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.”
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:
- Comic timing: Maria Bustillos, CJR’s public editor for MSNBC, draws a different cultural parallel with political coverage: that of comic books. “The reduction of political actors to stick figures in a story of Good vs. Evil is a key part of what makes cable news tick,” Bustillos writes.
- A healthy debate: On Tuesday, Bernie Sanders, who had a heart attack last year, appeared to walk back a prior pledge to be fully transparent with his medical records. Last night, he was asked to clarify; in response, he insisted that he has already been open, and compared his medical history to that of Bloomberg, who, like Sanders, has stents. Earlier in the day, Briahna Joy Gray, Sanders’s press secretary, claimed on CNN that Bloomberg “has suffered heart attacks.” (He hasn’t.) Gray later said she misspoke.
- “Contracts of silence”: Also during the debate, rivals challenged Bloomberg to release women who worked for his company from the nondisclosure agreements he had them sign after they sued him. The Nation’s Ken Klippenstein reported yesterday that Bloomberg’s NDAs are not a thing of the past: his campaign is using “overly broad” contracts that “could prevent staffers from reporting workplace abuse and discrimination,” Klippenstein writes. (For more on NDAs and their impact on journalism, read Michelle Dean’s piece on the topic for CJR from 2018.)
- “I hadn’t expected to travel”: One of the moderators last night, Hallie Jackson, of NBC News, is eight-and-a-half-months pregnant, and hadn’t initially expected to travel to Nevada. Ahead of time, InStyle’s Rainesford Stauffer spoke with Jackson and Hauc about their prep for the debate—a forum in which women have traditionally been underrepresented.
- Basic income: Yesterday, CNN signed Andrew Yang, who dropped out of the Democratic presidential race after the New Hampshire primary, as a political commentator. He made his debut last night, noting on air that in his view, Bloomberg didn’t seem well-prepared for the debate.
- Is Twitter real life?: Writing in The Atlantic yesterday, Kenneth S. Baer argued that the Democrats’ debate rules this cycle have distorted the primary process by boosting candidates whose large online followings do not represent the typical Democratic voter. Writing for the Times, Charlie Warzel counters that Twitter actually is representative of the real world—“elites just pretend it’s not.” He adds: “Honest, sustained social media momentum behind candidates does seem to translate into something, even if it’s not clear how much to trust it.”
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday, China expelled Wall Street Journal journalists Josh Chin, Chao Deng, and Philip Wen—“the first time the Chinese government has expelled multiple journalists simultaneously from one international news organization since the country began re-engaging with the world in the post-Mao era,” the paper reports. The expulsions were retaliation for a recent Journal op-ed referring to China as “the real sick man of Asia.” Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, condemned the move, tweeting that “Mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions.” (The same Pompeo recently yelled at an NPR reporter, told her to pinpoint Ukraine on a map, accused of her lying, and booted her colleague from a press trip.)
- Yesterday—three months after it was announced, and two weeks after Trump’s acquittal—The Hill finally published its review into John Solomon, its former executive, and his hotly disputed columns on the Bidens and Ukraine that wound up at the center of the impeachment inquiry. The Hill was sharply critical of some of Solomon’s work, which, it acknowledged, lacked “context and/or disclosure.” (Solomon did not disclose, for example, that Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing, who were centrally involved in the Ukraine affair, were also his personal lawyers.) As a result of the review, The Hill added editor’s notes to Solomon’s columns, and implemented new policies, including a clearer distinction between news and opinion writing, and better newsroom communication.
- For CJR, the journalist Eddy Martinez reflects on Ken Auletta, the New Yorker writer, paying him to hold a place in line ahead of Harvey Weinstein’s criminal trial. Some called the gig demeaning, but, Martinez writes, “In an industry that emphasizes the importance of journalism as a craft and as a calling—and is simultaneously hemorrhaging jobs—it felt refreshing to do something that was clearly and simply transactional.”
- A trio of media tidbits: Bill McKibben, the veteran climate writer and activist, will write a weekly climate newsletter for the New Yorker. After a false start last year, The Markup, a nonprofit investigative news site focused on tech, will launch next Tuesday. And the musician and actor John Legend is joining Vox Media’s board of directors.
- And the Polk Awards were given yesterday. The Times bagged four, including one for the 1619 Project, its ambitious bid to center slavery in the American story. There were prizes, too, for local papers, including Newsday, the Baltimore Sun, and the Wichita Eagle, whose owner, McClatchy, filed for bankruptcy last week.
ICYMI: Governments of the world just ramped up spying on reportersJon 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.