The Media Today

John Bolton’s passive voice

June 23, 2020

John Bolton’s tell-all book about his time in the Trump administration was supposed to come out on March 17. Then it was supposed to come out on May 12. It didn’t come out on either date, because in both cases, the White House, which Bolton served as national security adviser until September, had yet to complete its prepublication review of Bolton’s manuscript. It’s normal for ex-officials’ books to be swept for classified material, but this time, the president reportedly intervened in the process, calling Bolton “a traitor”; Bolton’s lawyer, in turn, accused Trump of attempted censorship. The book, finally, will come out today—not because the review is now complete, but because Bolton decided he’d waited enough. Last week, Trump went to court in a bid to delay the book once more. Predictably, the judge said no, because copies had already been distributed, including to newsrooms, and because the administration failed to establish that an injunction would prevent “irreparable harm.” The ruling wasn’t all good news for Bolton, though—by publishing without official approval, the judge said, Bolton had “gambled” with national security, and exposed himself to “civil (and potentially criminal) liability.” Bolton may now stand to lose his profits from the book. His advance alone reportedly stood at $2 million.

It would be highly ironic if Bolton were to miss out on his payday; since news of his book broke in January, a narrative has taken hold, across the political spectrum, that he’s less concerned with the public record than with cashing in. (He denies this.) Bolton, of course, could have spilled the beans about Trump much earlier, including as impeachment proceedings took their course. Bolton declined to testify in the Democratic-controlled House, and threatened legal action should he be subpoenaed; he dropped the threat only when the process moved to the Republican-controlled Senate, which—surprise!—never called him. Rather than address the public under oath, Bolton has embarked on a packed media tour. He already gave interviews to ABC’s Martha Raddatz, NPR’s Steve Inskeep, and USA Today’s Susan Page. During the latter, Bolton posed for a photo in which he grinned mischievously as he held his book aloft—a satirical nod to Trump’s recent photo op with a Bible.

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In recent days, the contents of the book (Bolton’s, not the Bible) have driven a litany of headlines—Bolton claims, among other things, that Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help him win reelection, that Trump told Xi that Muslim internment camps are okay, and that Trump asked if Finland is part of Russia. The author hasn’t been spared, either. Many journalists have pointed out Bolton’s delay in speaking up; others have savaged his character. Bolton is “a completely morally odious individual you would not want in your organization or anywhere around you, and yet he is, of course, also a Fox News contributor and at the highest levels of Republican policy-making,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said last week. “John Bolton could spend the rest of his life, like Lady Macbeth, trying to wash the blood off his hands and it would be there still.” Slate’s Fred Kaplan called the book “a scathing indictment … of John Bolton.” Jennifer Szalai, a reviewer at the New York Times, added that the book was badly written. It “toggles between two discordant registers: exceedingly tedious and slightly unhinged,” she said.

Not every journalist is a cable-news host or a literary critic; still, all of us have an interest in timely access to relevant information, and it isn’t a Democratic talking point to say so. It’s outrageous that the Trump administration sought to delay, then block, Bolton’s speech, but Bolton was entirely complicit in that delay. He should have shared what he knew during Trump’s impeachment because doing so would have enhanced the public’s ability to make up its mind about a democratic process—especially one marked, as impeachment was, by media-assisted muddiness around the factual record. The excuse Bolton proffers in his book—that the Democrats committed “impeachment malpractice” by not widening their inquiry to include some of Bolton’s other revelations—is ludicrous on its face. Overzealous classification and court cases are threats to freedom of information. But information is hardly free, either, when it comes months after the fact in exchange for a $2-million check.

Bolton’s claims about Trump are still relevant, of course, and merit widespread attention; unlike many of the impeachment witnesses, Bolton was, as his book’s title reminds us, in The Room Where It Happened. (No, Lin-Manuel Miranda is not best pleased.) The best coverage of the book, however, has been as much about Bolton as Trump. Bolton’s passivity, both as a member of the administration and during impeachment, is instructive of the broader systems and attitudes that shield Trump from accountability. And the book must be read and received, too, through the prism of Bolton’s own bellicose worldview, and the human cost that comes attached to it. (A court can’t order that repaid.) As Kaplan and others have noted, Bolton uses the book, among other things, to advocate for regime change in Iran; at one point, he describes Trump’s decision, last year, to abort a deadly bombing raid on the country as “the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any President do.” As I wrote last year, it’s overly simplistic to say Trump isn’t a hawk—he did ultimately assassinate the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, a longtime Bolton antagonist, after Bolton left the administration. But coverage of the book must bear in mind that Bolton quit, in no small part, because he wasn’t making much headway with his agenda. If he had been, there’s a good chance that he’d still be in office now, and that there’d be no book.

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As Bolton continues his media tour, the journalists who have the chance to speak with him should remember to hold him to account on both his passivity and his actions. An imaginative question from USA Today’s Page already elicited a revealing response. Page asked Bolton if he would have participated in Trump’s Bible photo op—which followed the violent removal of peaceful protesters from the area around the White House—had he still been a member of the administration. “I have to say in all honesty, I probably would have,” Bolton replied. “And I would have regretted it later.” According to Page, it was the only moment of the interview when Bolton seemed “rueful.” It’s a quote that says much more than Bolton’s own grinning photo op.

Below, more on John Bolton and the Trump administration:

Other notable stories:

  • For Vanity Fair, Tom Kludt asked reporters and editors how they’re navigating the return of campaign coverage amid both a pandemic and a historic movement for civil rights. Trump’s weekend rally in Tulsa “almost certainly drew the largest gathering of national campaign reporters since the pandemic began,” Kludt writes; Patrick Healy, an editor at the Times, said that “the city’s bloody racial history, combined with the overlap of the Juneteenth holiday, ‘necessitated being there in person.’” Trump will hold a campaign event in Phoenix today, and New York, Kentucky, and Virginia are holding primaries.
  • Last week, Kevin Roose wrote, for the Times, that while Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have committed publicly to fighting racism, they’ve allowed their products to be hijacked by “racists and partisan provocateurs.” Yesterday, Roose remarked, on the Times’s podcast The Daily, that the tenor of the conversation on the platforms has changed since progressive movements in Egypt, the US, and elsewhere used them to rally support in the early 2010s. “Black Lives Matter is actually much more popular among Americans than it was in 2014,” Roose said. “I think the thing that has changed is social media.”
  • For CJR, Cinnamon Janzer spoke with Dr. Danielle Kilgo, an academic who studies media coverage of protests. In this moment, coverage “usually emphasizes the violence, the disruption to our lives, the confrontation with police, or arrests—the drama,” Kilgo says. “All of that is worthy, of course, but it’s not accompanied by a significant amount of coverage that emphasizes the grievances, agendas, and demands of protesters.”
  • Recently, several news outlets reported claims that three NYPD officers may have been poisoned by Shake Shack milkshakes. In an account of what really happened, the New York Post’s Craig McCarthy writes that the cops “never even got sick, and there wasn’t the slightest whiff of criminality from the get-go—but that didn’t stop gung-ho brass from rolling out the crime scene tape and unions from dishing out empty conspiracy theories.”
  • Last week, the Washington Post said it would create more than a dozen roles focused on coverage of race, including a managing editor for diversity and inclusion. Elsewhere, the Times made changes to its opinion staff following James Bennet’s exit. Mary Suh, a Times veteran, is returning as acting op-ed editor; Charlotte Greensit is joining from The Intercept as a senior editor; and Talmon Smith, a Times opinion staffer, will be promoted.
  • As Congress haggles over spending, the future of Stars and Stripes, a military paper that is part-funded by the Pentagon, is uncertain; the Senate Armed Services Committee recently endorsed the Pentagon’s proposal to strip the paper of its subsidy, but the committee’s House counterpart looks likely to oppose the cut. The Post’s Graham Vyse has more. (I assessed the situation, and its First Amendment implications, in February.)
  • For Undark, Teresa Carr explores the relative lack of female expertise in stories about the coronavirus. “Once you notice the dominance of the (typically White) male expert, it’s hard to un-see it,” Carr writes. “Writing for prominent outlets, journalists have hailed men as scientific heroes of the coronavirus era and defenders of fact.”
  • Gabriel Snyder, CJR’s public editor for the Times, asked the paper to explain the nuances of its stance on corrections. The Times is quick to fix minor factual quibbles, Snyder writes, but in “more difficult cases, often involving questions of news judgment and fairness, the Times can be slower to grapple with its errors.”
  • And to illustrate its latest cover story on de Blasio, New York magazine wheatpasted photos of the mayor around town, and waited for New Yorkers to enhance them. In one instance, someone scrawled “You about to lose your job!!” on de Blasio’s forehead. In another, someone drew a cross through de Blasio’s face and wrote, “NO.”

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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.