The Media Today

Fight night in Las Vegas

February 20, 2020

Here are some things that happened in the last 48 hours. President Donald Trump continued a week-long Twitter crusade against his own Justice Department, slamming its prosecutions of his associates Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, and repeatedly retweeting claims by Tom Fitton, of the right-wing group Judicial Watch, that Trump was the victim of a “seditious conspiracy out of DOJ/FBI,” and should have the agencies cleaned out. The president declared himself “the chief law enforcement officer of the country”; Attorney General William Barr, who most people would agree is actually the chief law enforcement officer of the country, reportedly threatened to resign if the president didn’t stop tweeting. Trump pardoned numerous white-collar criminals—one of whom, Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor, was convicted of trying to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat and shaking down a children’s hospital, among other felonies—seemingly because his TV told him to. Yesterday, in a press conference outside his home in Chicago, Blagojevich, who served as a Democrat, declared himself a “Trumpocrat” as blood dripped from his chin. (He hadn’t used a normal razor in a while, he said.) In London, lawyers for Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, told a court that Trump said he’d pardon him, too—if he stated publicly that Russia had nothing to do with the hacking of the Democratic Party in 2016. Back in America, E. Jean Carroll, the advice columnist, said that Elle magazine fired her because of Trump’s mocking response to a rape allegation Carroll made against him last summer.

Any one of these developments would have driven a normal news cycle for days, if not weeks; even in the Trump era, which we’ve lived on fast forward, they’d normally have more staying power. But there is too much news right now. Exacerbating the crush, our attention turned, last night, to Las Vegas, where the Democrats hoping to replace Trump—including, for the first time, Michael Bloomberg—debated ahead of the Nevada caucuses on Saturday. Ahead of time, both the candidates and the news media seemed eager for a fight—a natural response, perhaps, to the maddening chaos all around. “We’re in Las Vegas, which is the capital of the boxing world. This is where you wanna see those big fights,” Jonathan Allen said on NBC News, just before the debate got underway. (NBC hosted it, alongside MSNBC, Noticias Telemundo, and the Nevada Independent.) “What these folks are all fighting for is a chance at the champ—at Donald Trump.”

ICYMI: Contracts of silence

In the night’s first exchange, Elizabeth Warren struck an early blow. “I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians,’” she said. She was talking about Bloomberg, not Trump. That set the tone. Coverage eagerly channeled it. Warren, we were told, had practically murdered Bloomberg. HuffPost ran the banner headline “BLOOMBERG TERMINAL,” a pun on the financial information terminals that made his fortune; the New York Post went with “BLACK AND BLOOM,” and an image of a bruised Bloomberg with Band-Aids on his face. There were less violent metaphors, too: NowThis referred to the debate as a whole as “Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 candidate roast”; the Times called it “a cocktail of conflict—every candidate onstage has attacked somebody else before the first commercial break.” Going into that break, Lester Holt, one of the moderators, laughed, and said, “Clearly, everybody is warmed up.” Afterward, we went back to boxing: the candidates had “come out swinging” “from the opening bell” and delivered a TV “knockout.” For at least the third time following a debate, we heard that this one was the most combative yet. (Won’t anyone please think of the wine cave?!)

In many respects, the combativeness was welcome. Arguments about health care and other topics were both substantive and animated—a balance that has proven elusive since Kamala Harris and Joe Biden’s exchange on race eight months and nine debates ago. Bloomberg faced tough, overdue journalistic scrutiny—not only on his past policy positions, but on his past language, too. Some questions were more trivial than others, and there were no foreign policy questions at all. (All the news over here surely contributed to that.) But there was a useful exchange on the climate crisis, sharpened by moderators Jon Ralston and Vanessa Hauc, who respectively, offered concrete, Nevada-specific stakes, and a career’s worth of climate-reporting expertise.

As I’ve written before, conflict can be illuminating. We saw that last night. And yet our post-game discussions and coverage continued to highlight personal feuds and sick burns ahead of weightier matters. For all the references to boxing, we arguably treat debates more like pro-wrestling—as being more about entertainment, and characters, and smackdowns than a real contest. As FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone noted on Twitter last night, “Our political process is now basically just voters deciding which candidate they think will ‘perform best’ in a series of television events this coming fall against Trump via a series of television events this spring.”

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Trump, of course, has dabbled in the world of pro-wrestling. In his insightful book on Trump and television, James Poniewozik, TV critic at the Times, makes this link, with specific reference to wrestling’s porous boundary between the real and the fake; in 2016, Trump, like the WWE, didn’t care if you thought he was real or artificial, “as long as you bought the pay-per-view.” That’s still his strategy in 2020, and this week has been a case in point. Trump’s pardons, and broader assault on the justice system, are all part of a lib-owning, virtue-signaling show—directly inspired by, and tailored for consumption on, TV. Unlike in wrestling, the consequences—for the rule of law, in this case—are very real. Those stakes require us to stay focused on the real through the artifice, especially when there is so much news to digest. Yet we continue to buy the pay-per-view—even when Trump isn’t on the screen.

Below, more on the debate:

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Governments of the world just ramped up spying on reporters

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.