For Trump, the medium is not the message

The Constitution holds that the president shall, from time to time, conduct a spurt of interviews with mainstream news outlets before going back to Fox. Or something like that. We’re currently seeing one of those spurts. Last week, Trump gave an interview to Reuters in the Oval Office; on Monday, he granted the same privilege to the New York Post. Yesterday, the president traveled to Phoenix—his first long trip out of Washington since the crisis brought on by COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, intensified—to visit a factory that makes face masks. (Trump did not wear a mask; outside, his supporters harassed local reporters who were wearing them.) While he was in town, Trump sat for an interview with David Muir, who anchors World News Tonight on ABC. It wasn’t the first time Trump has called on ABC for a non-Fox broadcast interview; last year, he gave 30 hours of access to George Stephanopoulos.

Trump sitting down with an interviewer who isn’t a sycophant is a sufficiently rare opportunity that the most should always be made of it. Muir, some critics said, did not take his; CNN’s Oliver Darcy wrote afterward that the interview was a “miss” and had “failed to meet the moment.” Muir took a measured approach, and focused on big-picture issues—the risks of reopening the economy, testing, what Trump would say to Americans who’ve lost loved ones to the virus—away from Washington intrigue. Flame-throwers don’t always make the best interviewers. But to be effective, Muir needed to be forensic in his follow-up questions; instead, he let the president wriggle off the hook. He did not press the president on reports that he plans to “wind down” his coronavirus task force. At one point, Trump blamed the Obama administration for “broken tests” and other logistical failures that have hindered the virus response. Muir seemed to take that assertion as fact. As Darcy noted afterward, the interview failed to make meaningful news. (The top headlines on the ABC News website this morning were “Trump to ABC’s Muir: ‘It’s possible there will be some’ deaths as country reopens” and “President Trump to Americans who’ve lost loved ones to the coronavirus: ‘I love you.’”)

ICYMI: Why did Matt Drudge turn on Donald Trump?

Last June, ahead of Trump’s interview with Stephanopoulos, Politico reported that the president seemed to be trying to reach beyond his base, with the “launch” of his reelection campaign coming up, and the Democrats vying to replace him as president “increasingly dominating the airwaves.” The context now is different; all eyes are on Trump, and the Democrat left in the race to replace him, Joe Biden, is consigned to his basement and struggling to cut through in the press (the allegations that he sexually assaulted a former staffer notwithstanding). Still, we are standing, again, at another supposed inflection point for Trump’s messaging strategy. Axios reported recently, following the president’s infamous bleach briefing, that Trump would abandon the daily format, and pivot away from grim health stats toward a more optimistic economic message.

So far, we’ve (sort of) seen that play out. But Trump’s comms pivots don’t typically last very long. And regardless of the setting—be it the briefing room or a TV interview, Fox News or ABC News—Trump’s message and tone stay more or less the same. The top of his ABC interview felt disconcertingly normal (for Trump), but he quickly backslid into slamming his foes and the investigations related to his dealings with Russia and Ukraine, both of which he called a “total hoax.” In his interview with the New York Post, he bragged about the ratings for his briefings, and attacked the media. He said, of CBS News reporters Weijia Jiang and Paula Reid, “It wasn’t Donna Reed, I can tell you that”—a dated reference to an actress who played TV housewives in the 1950s. (The New York Times obituary of Reed, from 1986, says her name became “a symbol of gentle femininity”—though as Nicole Lyn Pesce pointed out yesterday, for MarketWatch, Reed wasn’t really like that.) On Twitter—where Trump has never shown any inclination to change his behavior—he spent parts of yesterday whining about an ad, referring to “mourning in America,” that a conservative PAC cut to criticize Trump’s virus response.

Meanwhile, around him, the slew of embarrassing stories about his handling of the pandemic continues unabated. Yesterday, drawing on whistleblower testimony, both the Times and the Washington Post reported that a team of inexperienced “volunteers,” recruited by Jared Kushner from the world of finance to help manage procurement issues, has bungled the supply of emergency supplies. According to both papers, the volunteers were told to prioritize PPE “leads” from “VIPs,” including conservative journalists close to Trump; Jeanine Pirro of Fox News, for instance, repeatedly lobbied the administration to get 100,000 masks to a particular hospital in New York. (Fox said Pirro didn’t know her request was being prioritized.)

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Also yesterday, we learned, from the Daily Beast, that American Media Inc.—the parent company of the National Enquirer, which infamously helped Trump “catch and kill” embarrassing stories about his alleged sexual escapades prior to the 2016 election—has applied for a multi-million-dollar small-business handout from the administration’s Paycheck Protection Program. AMI said it’s just trying to save jobs, but several of its employees are reportedly outraged by the move; one told the Beast that “getting money from the government and Trump after all they have done is sickening.” Whatever outlet Trump chooses to speak to on a given day, his symbiotic relationship with the right-wing mediasphere continues to shadow him. So, too, does the virus, which does not discriminate between viewers of Fox and ABC.

Below more on the coronavirus:

  • Having no plan, and getting used to all the dying: Charlie Warzel, of the Times, fears that America will become inured to the high death toll from COVID-19—much as it has grown accustomed to deaths stemming from gun violence. “Such loss of life is hard to comprehend when it’s not happening in front of your own two eyes,” Warzel writes. “Add to it that humans are adaptable creatures, no matter how nightmarish the scenario, and it seems understandable that our outrage would dull over time.” Elsewhere, Jay Rosen, a professor at NYU, writes that the administration is banking on the high death rate becoming a “normal thing,” then creating “massive confusion” as to who is responsible. “The plan is to default on public problem solving, and then prevent the public from understanding the consequences of that default,” Rosen writes.
  • A lifeline for news?: For OneZero, Will Oremus assesses whether forcing Google and Facebook to pay news organizations to use their content—a step Australia just took—could work in the US, where the news industry has been hammered financially by the coronavirus crisis. Oremus ran the idea past Emily Bell, of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism; Ken Doctor, of Newsonomics; and representatives of Google and Facebook. They all agreed that it “is unlikely to be the silver bullet that saves the industry. Where they disagreed was on whether, for all its drawbacks, it might be worth a try anyway.”
  • Neutral networks: In 2017, the Federal Communications Commission scrapped net-neutrality rules that prevented internet providers from boosting some websites and throttling others. Klint Finley argues, for Wired, that the pandemic is a reminder that that was a bad move: “More people than ever rely on the internet, and they should be free to choose the video conferencing tools, education sites, or entertainment they want, rather than let broadband providers decide for them—or sell priority to the highest bidder.”
  • Updates on India: For CJR and the Tow Center, Ishaan Jhaveri assesses Facebook’s recent “entry” into India’s telecoms market at a moment when media outlets are fanning the flames of Islamophobia and the country’s government is cracking down on press freedom—all under the cover of the coronavirus. Also for CJR, Lewis Page explores the deeper roots of India’s COVID-era press clampdown. “These latest developments are just the most recent instances of a troubling and persistent trend,” Page writes. In February, with anti-media violence in Delhi, “this trajectory came to a brutal apex.”
  • Remembering the Rohingya: Following violent persecution in Myanmar, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people fled the country for neighboring Bangladesh, where many of them live in refugee camps; so far, no case of COVID-19 has been confirmed in any of the camps, but nearby communities have reportedly been affected. Avi Asher-Schapiro, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, spoke with Ro Sawyeddollah, a journalist in one of the camps who says internet restrictions are making it hard to spread awareness of the virus. “If COVID reaches the camp… we may have no options,” Sawyeddollah says. “Dying will be the option, because we cannot make people aware of how to be safe.”
  • In memoriam: In April, Alison Schwartz, the director of digital platforms at People magazine, died after contracting the coronavirus. She was 29. BuzzFeed’s Julia Reinstein collected remembrances of Schwartz for an obituary. Alex Apatoff, a colleague of Schwartz’s, wrote that, “If you’ve ever laughed at anything on People.com, chances are high Ali wrote it.”
  • In brief: The Boston Globe is running a serialized novella called The Mechanic to give readers “a bit of a diversion” from the pandemic, Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton reports. Washingtonian’s Benjamin Wofford spoke with Sally Quinn, who based the “erotic hero” of Happy Endings, her 1991 romance novel, on Dr. Anthony Fauci. And in the UK, Neil Ferguson, a leading epidemiologist whose coronavirus modeling led parts of the press to dub him “Professor Lockdown,” stepped back from his role advising the government after the Telegraph reported that he broke lockdown rules to “meet his married lover.”


Other notable stories: 

ICYMI: Covering science at dangerous speeds

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.