The Media Today

A circus, and what matters

July 12, 2019

Yesterday, a circus rolled into the White House. Donald Trump hosted what he called a “social media summit” (it was not) and invited an absurd troupe of right-wing internet performers to vent about platforms supposedly suppressing conservative views. Among the guests were the sting artist James O’Keefe, who Trump singled out for praise; at least one booster of QAnon, a deep-state conspiracy theory that’s far too convoluted to explain here; and a “memesmith” known as “Carpe Donktum.” It ended with Sebastian Gorka, a Trump official turned talk-radio host, screaming “YOU’RE A PUNK” in the face of Brian Karem, White House reporter for Playboy. Has the Rose Garden ever seen anything as undignified, or as pointless?

Ahead of time, Recode’s Peter Kafka compiled an explainer about the “summit,” in Q&A format. It opened: “Do I have to pay attention to that? No.” Lots of outlets ignored that advice. Why? CNN’s Oliver Darcy argued that the event was newsworthy—not because it constituted any meaningful reckoning for big tech, but because Trump was using the White House to legitimize extremists. Charlie Warzel, a tech columnist at The New York Times, reached a similar conclusion: the event, he argued, offered clues about elements of Trump’s strategy for 2020. He attested, however, to having “real reservations” about covering it at all. “It was a meme fever dream of questionable newsworthiness—all tailor made for reporters with Twitter accounts,” Warzel wrote. “And the media is caught in the middle, unsure how to cover a group who, time and again, dupe them into amplifying their propaganda and nonsense.”

ICYMI: Getting to the bottom of the Seth Rich conspiracy theory

It’s reasonable to argue that journalists should call out abnormal things: If we don’t, do we not accept them as normal? The problem is that we’re drowning in abnormal things: this week alone, the president was linked to a high-profile sex-trafficking case—both directly, through his past friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, the accused, and indirectly, through the conduct of Alexander Acosta, his labor secretary, in a past Epstein legal case. (Three weeks ago, Trump himself was accused of rape. Remember that?) Trump continues to be at the center of a feud with the victorious US women’s soccer team and its captain.

And then his administration leaked that it would round up and deport migrant families—a copy of raids by other presidents that amounts to cruel campaign stunt. Throughout yesterday’s “summit,” speculation swirled that Trump was about to use an executive order to put a citizenship question on the census, flouting a Supreme Court ruling; in the end, he backed down—effectively conceding to an argument by government lawyers that he had previously called “FAKE!” As Politico’s Playbook email notes this morning, Trump’s presidency is “increasingly erratic.”

The “social media summit” is trivial, but it’s also strategic: by eating away at the edges of our attention, we’re that much less able to focus on the other cascading stories. The event—like so much Trump puts forward—was useless noise. When will we learn to hear what it is, and keep walking?

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Below, more from the instability beat:

  • A reminder: Yesterday, Trump repeated a favored gripe: that Twitter is deliberately curbing his follower count. In April, he reportedly made that complaint in person to Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO. Dorsey explained that everyone on Twitter loses followers now and then as the service cleanses itself of automated bots.
  • Turning Point: Ahead of the “summit,” The Washington Post ran an op-ed by Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, a right-wing group. The piece drew criticism: “This was a really disappointing decision by the Post, to run something so factually inaccurate from a known bad actor,” CJR’s Mathew Ingram tweeted. The Post opinion section responded that it’s committed to hosting a wide range of views.
  • Turning point?: In light of this week’s final, delayed reckoning for Epstein, Laura Bassett asks, for GQ, “When is America going to reckon with the alleged serial sexual abuser in the White House?”
  • What it’s really about: The Trump administration claimed it wanted to put the citizenship question on the census to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court judged that to be a false pretext. In an essay last month, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer explained the real reasoning behind the push: to gerrymander voting districts along racial lines favorable to the Republican Party.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee voted to subpoena 12 people—including Jared Kushner, Jeff Sessions, and Michael Flynn—in its ongoing investigation into whether the president has obstructed justice or otherwise abused power. The committee also subpoenaed David Pecker and Dylan Howard, who, as CEO of American Media Inc. and editor of The National Enquirer, respectively, were implicated in the hush-money payments Trump made to hide extramarital affairs during the campaign.
  • In the wake of Epstein’s arrest, a writer named Vicky Ward alleged that Graydon Carter, former editor of Vanity Fair, excised damning on-the-record allegations about Epstein from a 2003 profile. For The Hollywood Reporter, Kim Masters writes that she believes Ward’s account; Carter, Masters writes, “nipped and tucked” her own work for Vanity Fair after subjects complained. Carter denies all this; nonetheless, NBC’s Dylan Byers writes, the claims threaten to overshadow Carter’s launch of Air Mail, a weekly newsletter for “worldly cosmopolitans” that’s set to debut next Saturday. A year’s subscription is $50.
  • On Monday, Norah O’Donnell will take over as anchor of CBS Evening News. Her first show will feature space-themed interviews with Jeff Bezos and Caroline Kennedy. For the Post, Margaret Sullivan previews O’Donnell’s push to boost anemic ratings. But “ratings aside, if O’Donnell manages to return even a smidgen of trust to the beleaguered news media, that would count as a win,” Sullivan adds. Per Page Six, CBS management just hosted a “pep rally” for Evening News staff that featured a “music video” of O’Donnell and her bosses dancing to a DJ Khaled song.
  • CJR’s Andrew McCormick spoke with journalists at the El Paso Times, for whom the situation at the border is a local news story. “Reporters say they find themselves surrounded by unturned stones, each with the potential for nationwide scandal,” McCormick writes. Last weekend, the paper published a detailed article about a controversial local border facility, a collaboration with The New York Times. Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, discussed the joint story with Lauren Villagran and Aaron Montes, two reporters for the El Paso Times, on our podcast, The Kicker.
  • The New York Times’s Charlie Savage reports that the CIA is pushing Congress to significantly broaden the law that criminalizes the public identification of undercover intelligence operatives. The law currently bars journalists and others from naming covert agents who served abroad within the past five years; the CIA wants the law to indefinitely cover anyone who ever served as a covert agent, in the US or overseas. Press-freedom advocates are alarmed.
  • In light of the US women’s national soccer team’s recent World Cup win, Gabriel Snyder, CJR’s public editor for the Times, assesses the lack of gender representation on the paper’s sports desk. “Sports writing has long been disproportionately male,” he writes. “The Times sports section now stands out for being exceedingly so.” The desk now has fewer female writers than it used to, Snyder finds.
  • Earlier this week, an appeals court ruled that Trump violated the First Amendment when he blocked Twitter users based on their views. Now, Jeffery C. Mays reports for the Times, two users blocked by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are suing her in the hope of a similar verdict. “Joey Salads,” a controversial YouTuber and Congressional candidate, tells Mays that he wants to test whether the courts have a double standard for liberals and conservatives.
  • For The New Republic, Clio Chang argues that unionization might save journalism. “In the face of a clear and immediate threat from Big Tech, what journalism needs is a bulwark,” Chang writes. “What it needs is some serious leverage. What it needs, in this annus horribilis and beyond, is organized labor—which, in many instances, is also the very thing media companies fear most.”
  • And officials on Roosevelt Island in New York plan to erect a statue commemorating Nellie Bly, Rachel Holliday Smith reports for The City. In 1887, at the age of 23, Bly went undercover to report on an asylum there, and her story revealed inhumane conditions for the mentally ill.

ICYMI: Another brutal week for American journalism

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.