The Media Today

Reporters call out Trump’s summit performance, and enter uncharted territory

July 17, 2018

As CNN’s cameras cut from the closing moments of the Trump–Putin press conference to the network’s set in Helsinki, Anderson Cooper instantly offered the most succinct and forceful analysis of the day. “You have been watching perhaps one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president at a summit in front of a Russian leader, certainly, that I’ve ever seen,” he said. In the minutes and hours after President Trump sided with the word of the Russian president over the conclusions of his own intelligence services, similar thoughts echoed across the media landscape.

Television anchors appeared shocked in the immediate wake of the presser, but the consensus was that Trump had delivered one of the worst presidential showings on the world stage that anyone could remember. In news analyses, The New York Times’s Mark Landler and The Washington Post’s Dan Balz offered scathing assessments of Trump’s words. Landler compared Monday to Trump’s defense of white nationalists in Charlottesville, and wrote that “[Trump’s] statements were so divorced from American policy goals, so at odds with the rest of his administration, so inexplicable on so many levels that they brought to the surface a question that has long shadowed Mr. Trump: Does Russia have something on him?” Balz, meanwhile, wrote, “On a day when the setting called for a show of strength and resolve from an American president, Trump instead offered deference, defensiveness, equivocation and weakness.

Over at Fox News and Fox Business, the immediate criticisms of Trump’s performance were more restrained, but only slightly. FBN’s Neil Cavuto called the president’s failure to directly challenge Putin over election interference “disgusting.” Fox News’s Abby Huntsman, whose father is Trump’s ambassador to Russia, tweeted “No negotiation is worth throwing your own people and country under the bus.” But some analysts fell back on the equivalence defense, with Fox’s media critic Howard Kurtz acknowledging that Trump’s words were “troubling,” but quickly adding that “liberal commentators” were overreacting. By the time the evening opinion slate took to the air, the Trump defenders were falling into line, with Tucker Carlson inanely arguing that Mexico has done more to interfere in US elections than Russia and Sean Hannity lobbing softball questions to Trump in his first post-summit interview. Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, on the other hand, delivered a strong performance in his sit-down with Putin, repeatedly interrupting the Russian president to challenge his talking points and reading from last Friday’s indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers.

RELATED: Getting the Trump-Putin story right

As for the press conference itself, the two American journalists who were called on to question the world leaders earned high marks. Reuters’s Jeff Mason and the AP’s Jonathan Lemire asked specific, tough questions of both the presidents, with Lemire directly challenging Putin over whether the Russians had compromising material on Trump. Putin, in a roundabout answer, did not explicitly deny that he did.

We may never know exactly what transpired during Trump and Putin’s two-hour meeting, but the press conference that followed was enough to raise serious concerns about the US president’s willingness to defend America against a hostile global power. Writing on the press’s role in the aftermath, The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan offered a clear-eyed appraisal of what must come next. “The American press,” she writes, “will find itself in the uncomfortable position of calling a spade a spade, with none of the usual recourse to false equivalence or ‘both sides with equal weight’ coverage.” In the hours after a surreal and disturbing moment, the media largely rose to that challenge.

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ICYMI: Women in photography say two well-known photographers engage in serial sexual harassment

Below, more on the summit and one of the most consequential days of Trump’s presidency.

  • A moment of truth: The Atlantic’s James Fallows argues that Republicans need to act or be forever stained by their acquiescence to Trump. “Never before have I seen an American president consistently, repeatedly, publicly, and shockingly advance the interests of another country over those of his own government and people,” Fallows writes.
  • Playbook preview: CNN’s Oliver Darcy had a sharp insight on what to expect from Trump’s media defenders. “Not seeing any pundits praise that Trump-Putin presser, but it’s easy to see how this is likely going to play out in pro-Trump media,” Darcy wrote Monday afternoon. “When all else fails, they bash the media. I imagine you’ll see RW media seize on criticism directed from journalists, and attack media as biased.”
  • “Me first”: The Associated Press’s Matthew Lee and Zeke Miller write that “Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ slogan morphed Monday into ‘Me First’ as the president unloaded on his own intelligence community and Justice Department to portray himself as the victim of a conspiracy to deny him legitimacy.”
  • Crossing the Rubicon?: CJR Editor and Publisher Kyle Pope tweets, “New era in Trump-media relationship started today—similar to the dam that broke with the use of the word ‘liar.’ Reporters who had held back on his Russia coziness now openly calling him out as a colluder. Uncharted territory for the coverage of a sitting president.”
  • Fox-watching: For The Atlantic, Scott Norver catalogues the varying responses to Trump’s day across Fox News and Fox Business Network.
  • “Worst-case scenario”: MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow raised the possibility that President Trump may be compromised by Russia, while New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes, “There is overwhelming evidence that our president, for the first time in our history, is deliberately or through gross negligence or because of his own twisted personality engaged in treasonous behavior.”


Other notable stories

  • For CJR, Kristen Chick reports on photojournalism’s sexual harassment problem. “In interviews with more than 50 people, in a CJR investigation spanning more than five months, photojournalists described behavior from editors and colleagues that ranged from assault to unwanted advances to comments on their appearance or bodies when they were trying to work,” Chick writes.
  • Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai threw a wrench into the works of Sinclair’s $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media, saying Monday that he has “serious concerns” about the transaction. CNN’s Hadas Gold reports that the hearing Pai has called for “would prolong the time it will take for Tribune and Sinclair to merge, which could spell doom for the deal.”
  • The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson reports that Trump’s style has gone national. “In races across the country, other Republican candidates—and some Democrats—also are branding their opponents with unflattering nicknames, tweeting in all caps, refusing to apologize for things that politicians once apologized for, being proudly politically incorrect, circulating false information, calling their hometown newspapers ‘fake news,’ releasing damaging information about their opponents and generating controversy to get headlines, even unflattering ones,” Johnson writes.
  • The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis tours the LA Times’s sports desk in the final days of operation at the paper’s 83-year-old headquarters. “Getting romantic about a newspaper sports office is like getting romantic about a laptop. A newspaper office is at best functional and at worst a pain in the ass,” Curtis writes. “Yet the Times leaving its old headquarters felt like the occasion for a tribute to the guys who used to work there.”
  • NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt will be awarded the 2018 Poynter Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism.

ICYMI: The press missed another opportunity for collective action

Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.