The Media Today

Trump’s pointless Friday-night news dumps

July 13, 2020

Late on Friday, April 3, Trump fired Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general. Atkinson had handled the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment. Late on Friday, May 1, Trump removed Christi Grimm as the acting inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services. Grimm had criticized the administration’s pandemic response. Late on Friday, May 15, Trump fired Steve Linick, the State Department inspector general. Linick was investigating Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state. Late on Friday, June 19, William Barr, the attorney general, said that Geoffrey Berman, the top prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, had resigned. Berman’s office had investigated Trump associates Michael Cohen and Rudy Giuliani. That ouster spilled into a Saturday after Berman refused to go quietly. Barr said Trump had fired Berman. Trump blamed Barr. Either way, Berman was out.

Late last Friday, July 10, Trump outdid all those previous Fridays when he commuted the prison sentence of Roger Stone, his disgraced consigliere. Stone, who passed information about WikiLeaks to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, was indicted as a result of the Mueller probe and eventually convicted on counts including obstruction of Congress, lying under oath, and witness tampering. (At one point, he allegedly threatened a witness’s therapy dog.) Earlier this year—after the Justice Department (shockingly) overruled the harsher recommendations of its prosecutors—Stone was sentenced to forty months in prison. He was due to report tomorrow. In recent weeks, he asked a judge to delay his sentence, citing unspecified “medical conditions” and the heightened risk of contracting covid-19 in prison. The judge said no, but then Trump intervened, and now Stone will not serve any jail time at all.

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The commutation, reporters agreed, looked like another classic Friday-night news dump. “If it is late on a Friday night in the late stages of the Donald Trump administration,” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow said on air, “then yes, you guessed it: we’ve just had a new adventure in the decline and fall of the rule of law.”

Using Friday night to bury bad news is a long-standing tactic of the transparency-averse. Researchers once calculated that Bill Clinton’s EPA was a particularly prolific offender; in 2014, National Journal ran down the eight biggest news dumps of the summer, with the resignation of Mitch McConnell’s campaign manager topping the list. (These were quieter times.) Trump’s use of the tactic long predates the incidents I outlined above. As the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi noted over the weekend, it was Friday when the president announced his first Muslim ban, published a catastrophic climate report, and sacked Mick Mulvaney as chief of staff. On a single Friday night in 2017, Trump formalized his ban on trans people in the military, pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and ousted Sebastian Gorka—all as Hurricane Harvey barreled toward Texas.

Often, the Friday-night treatment has failed to diminish journalistic and public interest in Trump’s misdeeds. Sometimes, it seems actively to have increased interest. As I wrote at the time, the 2018 climate report—which was doubly dumped given that the Friday in question fell over the Thanksgiving holiday—won a greater share of available media attention than it may have in a “normal” week. At least 140 papers nationally put the story on their front page the following Saturday morning. More recently, Barr’s ousting of Berman drove a weekend-long news cycle and was ideal fodder for the widely watched, agenda-setting Sunday morning shows.

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The same appears to have been true of this weekend’s Stone story. As soon as it broke, pundits chewed it over on air; asked for his reaction, Jeffrey Toobin, a legal analyst on CNN, replied with “the three words that sum up the Trump presidency: shocking but not surprising. I guess that’s four words.” Toobin subsequently wrote a column for The New Yorker accusing Trump of worse misconduct than Richard Nixon ever managed. His was far from the only Nixon comparison that went around. Delving deeper into history, Max Boot, a conservative columnist at the Post, wrote that Trump is substantially worse than America’s previous worst president, James Buchanan; on Meet the Press, George Will threw Andrew Johnson into that equation, and suggested that Trump may be worse than him, too. Even Mueller—a man who may best be described as Extremely Offline—weighed in, via a rare op-ed in the Post. “The Russia investigation was of paramount importance,” Mueller wrote. “Stone was prosecuted and convicted because he committed federal crimes. He remains a convicted felon, and rightly so.”

In the age of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the concept of the Friday-night news dump feels like a relic. That’s especially true in the age of Trump, which is so frenetic that it has made time an illusion, weekends doubly so. “The news cycle is so relentless these days that a story can break in the middle of a weekday, or it can break on a Friday night…and the result is the same. These are huge stories for one or two days, but then they’re displaced by other huge stories,” Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia Journalism School (and CJR contributor), told me in an email yesterday. Since the pandemic and the mass protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, “it seems like the White House doesn’t really control the news cycles as much anymore,” Grueskin added. “The Trump administration many days is being swept along with the rest of us.”

Grueskin is right to note that under Trump, the most reliable way to bury bad news isn’t timing, but the generation of more bad news. Often, Trump does this overtly and shamelessly. So why does his administration persist with the secretive Friday-night tactic? It could be a legacy of Trump’s close relations with New York media in the pre-digital age. Or—as with so much of this administration’s media strategy—it could simply be trolling. As Serena Golden, an editor in the Post’s (now Mueller-endorsed) opinion section, tweeted over the weekend, “Friday night news dumps aren’t really that great for burying stories in the digital age, but they are still effective at causing journalists a lot of personal unhappiness, which some might see as a plus.”

Below, more on Stone and Trump:

  • The Stone ranger: Last month, Stone told Fox that in addition to his health concerns, he didn’t want to go to prison because he wants to be free “to do everything within my power to reelect this president.” Yesterday, Morgan Pehme, Daniel DiMauro, and Dylan Bank, who made the Netflix documentary Get Me Roger Stone, wrote for the Times that they suspect Trump will call on Stone’s services again ahead of November. (Stone will be on Sean Hannity’s Fox show tonight.) Relatedly, Politico reports that Michael Flynn—who is embroiled in his own Mueller-related Justice Department controversy—may also return to the campaign trail with Trump.
  • Actually going to prison: Last week, Michael Cohen, Trump’s jailed former fixer who (unlike Stone) flipped on the president, was sent back to prison (from home confinement) after refusing to promise not to talk to reporters or publish a book for the duration of his sentence. Ryan Goodman, of Just Security, asked First Amendment experts to weigh in on the pledge the government tried to make Cohen sign. Many of them described it as flagrantly unconstitutional.
  • A war on leakers: According to Jonathan Swan, of Axios, Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, is feeding nuggets of information to suspected leakers to see if they end up in the press. (Meadows has caught one leaker so far.) Trump has long been obsessed with leaks. Most recently, the appearances of stories about his visit to a White House bunker and Russia’s apparent targeting of US troops in Afghanistan have particularly enraged him.
  • A war on experts: Yasmeen Abutaleb, Josh Dawsey, and Laurie McGinley report, for the Post, that Trump has sidelined Dr. Anthony Fauci, both in terms of internal advice and external media appearances. After Margaret Brennan, moderator of Face the Nation on CBS, said last week that she’d been unable to book Fauci, administration officials authorized him to appear on Meet the Press, PBS NewsHour, and a CNN town hall—but after Fauci contradicted Trump during a Facebook Live event last Tuesday, those appearances were canceled. (Fauci has since done some media.)
  • Expertise and ambiguity: On Saturday, Trump was pictured wearing a face mask in public for the first time, during a visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He’d previously resisted appearing in a mask, in part because he “didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.” In other mask news, Brennan asked Jerome Adams, the US surgeon general, who is now an advocate of masks, why he previously told Americans not to wear one. “Once upon a time, we prescribed cigarettes for asthmatics,” he replied. “When we learn better, we do better.” (His changing advice—and the uncertain state of scientific knowledge—feature in my column for CJR’s new magazine on election coverage. You can find the whole issue here.)

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, McClatchy announced that Chatham Asset Management, the hedge fund that is its biggest investor, will acquire the company following a bankruptcy auction. The Wall Street Journal reports that the sale—which is pending judicial approval—means that finance firms will control a third of US dailies. As Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor reported, the Knight Foundation considered bidding for McClatchy and turning it into a nonprofit, but didn’t follow through. For Discourse Blog, Jack Crosbie argues that buying McClatchy would have been a better use of Knight’s money than many projects it currently funds.
  • On Friday, CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported that Blake Neff, the top writer on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, pseudonymously posted bigoted comments in a forum. Neff resigned; on Saturday, Suzanne Scott, Fox News’s CEO, and Jay Wallace, its president, wrote staff condemning Neff’s “abhorrent conduct,” which they say was “never divulged” to the network, and pledging that Carlson will address the incident on his show tonight. On his show Friday, Carlson referred only to a censorial “mob” at “CNN, particularly.”
  • Last week, Josh Hawley, a Republican senator from Missouri, sent out a news release criticizing the NBA for “censoring support for law enforcement or the military and any criticism of the Chinese Communist Party.” Adrian Wojnarowski, ESPN’s top NBA reporter, replied to the release: “Fuck you.” After Hawley posted the message on Twitter, Wojnarowski apologized. He has since been suspended for up to two weeks.
  • For CJR, Amos Barshad reports on “a new social media subgenre” following the death of George Floyd: volunteer-run Instagram accounts aggregating protests across the US. The anonymous proprietor of an account in New Jersey told Barshad that “traditional media is avidly the enemy.… We work against traditional media. One hundred percent.”
  • For The Intercept, Sam Biddle reports that Dataminr—a service that news organizations and other companies use to track breaking news on social media—helped law enforcement monitor the protests that followed Floyd’s killing. Dataminr denies that it enabled “surveillance”—but a source told Biddle that that is a question of semantics.
  • In May, ABS-CBN, the biggest broadcaster in the Philippines, was forced off the air after its franchise expired. Last week, lawmakers in the country formally denied the network’s application for a renewal, effectively shuttering it. Jason Gutierrez has more for the Times. Recently, I tracked the dire climate for media in the Philippines in this newsletter.
  • On Friday, police in Malaysia summoned six journalists, five of whom are Australian nationals, who worked on an Al Jazeera documentary about a crackdown on migrant workers in the country. Officials told the journalists that they are under investigation for sedition, defamation, and violation of the country’s media laws. The Guardian has more.
  • Last week, Bild, a German tabloid, reported that a staffer in the employ of the German government’s press office was an Egyptian spy who may have used his post to surveil Egyptian journalists. (Deutsche Welle has more in English.) Last year, Ruth Margalit wrote, for CJR, about Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and his war on the press.
  • And for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jeremy Kohler backgrounded Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the gun-toting couple who went viral after confronting protesters outside their home. The McCloskeys, Kohler writes, “are almost always in conflict with others, typically over control of private property.” For the crazy details, read on here.

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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.