The Media Today

Cohen’s answers drown out North Korea questions

February 28, 2019

Kim Jong Un took a question. Amid a last burst of camera noise as press were ushered out of a photo op with Kim and President Trump in Vietnam, David Nakamura, a reporter with The Washington Post, shouted, “Chairman Kim, are you confident, feeling good about a deal?” The room fell silent as Kim, his arm propped on a wooden table, slowly turned to an interpreter behind him and started to answer. “It’s too early to tell. But I wouldn’t say that I’m pessimistic,” he said. “From what I feel right now, I do have a feeling that good results would come out.”

Overnight, nuclear talks between Trump and Kim collapsed. According to Trump, the US wasn’t prepared to accept full sanctions relief in exchange for partial denuclearization; “Sometimes you have to walk,” he said. Nakamura’s question, nonetheless, was a breakthrough: it marked the first time Kim has ever engaged with a foreign journalist. Prior to the summit’s premature ending, Kim took a second shouted question from a reporter, suggesting he would welcome the opening of a US liaison office in Pyongyang. “This is a good phenomenon, the global media should continue to ask him questions as much as possible,” Korea expert Duyeon Kim told the Post’s John Hudson. “It’s best to hear what North Korea thinks directly from Kim himself.”

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For the press gathered in Hanoi, that was as good as things got. On Tuesday, traveling journalists were kicked out of the hotel they were using as a base because Kim was staying there; the White House had approved the media’s use of the hotel, and TV crews had spent weeks rigging their equipment there. Once the summit started, reporters complained that their access to pool sprays was limited. On Wednesday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, barred four reporters from covering a dinner with Trump and Kim: an apparent retaliation for earlier shouted questions about Michael Cohen’s concurrent Congressional testimony in Washington. After photojournalists threatened not to photograph Trump in protest, Sanders let in one print reporter, from The Wall Street Journal. The AP, Bloomberg, the LA Times, and Reuters were left in the cold.

At a press conference after the summit collapsed, Trump did field one question about Cohen: “I wasn’t able to watch too much as I’ve been a little bit busy,” he said, then got into the details of Cohen’s testimony regardless. Cohen’s testimony may have distracted the president; either way, it overshadowed his summit, getting wall-to-wall coverage in the US. While Trump’s abrupt abandonment of nuclear talks leads many news websites this morning, it’s not clear that the story has staying power. The break-up lacked drama—it was amicable, Trump said—and means the press has nothing new to chew on in the days to come.

The Cohen story, by contrast, looks set to run. While the biggest bombshells dropped in advance of his testimony, Cohen’s tantalizing suggestion that Trump may be in greater legal jeopardy than we realized leads stories by the Post, NBC, and others this morning. Beyond those hints—and despite obvious doubts as to Cohen’s credibility—the seven-hour hearing was absorbing: winding together key threads of the Trump investigations story, adding color to the president’s character, and emphasizing the depth of partisan division among our politicians. Comparisons to John Dean, the White House counsel during Watergate who became a key witness, followed. On NBC, Chuck Todd called Cohen’s testimony “the first unofficial hearing of the impeachment process”; CNN patched actual John Dean in to talk about it.

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It is, lest we forget, extraordinary that a sitting US president has met twice, in less than a year, with a North Korean dictator. Extraordinary, too, that that dictator took questions from US news outlets. But extraordinary questions tend to get less media attention than extraordinary answers. Over the past 48 hours, those came neither from Kim nor from Trump, but from a spurned former fixer back in Washington, DC.

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Below, more on yesterday’s two huge stories:

  • The voice of America? As the summit collapsed, confusion reigned in the international media center, the Times’s Motoko Rich reports. At one point, Japanese reporters starting interviewing a journalist from Voice of America, mistaking him for a US government spokesperson. A crowd of reporters quickly swarmed round, then realized the error. “You’re just journalists?” one said in disgust. “Oh my god, why did I run over here?”
  • Right-Han man: Politico’s Eliana Johnson charts Hannity’s international access to the president. “Hannity has chased Trump around the globe, from Singapore to Helsinki to Hanoi, for interviews with the president, offering up softball questions at pivotal moments of the Trump presidency,” she writes. “The result? The first snapshot of history gets filtered through a sympathetic lens.”
  • Civilian oversight: For The New Yorker, Doug Bock Clark looks at the non-government actors that have challenged the Trump administration’s (up-to-now) positive narrative on North Korea. “As commercial satellite photography has become significantly cheaper and more powerful—to the point that it rivals that of intelligence agencies—civilian experts have been able to monitor North Korea’s nuclear program,” he writes. “What they are seeing differs dramatically from what the Administration has been saying.”
  • An implicit instruction: As expected, Cohen addressed—in part, at least—BuzzFeed’s explosive January story that Trump instructed Cohen to lie to Congress about his Trump Tower Moscow project, and that Robert Mueller’s office had evidence proving it: Cohen said the instruction was implicit, not explicit. Last week, Jason Leopold, the report’s co-author, told CJR’s Sam Thielman he’s sticking by his story.
  • Czech mates? Cohen told lawmakers that he has never visited Prague. That runs counter to a December report by McClatchy, which claimed cell-phone signals placed Cohen in the Czech city at the height of the 2016 presidential campaign. The report linked Cohen to a possible meeting with Russian officials.
  • Blood from a Stone: After Cohen testified that Roger Stone spoke with Julian Assange about WikiLeaks’s planned dump of Democratic emails in 2016 (and told Trump about it), Stone texted BuzzFeed’s Zoe Tillman to say “Mr. Cohen’s statement is not true.” Stone is currently under a gag order; it’s unclear if the message violated it. Also yesterday, Amy Berman Jackson, the federal judge in Stone’s case, dismissed his claim that CNN was tipped off so it could film his arrest in January—puncturing a popular right-wing narrative.
  • The browntail caterpillar: CJR’s Betsy Morais has this analysis of Cohen’s testimony: “Cohen’s defense, pathetic as it sounds, seems a lot like ours. ‘Mr. Trump is an enigma,’ he said. ‘He is complicated, as am I. He has both good and bad, as do we all.’ … To the extent that the press legitimized and fostered Trump, the reckoning is not over.”

Other notable stories:

  • The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan explores why a Lifetime series accelerated accountability for R. Kelly, and why traditional investigative journalism failed. (Kelly was arrested last week on 10 counts of sexual abuse, including of minors.) “Some of what has happened was simply the power of how the story was told in the TV series, and whom it reached—a younger, more diverse audience than that of traditional journalism, told in text, whether on newsprint or online,” Sullivan writes.
  • In Hong Kong, newspapers controlled by the Chinese government are using the tools of journalism to surveil, harass, and discredit independence activists, The Globe and Mail’s Nathan VanderKlippe reports. “It’s a kind of innovation with potential global ramifications, since Hong Kong is often used as a piloting area for strategies subsequently used elsewhere,” he writes.
  • For CJR’s new print issue, Sadia Latifi, a former journalist, recounts what it was like to become the subject of a documentary about boy band fangirls. The filmmaker “was able to see things I couldn’t see about myself,” Latifi writes. “She went in with an open mind, asked thoughtful questions, built trust, edited and re-edited. In the end, I’m glad to have had a part of my life captured.”
  • Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen explores the Times’s opinion desk’s pivot to YouTube video. “You might be surprised by the swearing. And the Facebook snark. And the variety of video styles. And that these are things your non-news-junkie friends might actually want to watch,” she writes. “The videos are attracting new audiences at a moment when the Times is extremely focused on subscriber growth.”
  • And also in our print issue, Amber A’Lee Frost explains why the left can’t stand the Times. The paper “is the flagship publication for liberal triumphalism,” she writes. “It holds the line of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’—the notion that all serious ideological conflict crashed to a halt with the suspension of the Cold War, with very little at stake in future political disputes.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.