The Media Today

Top Democrats face tough scrutiny

February 11, 2019

Ralph Northam. Justin Fairfax. Amy Klobuchar. Elizabeth Warren. For the first time in the Trump presidency, multiple senior Democrats are facing sustained bouts of negative coverage all at the same time. The context for this coverage has ranged from the extraordinary (the crisis in governance in Virginia) to the routine (the early phases of presidential primary season), while its subject matter has spanned the extremely serious and the relatively trivial. Taken together, however, it has lent a markedly different tenor to a news cycle that has, since 2016, been saturated by scandals involving Donald Trump.

Eleven days after Big League Politics, a pro-Trump website, dug up a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page, Northam, Virginia’s governor, continues to draw close media scrutiny as he clings to office. In detailed features published over the weekend, both The New York Times and The Washington Post scoured Northam’s rural upbringing for clues as to how he views race, in general, and blackface, in particular. Interviewers, meanwhile, elicited yet more dubious soundbites from the governor. His admission to the Post’s Gregory S. Schneider that “things that I did back in medical school and in San Antonio were insensitive” was curious given Northam’s denial, last weekend, that he was pictured in the racist yearbook photo (his spokesperson later claimed that Northam “misspoke” and had only intended to refer to his residency in San Antonio, where he “darkened [his] face” for a Michael Jackson dance contest). And a preview clip from Gayle King’s interview with Northam, which aired on CBS this morning, circulated widely. “The first indentured servants from Africa” landed in Virginia 400 years ago, Northam said. King interjected: “Also known as slavery.”

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Reporting has kept an aggressive pace, too, around Fairfax, Virginia’s lieutenant governor who is now facing two separate allegations of sexual misconduct. Big League Politics was at the origin of this story, too, but it spread quickly through the mainstream press early last week, before Vanessa Tyson, on Wednesday, and Meredith Watson, on Friday, came forward with public statements respectively alleging assault and rape. Diligent reporting has followed these claims, which Fairfax strongly denies: according to the Times’s Stephanie Saul and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, for example, interviews and documentation show both Tyson and Watson recalled similar details in private exchanges going back several years. Yesterday, political journalists revealed that Fairfax could face impeachment proceedings in the Virginia House—one day after the Times reported Democrats’ concerns about impeaching Fairfax, who is black, while white senior officials who admitted they wore blackface retain their posts.

Away from Virginia, negative stories weighed on two Democratic presidential rollouts this weekend, albeit with a much lesser gravity. In the middle of last week, HuffPost’s Molly Redden and Amanda Terkel reported that at least three people pulled out of the running to manage Klobuchar’s nascent bid due to the Minnesota senator’s past mistreatment of her staff. Former employees told Redden and Terkel that Klobuchar is “habitually demeaning and prone to bursts of cruelty,” which, according to a subsequent story by BuzzFeed’s Molly Hensley-Clancy, have included hurling papers and objects, and berating staffers’ work in all-caps, early-morning emails. While stories about Klobuchar’s campaign launch yesterday mostly mentioned the allegations, however, few led with them, choosing, instead, to focus on her speech’s setting in the middle of a snowstorm. And some observers reacted poorly to HuffPost and BuzzFeed’s reporting, arguing that powerful men rarely face such questioning over their managerial style.

Warren, for her part, merely formalized her presidential ambitions on Saturday—her intentions had been obvious since she took the first steps toward a candidacy on New Year’s Eve, becoming the first Democratic heavyweight to dip a toe in the race. As was true back then, Warren’s widely panned decision, last October, to release a DNA test confirming her Native American heritage haunted coverage of her launch over the weekend. That was partly a response to new reporting: the Post wrote last week that Warren had identified as “American Indian” on her registration card for the Texas Bar. But it was Trump, as is so often the case, who rocketed the DNA test story up the news cycle on Saturday night: in a widely covered tweet, he repeated his “Pocahontas” nickname for Warren, then made an apparent reference to the Trail of Tears. Several outlets also ran stories on comments by Liz Cheney, the Republican representative for Wyoming, after she called Warren a “laughingstock” on CNN.

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The crisis in Virginia, of course, has little substantively in common with the trials and tribulations of the campaign trail. It’s at least noteworthy, however, that Democratic travails have driven the news cycle through the last week or so. Virginia has merited—and has seen—sustained, critical coverage. On the presidential front, however, reporters are clearly still working out which “scandals” deserve weight, and how much weight they deserve. In particular, the continued prominence of Warren’s DNA test—and media chasing after Trump’s tweets about it—does not bode well.

Below, more on the Democrats:

  • Bernie and Beto: “Senator Bernie Sanders would begin a 2020 presidential bid with 2.1 million online donors, a massive lead among low-dollar contributors that is roughly equivalent to the donor base of all the other Democratic hopefuls combined,” the Times’s Shane Goldmacher, Lisa Lerer and Rachel Shorey report. “Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who narrowly lost a Senate race last year, is also poised to be a fund-raising phenom if he runs for president.”
  • “Trash clichés”: Writing for CJR in January, Todd Gitlin took issue with early coverage of Warren’s bid. “Her timing, her tactical acumen, or lack of it, were the journalistic obsession,” he wrote.
  • On the policy front: Away from the presidential race, WNYC’s On The Media podcast assessed the messaging around the Green New Deal, the radical climate agenda touted by progressive Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Other notable stories:

  • Fallout from Jeff Bezos’s Thursday night Medium post accusing the National Enquirer of “extortion and blackmail” continued through the weekend. Yesterday, the attorney representing David Pecker, who runs the Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., denied those charges to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, and rejected the conclusion, reached by private investigators, that the Enquirer’s recent reporting on Bezos’s love life was politically motivated: the source for the story was “somebody close” to Bezos and Lauren Sanchez, the woman with whom he was having an affair, the attorney said. AMI sources told The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay that the Enquirer’s source was Sanchez’s brother, Michael Sanchez.
  • When aides warned Trump that his second summit meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, which is slated for February 27 and 28 in Vietnam, would be less dramatic than last year’s meeting in Singapore, Trump replied that it would “still be must-see TV, and told one confidant that the idea of ‘good vs. evil’ would be irresistible,” the AP’s Catherine Lucey and Jonathan Lemire report. Entering his third year in office, Trump “is starting to air some reruns,” Lucey and Lemire note.
  • ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada has an extraordinary interview with Bob Costas, the iconic former host of Sunday Night Football on NBC who was dropped from last year’s Super Bowl coverage and recently left the network. “The more Costas talked definitively about the connection between football and brain damage, the more it created tension between him, his bosses and the NFL,” Fainaru-Wada writes. “The networks, all of them, dance to the NFL’s tune,” Costas tells him. “Everyone walks on eggshells around the NFL.”
  • For CJR, Shaya Tayefe Mohajer unpacks the case of Marzieh Hashemi, the US-born anchor for Iran’s state-sponsored PressTV who was arrested in St. Louis last month. “Iranian-American journalists have been detained at length in Iran without cause repeatedly in the past,” Mohajer writes. “Hashemi’s arrest, however, marks the first time an Iranian-American journalist has faced detention in the US.”
  • The White House blew off its Friday deadline to tell Congress whether it believes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman holds personal responsibility for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in October. The administration insisted it was not legally obligated to respond to the request, which was lodged last year under the Global Magnitsky Act.
  • Les Moonves has gone (back) to Hollywood. The former CEO of CBS—who quit the network in September amid multiple sexual assault allegations, then was formally fired for cause in December—has opened an “entertainment services” office on Sunset Boulevard, the Times’s David Gelles, Rachel Abrams, and Edmund Lee report. Despite denying Moonves severance pay (a decision Moonves is currently contesting), CBS is paying for his LA office space under the terms of his exit agreement.
  • Turning Point UK, the British branch of Charlie Kirk’s pro-Trump youth movement Turning Point USA, is in turmoil just days after its launch. Prominent British conservatives have distanced themselves from the operation, while “influencers” including Tom Harwood, who writes for a well-known UK political gossip website, have stopped serving as public faces, BuzzFeed’s Alex Spence and Mark Di Stefano report.
  • And John Dingell, the Michigan Democrat whose 60 years in the House made him the longest-serving congressman in US history, dictated his “last words to America” to his wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell, on Thursday, shortly before he died, aged 92. The message was published as a Post op-ed on Friday. “Much as I have found Twitter to be a useful means of expression, some occasions merit more than 280 characters,” he said.

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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.