The Media Today

When is a ‘quid pro quo’ not a quid pro quo?

November 8, 2019

In recent weeks, as the term “quid pro quo” has rattled around the news cycle, journalists have sought to explain what it means. Not long after the Ukraine scandal broke, Merrill Perlman, CJR’s language expert, laid out the “shady roots” of quid pro quo, which entered English in the 1500s and meant the substitution of one drug for another at an apothecary. A couple weeks later, NPR’s Rachel Martin dissected the term, too. “The whole idea of a ‘quid pro quo’ is so fundamental to the human experience,” she said. “We’ve got all kinds of ways to say it: ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’; ‘one hand washes the other’; or… ‘I-O-U.’”

Is “quid pro quo” adequate to describe Trump’s apparent misconduct in the Ukraine case? A president threatening to withhold military aid to a country unless it offers dirt on a domestic political rival, as Trump did, is not merely trading favors. This week, more people have pointed that out. On Tuesday, John Garamendi, a Democratic Congressman from California, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the accurate words here are “bribery and extortion. Those are criminal charges.” On Fox, Eric Swalwell, also a California Democrat, made a similar argument. On Wednesday, on Chris Hayes’s MSNBC show, Melissa Murray, a constitutional law professor at NYU, used the word “shakedown” to refer to Trump’s actions: “A quid pro quo generally means exchanging something for something,” she said, “and it seems like the Ukrainians wanted no part of this.” Hayes concurred. “I’ve covered Chicago politics; you can have consensual bribery,” he said. “That’s not the picture that’s painted here.” The same night, on CNN, Chris Cuomo told Chris Ruddy, the Trump-friendly CEO of Newsmax, that “this is arguably an attempt to bribe the president of Ukraine”; when Ruddy disputed that characterization and referred instead to a quid pro quo, Cuomo snapped back, dismissively, that “quid pro quo is Latin.” In the past 24 hours, the Washington Post, CNN, and Talking Points Memo all published op-eds urging Democrats—and the press, too—to drop “quid pro quo.”

ICYMI: Twitter hates me. The Des Moines Register fired me. Here’s what really happened.

Interview transcripts published throughout the week by impeachment investigators confirm that a deal—whatever you want to call it—was offered. (Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff, previously admitted this, then tried to walk it back.) The same transcripts suggest that Ukraine was extremely reluctant to take the deal. Yesterday, Andrew E. Kramer, of the New York Times, filled in more details: Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, understood that meddling in US politics could be ruinous for him. As a candidate, he had pledged to end politically-motivated investigations. In the end, he agreed to the probes Trump wanted, but only because of his country’s desperation for military aid. (Ukraine is still fighting a hot war against Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country.) Zelensky was all set to announce the investigation on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show, on September 13, when, as Kramer puts it, he got “a stroke of luck”—news of the aid became public in the US, forcing the White House to release the money without political strings attached.

Now that we know more about what happened, it seems clear that “quid pro quo” is inadequate. There is no transactional idea of “this for that” when “this” is conspiratorial political intrigue and “that” is a matter of life and death. Quid pro quo can imply wrongdoing, or a power imbalance—but it doesn’t necessarily do that. Isn’t the aim of journalism to tell a true story as clearly as possible?

It’s never easy for the press to ditch a common term. We’re downstream of politicians: if bureaucrats and partisans continue to say something, it makes it hard for journalists not to. But this is more than pedantry; the stakes could hardly be higher. More and more, Republicans are making it a central talking point that there’s nothing wrong with quid pro quos—that they are the lingua franca of foreign policy. The disingenuousness of that argument becomes much easier to explain when you swap out “quid pro quo” for “bribery” or “extortion.” To be sure, those words require their own scrutiny as legal concepts, and their application here is messy. The goal should be to use language that’s as precise as possible. That means not letting “quid pro quo” dominate impeachment coverage at the expense of the real story.

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Below, more on quid pro quos, and the Ukraine scandal:

  • Wishy-washiness: Eugene Robinson, of the Post, is among those calling for the demise of quid pro quo, which he calls “a namby-pamby, wishy-washy way” to describe what Trump did with Ukraine. “One thing Trump understands is the value of simplicity and repetition in getting a message across. Those seeking to hold him accountable through impeachment,” Robinson writes, “must heed that same lesson.”
  • The whistleblower: In recent days, the supposed name of the whistleblower whose complaint kickstarted the impeachment process has circulated in right-wing media. Major outlets have steered clear of repeating it, including Fox News. But yesterday, Lars Larson, a conservative radio host, dropped the name during a guest appearance on Fox. Others at Fox maintain that they haven’t confirmed the whistleblower’s identity—but Larson told the Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr that network bosses “didn’t say a thing” to him after he used the name.
  • Low Barr: On Wednesday night, the Post reported that Trump wanted William Barr, the attorney general, to say, at a news conference, that the president’s call with Zelensky broke no laws. (Barr has not done so.) Yesterday, Trump attacked the authors of the story—Matt Zapotosky, Josh Dawsey, and Carol Leonnig—by name, calling them “lowlife reporters.” (So much for canceling his Post subscription.)
  • Quid pro quinoa: Defending Trump against the impeachment push on Fox, Matt Gaetz, the Republican Congressman from Florida, accused reporters of “a worldview where you eat nothing but kale and quinoa, where those of us who to cling to our bibles, and our guns, and our fried foods in real America are looked down upon.”

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR, Lucy Schiller profiles Eric Sorensen, a meteorologist with WQAD News 8, in Iowa. “One gets the sense, spending time with Sorensen, that he’s interested in matters of scale,” Schiller writes. “In how to present, as a broadcast meteorologist beloved in this corner of the river, the global climate crisis in ways that make sense to his community and, inversely, in how to translate local weather events into larger climate patterns.” CJR and The Nation are leading Covering Climate Now, an initiative to improve coverage of the climate crisis. We have a progress report out this morning.
  • Michael Bloomberg is running for president. Maybe. Yesterday, the Times reported that Bloomberg is set to file paperwork in Alabama, where the deadline to enter the Democratic primary is today, though he may not follow through. If Bloomberg does run, it’s unclear what will become of his eponymous news site; he mused last year that he might cut its political coverage because “quite honestly, I don’t want all the reporters I’m paying to write a bad story about me.” Bloomberg’s putative bid comes amid rising panic—stoked by the super-rich and amplified by the press—about the candidacy of Elizabeth Warren. John F. Harris, the former editor in chief of Politico, says coverage of Warren is shaped by “a centrist bias,” and that its assumptions might all be wrong.
  • In May, ahead of elections in India, Aatish Taseer, a British-Indian journalist, wrote a cover story for Time magazine on Narendra Modi, India’s divisive Hindu-nationalist prime minister. Yesterday, the country revoked Taseer’s overseas citizenship (which effectively counts as dual nationality). “I had expected a reprisal, but not a severing,” Taseer writes. “It is hard not to feel, given the timing, that I was being punished for what I had written.”
  • Following the closure of Splinter and the hollowing out of Deadspin, the New Republic’s Alex Pareene laments the death of the rude press. “The defining quality of rude media is skepticism about power,” he writes. “In the elite press—on cable news, in newspaper opinion sections—you can say the most monstrous things imaginable, as long your language is polite. What you can’t do is rudely express a desire for a more just world.”
  • Yesterday, Bustle cut eight staffers and some of its freelancers. One of those affected told CNN’s Kerry Flynn that the news came “out of the blue”; in a statement to CNN, Bustle didn’t even acknowledge the layoffs, instead touting recent hires and an impending “site relaunch.” (ICYMI, Lyz Lenz profiled Bryan Goldberg, owner of Bustle, for CJR.)
  • In Canada, unidentified assailants burned down the offices of the Turtle Island News, an indigenous newspaper serving the Six Nations Territory in Ontario. The attack took place last week; according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, no one was hurt, but the fire caused more than $100,000 in damage, including to the publication’s photo archive.
  • In Brazil, Augusto Nunes, a far-right journalist, physically attacked Glenn Greenwald, of The Intercept, during the live taping of a radio show; Greenwald had confronted Nunes over an accusation that Nunes had once made that Greenwald neglects his kids. BuzzFeed has more. In August, Adriana Carranca wrote for CJR about other threats Greenwald has faced in Brazil.
  • And research by the University of Minnesota, the News Media Alliance, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune found that people who pay for Netflix, Spotify, and other entertainment services are more likely than others to have a digital news subscription.

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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.