitzer or Jake Tapper. By the time the 11 pm hour rolled by on CNN, presidential historian Douglas Brinkley was comparing Rodman to John the Baptist.

It wasn’t until after midnight on the East Coast that journalists had something concrete to report. The agreement signed by Trump and Kim has already been criticized for being long on promises and light on policy. The optics of the meeting, with Trump and Kim standing as peers on the world stage, may end up mattering far more than the agreement that came out of it. The communique includes vague promises from North Korea that it remains committed to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but does not contain details about how or when that goal will be met. Separately, Trump said that he was suspending joint military exercises with South Korean forces.

A Trump press conference held after the meeting began with a slick, movie trailer-style clip of North Korea’s possible future, which apparently includes drone-delivered packages, wild horses, and towering skyscrapers. “That was a version of what could happen and take place,” Trump explained during the press conference when asked about the White House-crafted video. “They have great beaches. You see that whenever they are exploding the cannons in the ocean. I said look at that view. That would make a great condo.”

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Trump, appearing relaxed and almost playful after hours of meetings, teased The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker about negative stories, complimented Fox News’s John Roberts on his hair, and praised One America News for its favorable coverage of his administration. “Should we keep going for a little while? It is up to the legendary Sarah Huckabee Sanders,” Trump said more than half an hour into the press conference, which was the first Trump has held since February, 2017. “Should we keep going, Sarah? Okay. I don’t care. It just means we get home later in the evening, right?”

Throughout the evening, various journalists and commentators made attempts to examine serious issues, from the obvious topic of nuclear disarmament to the abuses committed by Kim’s regime. With the principals out of sight, however, reporters were mostly left talking to one another. When Trump finally did appear to speak with the assembled media, he offered an observation late in the press conference that undercut his celebratory bluster. “I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey, I was wrong,’” the president said. “I don’t know I’ll ever admit that. I’ll find some excuse.”

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