The Media Today

A swarm of stories, and what’s missing

November 9, 2018

The midterms were three days ago, but so much has happened since that they feel like three years ago. The elections (which still aren’t over if you live in Florida or Arizona) proved a direct catalyst for some of the subsequent news congestion: the forced resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions in their immediate aftermath was no coincidence, and the barring of CNN’s Jim Acosta from the White House grounds on Wednesday looked, among other bad things, like a distraction. By the end of Wednesday night in Thousand Oaks, California, 12 people were fatally shot at a bar. Anything happening on Thursday was likely to get lost, and an important immigration story became incidental.

Sessions’s ouster, in particular, inspired aggressive reporting. His successor, Matthew Whitaker, has a history with shenanigans and has made hostile comments about the Robert Mueller probe. Nevertheless, some outlets observed that the firing of Sessions has had an anti-climactic feel. Times writers said that it “came as little surprise”; others, including David Leonhardt, an opinion columnist at the same paper, argued that Mueller’s findings are likely to be safe whatever happens next. Reporters have been well aware of Trump’s anger that Sessions recused himself from oversight of Mueller. Perhaps the lack of alarm in coverage reflects our media fatigue.

ICYMI: NPR kills journalist’s piece over her accent

Journalists did stir over the Trump-Acosta showdown: even though the president’s war on the press is not a new story, this was the first time he’d decided to ban a reporter from the briefing room. Many media reporters, in particular, reacted angrily: The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, for example, called on CNN to sue the White House on First Amendment grounds for revoking its reporter’s access. On Thursday, a debate raged over whether a video—which the White House apparently borrowed from a far-right internet personality, then shared—had been doctored in a way that appeared to show Acosta manhandling a female intern, itself a new front in the administration’s anti-truth crusade.

In this context, many news outlets deserve credit for centering the Thousands Oaks shooting in their coverage: The three major broadcast networks sent anchors to California last night, while the story topped the homepages of the Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, CNN, the AP, Reuters, NBC News, and others. Its repetition of so many tragedies past proved its most poignant symbolism—reports emerged that survivors of last year’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, the worst in US history, were present on Wednesday, too, having adopted the Thousand Oaks bar as a “place of solace.” Katie Zezima, Mark Berman, and David Fahrenthold wrote in the Post that, for many affected, “There was a grim benefit to being young in America during an age of massacres: They knew exactly what to do, in the way that past generations knew how to hide from tornadoes or nuclear bombs.”

With so many new normals to cover, it was perhaps inevitable that the media would downplay one that deserved greater scrutiny. That story was the White House’s announcement yesterday, invoking national security laws, that Trump will have practically untrammeled power to deny asylum to unlawful migrants. The new policy may get more airtime today as Trump prepares to announce the countries to which it will apply. So far, however, it’s received a sliver of the wall-to-wall attention paid to Trump’s wild, pre-midterm fear-mongering about the migrant “caravan,” despite its being unhinged from reality.

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In the week Democrats won back the House, the media has faced a series of sharp reminders that Trump is still at the top of the agenda, with the power to send reporters racing. The prominence of the media’s Thousand Oaks coverage, however, shows that national tragedies can still resonate beyond the tiresome churn of Washington. The latest immigration policy should be an example of that, too—and it is. The press should stop treating it as a mere product of the Beltway.

Below, more on the crowded post-midterms news cycle:

  • Sessions’s varied legacy: As the Mueller probe understandably dominated coverage of Sessions’s departure, other aspects of his legacy have been under-covered. On Wednesday, the Freedom of the Press Foundation drew attention to his “disturbing and dangerous” attacks on journalists and whistleblowers. Yesterday, Chris Gelardi wrote in The Nation that Sessions’s legacy will be “catastrophic” for asylum seekers.
  • A matter of semantics: BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel says the argument over the “doctored” Acosta video was basically semantic. “The entire ordeal is a near-perfect example of a scenario disinformation experts have predicted and warned of, where the very threat of video manipulation can lead to a blurring of reality,” he writes.
  • A different view: Poynter’s Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride had a contrary take on Acosta, writing that by making statements rather than asking questions, he gave Trump room to critique his professionalism.
  • But if you read/watch just one Acosta thing: Make it this video and photo essay for CJR by Nina Berman, who trailed him at a Trump rally in Fort Myers, Florida, in late October. “For the Trump audience, demeaning Acosta is a bonding experience,” Berman writes. “He is both an enemy and a selfie trophy.”
  • Rare unity: Reporters and pundits from across the spectrum condemned the Antifa activists who vandalized Tucker Carlson’s home and yelled threats at his family on Wednesday night. Mediaite rounds up some reaction.

Other notable stories:

  • An investigation into Mike Ward, who resigned from the Houston Chronicle in September over allegations he invented sources, was unable to find any trace of 122 people quoted across 72 of his stories. The Chronicle is fully retracting eight articles. And Ward’s former employer, the Austin American-Statesman, is launching its own review.
  • For CJR’s Race Issue, Alexandria Neason looks at the history and future prospects of America’s black press. “Consistent throughout the existence of the black press has been denial,” Neason writes. “Just as white society ignored black society, so too did white journalists ignore their black counterparts.” If you missed our launch event for the issue on Monday, you can now listen back to Guest Editor Jelani Cobb’s discussion with HuffPost Editor-in-Chief Lydia Polgreen on our podcast The Kicker.
  • Amid lower-than-expected annual revenue projections, Vice Media plans to lay off up to 15 percent of its workforce and fold down some of its digital properties, The Wall Street Journal’s Keach Hagey, Benjamin Mullin, and Alexandra Bruell report.
  • Christine Blasey Ford’s lawyers told NPR she is still being harassed over sexual assault allegations she leveled at Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh two months ago. Ford has moved house four times and hired a private security detail, and has yet to return to work at Palo Alto University. After her hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in late September, CJR’s Alexandria Neason and Nausicaa Renner discussed how the news media bullied Ford.
  • Victor Mallet, Asia news editor of The Financial Times, was blocked from entering Hong Kong as a visitor yesterday, one month after his application to renew a work visa was rejected in an apparent political blacklisting. “The Hong Kong government did not give an explanation for his original visa denial but it is widely seen as linked to Mallet’s chairing of a press club talk by a Hong Kong independence activist,” Agence France-Presse reports.
  • In an interview with The New York Times, Google CEO Sundar Pichai downplayed his company’s work on a censored version of its product for use in China, likening it to Google’s compliance with European “right to be forgotten” laws. CJR’s Mathew Ingram took issue with the comparison. “Acceding to Chinese demands for widespread censorship and digital surveillance of its citizens is not the same as complying with the right to be forgotten,” Ingram writes. “When Google removes search results because of the latter, it is only after a specific complaint is made by an individual concerning information related to them, and Google can refuse.”

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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.