The Media Today

Aggressive reporting sows the seeds for Zinke departure

December 17, 2018

On Saturday morning, Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs scooped that Ryan Zinke is stepping down as interior secretary. Fourteen minutes later, President Trump confirmed the news in a tweet (according to Jacobs, an announcement had originally been scheduled for Wednesday). The story dropped less than 24 hours after Trump tapped Mick Mulvaney to be his acting chief of staff, ending a frustrating search process. Zinke thus prolonged the latest Apprentice-style news cycle to emanate from the White House, which has seen more than its share of personnel churn since Trump became its headhunter-in-chief.

With Trump’s own pre-election conduct dominating headlines, the Zinke story put Trump’s post-election appointees back in the spotlight. Bloomberg’s Jacobs and Jennifer A. Dlouhy report that Zinke wanted out before the incoming Democratic majority in the House could get its teeth into ethics scandals swirling around his travel arrangements, political activities, and potential conflicts of interest (the Interior Department’s inspector general has reportedly opened at least seven investigations into his conduct). According to The New York Times’s Julie Turkewitz and Coral Davenport, meanwhile, Zinke’s exit was not entirely of his own volition: White House officials warned him that he should jump by year’s end or risk being pushed.

ICYMI: “I wasn’t banned—at least, not as far as I can prove”

As was the case for former colleagues like Tom Price and Scott Pruitt, Zinke’s downfall is attributable, in no small part, to aggressive journalism. Most notably, in June, Politico’s Ben Lefebvre and Nick Juliano linked Zinke and his wife to a lucrative real estate deal involving the chairman of Halliburton, an oil services company with a strong interest in Interior Department plans to relax exploration and drilling regulations on public land. While Zinke denied wrongdoing, the report triggered a departmental probe, part of which was subsequently forwarded to the Justice Department. Last year, meanwhile, Politico also revealed that Zinke splurged more than $14,000 on helicopter travel to official events near DC. That turned out to be part of a pattern: Interior’s inspector general this year criticized Zinke’s use of a charter plane following dinner with a major donor’s hockey team, then rebuked him for allowing his wife to travel in government vehicles.

Over the weekend, the media seemed to get less credit for Zinke’s ouster than it did in the cases of Price, who resigned as health and human services secretary last year following a Politico investigation into his own travel habits, and Pruitt, who quit in July after months of embarrassing headlines highlighted progressively more ridiculous ethics breaches. The more muted reaction this time could be attributable to the lag between the most aggressive reporting on Zinke and his departure, or to the impassable bar Pruitt set for scandal, or simply to the breathless Trump–Mueller news cycle.

Whatever the reason, journalists covering the Interior Department and other arms of the federal bureaucracy deserve credit for their reporting, which has not let up despite the all-consuming nature of the Trump news cycle. Over the weekend, that reporting continued apace: the Times’s Turkewitz wrote yesterday that Zinke’s legal woes will probably continue despite his resignation, while several outlets focused on his likely interim replacement, David Bernhardt, a former oil, gas, and water industry lobbyist who, as Zinke’s deputy, crafted many of the Interior Department’s damaging environmental regulations. As was the case with Pruitt earlier this year, a scandal-plagued politician may have resigned, but his agenda lives on. It’s good to see the press focusing on that.

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Below, more on Ryan Zinke and the press:

  • “I wasn’t banned—at least, not as far as I can prove”: Late last year, Elliott Woods wrote an insightful profile of Zinke for Outside, which included an anecdote about Zinke rigging his fly-fishing reel backwards. That seemed to touch a nerve: Outside was blocked from joining a subsequent conference call with Zinke. Woods recounted the episode in a piece for CJR.
  • A bizarre comeback: After Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, called on Zinke to resign in a USA Today op-ed earlier this month, Zinke hit back that it was “hard for [Grijalva] to think straight from the bottom of the bottle.”
  • Parachute reporting: For Energy & Environment (E&E) News, Corbin Hiar visited Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana—population: 7,600—which has been at the center of some of his scandals, including Politico’s Halliburton story. Thanks to Zinke, Whitefish “has been inundated with calls and visits from national reporters, helping to create newfound political tensions and animosity toward Zinke and other newsmakers,” Hiar writes.
  • “Truth to power”: In October, Anne Helen Petersen reflected on the state of journalism in Montana as part of a series of dispatches CJR published prior to the midterms. Of Politico, rather than a local outlet, breaking the Halliburton story, Petersen wrote: “As this sort of in-depth investigative reporting continues to fall to national outlets, it might help inoculate the local newspapers from continued cries of liberal ‘bias.’ But what’s lost in the process? To develop trust between a local publication and its readership, you have to do more than deliver the news with consistency and speed. You also have to speak truth to power.”

Other notable stories:

  • Ten days after CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported fears for The Weekly Standard’s future, its owners, MediaDC, announced on Friday that they are shuttering the conservative magazine. Its final issue publishes today. Staffers were told to sign a non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreement in return for severance pay, Darcy reports. John Podhoretz, who cofounded the Standard with Bill Kristol in 1994 and now edits Commentary magazine, called the Standard’s closure “an intellectual and political crime.”
  • The Washington Post’s Craig Timberg and Tony Romm got their hands on a report—drafted for the Senate Intelligence Committee by researchers at Oxford University—offering “the most sweeping analysis yet of Russia’s disinformation campaign around the 2016 election… [which] used every major social media platform to deliver words, images and videos tailored to voters’ interests to help elect President Trump—and worked even harder to support him while in office.” The findings are expected to be made public today alongside a second report on Russian disinformation.
  • Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn and Josh Gerstein describe reporters’ inventive efforts to cover Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s apparent attempts to subpoena a recalcitrant witness, which continued amid high secrecy on Friday. “One television network reporter even stood guard at the top of a ramp leading to a secure parking garage where Mueller’s team has been known to bring in clandestine grand jury witnesses,” the pair write. In an insightful piece over the weekend, the Post’s Roxanne Roberts wrote that Mueller “is the most unknowable man in Washington.”
  • CJR’s Andrew McCormick spoke with Sammy Sussman, a music major at the University of Michigan who last week exposed four decades of sexual assault and misconduct allegations against a violin professor at the school in a long investigative feature for The Michigan Daily. After Sussman’s piece was published, the professor, Stephen Shipps, stepped down as head of two university programs. He is currently on leave.
  • The insurance company Pacific Life pulled advertisements from Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, at least for now, after Carlson suggested mass immigration makes the US “dirtier” on Thursday night, The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr reports. As outrage at the death of Jakelin Caal, a 7-year-old from Guatemala who recently died of dehydration and exhaustion in the custody of US border agents, swelled across the media, Fox attracted further scrutiny over on-air comments. On Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen blamed Caal’s family in remarks on Fox & Friends. Later, former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, standing in for Sean Hannity, said the message from Caal’s death should be “Don’t make this journey, it will kill you.”
  • Tribune Publishing (formerly known as tronc) rejected a takeover bid from McClatchy last week, Bloomberg’s Nabila Ahmed reports. Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor weighs what the failure of the deal means for the local news landscape.
  • Late last week, police in Nicaragua “raided, ransacked, and commandeered” the offices of news website Confidencial, The Guardian’s Tom Phillips reports—another worrying development in President Daniel Ortega’s brutal crackdown on dissent. Summarizing Nicaragua’s dire press freedom climate for CJR last month, Charles Davis wrote that reporters telling the “unfiltered story of an unpopular government at war with its people have been slandered, threatened, and detained. At least one has been murdered.”
  • And prosecutors in Spain charged the singer Shakira with tax evasion. She appeared in ICIJ’s Paradise Papers investigation into offshore financial structures last year.

ICYMI: The mystery of Tucker Carlson

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.