The Media Today

The repetitions in Trump’s al-Baghdadi announcement

October 28, 2019

On Saturday night, President Trump announced, via Twitter, that “Something very big has just happened!” The “something very big” was actually something very big—the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, who reportedly blew himself up after US forces cornered him in Syria—but Trump’s tweet was less redolent of a high-stakes mission than (as the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey put it) “a ‘sweeps week’-like promo for a TV show.” Essentially, the tweet was a promo: according to Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman, of the New York Times, Trump aides convinced him to save the big reveal for the following morning, so as to offer a stronger hook for the Sunday shows; Trump later said he tweeted a teaser to ensure journalists would clear their schedules of golf and tennis. Yesterday morning, Trump confirmed al-Baghdadi’s demise at a brief news conference that turned into a 40-minute question-and-answer session with journalists. It was—as the reliable Trump-era cliché goes—a Made-For-TV Moment, and news outlets and their reporters didn’t hesitate to describe it as such.

The presser itself was a cliché—a check-box exercise in Trumpism and the art of making a big story about oneself. The whole thing was a (strategically and morally questionable) break with precedent; presidents do not typically offer unfiltered accountings of sensitive military operations right after they happen. Beyond that, we saw falsehoods (“Nobody ever heard of Osama bin Laden until really the World Trade Center,” apart from Trump, who totally saw him coming); gruesome details—that quite possibly were also falsehoods—rendered in dark, violent language (al-Baghdadi “died like a dog, he died like a coward, he was whimpering, screaming and crying”); screwball turns of phrase (“Our canine, I call it a dog, a beautiful dog, a talented dog, was injured and brought back”); and braggadocio (“Bin Laden was a big thing, but this is the biggest there is”; “They [ISIS] use the internet better than almost anybody in the world, perhaps other than Donald Trump”).

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Some press reaction felt clichéd, too. We wondered aloud what al-Baghdadi’s death might mean for Trump politically, in terms of the 2020 horse race, and possible respite from impeachment. NBC wrote, in an analysis piece, that Trump “needed a win and he got one”; Peter Bergen, national security analyst for CNN, said the president “can certainly take a victory lap.” The word “credit” echoed in the mouths of politicians and commentators, and in Trump’s own, old complaints about President Barack Obama—in 2012, Trump said people should stop congratulating Obama for the death of Osama bin Laden, and instead thank the military. On CNN, Jake Tapper raised that missive with Mark Esper, the defense secretary: “Do commanders in chief deserve credit for the actions of our brave men and women in service, in uniform?” Tapper asked. (Esper demurred.) Predictably, the credit debate fueled a Trumpian grievance loop. At his presser, the president suggested journalists don’t give him his due, then praised One America News Network, probably the most reliable of his media boosters. On Twitter, Tim Murtaugh, director of comms for Trump’s reelection campaign, complained repeatedly about the press. “Today is a great day,” he said. “It’s okay to be happy about it, folks.”

Amid all this, the substance of what was, undoubtedly, an important day got a bit lost, or at least a bit diluted: “I think we should be focusing on the death of the head of ISIS, instead of the back half of Trump’s (admittedly bizarre) presser,” Noah Shachtman, editor in chief of the Daily Beast, complained. There was, to be fair, good coverage—and questioning of officials—highlighting the incongruity of the al-Baghdadi raid in the recent context of Trump’s decision to yank troops from northern Syria, a move that many analysts called a clear boon for ISIS. (On the subject of credit, unnamed officials told the Times that the drawdown complicated efforts to snare al-Baghdadi, and that his death happened “largely in spite of, and not because of, Trump’s actions.”)

Longer-term context, however, was not as present. That might reflect the fact that ISIS-inspired attacks in Western countries are not, as they once were, a prime focus of our attention (and panic). But it also might reflect uncomfortable truths about our unwinnable wars. Spencer Ackerman, who works for Shachtman at the Beast, nailed that context in an astute piece yesterday. “Baghdadi’s death gains the US as much as the broader war on terrorism does: ultimately nothing, only a fleeting feeling of national pride briefly concealing the worsening wreckage of a generation,” he writes. And Trump’s rhetoric about ending endless wars—nodded at in yesterday’s political punditry—“obscures the reality of how he prosecutes them.”

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The opening paragraphs of Ackerman’s piece read as if they’re summarizing al-Baghdadi’s death and Trump’s triumphalist reaction—but they’re actually summarizing a similar announcement by George W. Bush following the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2006. Ackerman then repeats that rhetorical trick with reference to Obama and bin Laden, underlining the grim repetitiveness of supposed “victories” in the war on terror. Trump—and, too often, those who cover him—might be masters of the cliché. But some clichés are much older than Trump.

Below, more on Trump, and the death of al-Baghdadi:

  • A tale of two photos: Obama’s bin Laden raid was a natural point of comparison for much coverage yesterday; it crystallized in the contrast between the iconic photo taken during that raid, and a shot of Trump and his aides during the al-Baghdadi raid that appears to have been staged. The photos, the AP’s Aamer Madhani writes, “capture the vastly different styles of two American presidents.” Quinta Jurecic, of Lawfare, compared the visual framing.
  • Missing the mark: The Washington Post was roundly criticized for referring to al-Baghdadi, in the headline of its obituary, as an “austere religious scholar”; critics on the right used the misstep as an entry point to attack mainstream coverage as a whole. The Post changed the headline and expressed regret.
  • Unstable genius: At a conference hosted by the Washington Examiner, John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff, said he regrets leaving the job, and that he warned the president he would be impeached if he hired a “yes man” to replace him. (Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, hit back that Kelly “was totally unequipped to handle the genius of our great President.”) Kelly’s departure is often cited as a turning point for Trump, but Heather Timmons, of Reuters, reckons Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s exit, and replacement by Grisham, has had a more harmful impact on his presidency.

Other notable stories:

  • Rep. Katie Hill, a California Democrat and rising star in Congress, will resign her seat amid claims that she had inappropriate sexual relationships with staffers. BuzzFeed’s Molly Hensley-Clancy urged reporters to also center a “campaign of harassment,” initiated by Hill’s ex-husband and boosted by right-wing news sites, that has targeted Hill. Last week, RedState, the Daily Mail, and other outlets published explicit photos of Hill that multiple commentators characterized as revenge porn; the Mail also claimed Hill has a Nazi-inspired tattoo, drawing a cease-and-desist letter from Hill’s lawyers.
  • On Friday, Facebook officially launched its new News Tab, under which it will pay partner news organizations to link to their content. (Facebook was heavily criticized for naming Breitbart as one of those partners; per CNN, Breitbart will not be paid.) The initiative looks like a boon for news outlets and readers, Emily Bell writes for CJR—nonetheless, “the readiness with which publishers are seemingly embracing this new business arrangement is discomfiting,” and risks creating an “unregulated market that, over time, could develop into the exoskeleton of journalistic support.” Elsewhere, CNBC’s Lauren Feiner calls the News Tab a “savvy distraction” from Facebook’s woes in Washington.
  • Also on Friday, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow interviewed Ronan Farrow about his explosive claim that NBC bosses curtailed his reporting on Harvey Weinstein. (Farrow is persona non grata at the network, though Maddow has repeatedly had him on her show.) Maddow independently confirmed Farrow’s allegation, and also elicited a pledge that NBC will release ex-staffers who signed non-disclosure agreements with the company from any “perceived obligation” to stay silent about sexual harassment at work.
  • ProPublica reports that Lev Parnas, the since-indicted associate of Rudy Giuliani, brokered reporting for John Solomon, a controversial journalist with The Hill, on the Bidens and Ukraine; Solomon’s articles alleging wrongdoing helped sow the seeds of Trump’s Ukraine call and the impeachment inquiry. (In other Giuliani news, NBC’s Rich Schapiro writes that the president’s lawyer butt-dialed him twice in the past month.)
  • Ken Doctor, an expert on local-news economics who writes on the topic for Nieman Lab, is starting a new company, Lookout, that he calls a “wide-reaching new model for local news” drawing on “the best of the best practices” he’s observed in his time analyzing the industry. It will launch next year with support from the Knight Foundation and Google.
  • Two months after India revoked the autonomy of Kashmir, the internet and other modes of communication are still blocked in the territory. For Vice, Angad Singh and Zubair Ahmed Dar checked in with Fahad Shah, editor of the Kashmir Walla, who has continued to print news through the blackout, but doesn’t know if anyone is still reading. (ICYMI in August, Rozina Ali examined “the Kashmiri narrative” for CJR.)
  • In Morocco, a court sentenced Taoufik Bouachrine, who owns Akhbar al-Yaum, a vocally independent newspaper, to 15 years in prison on charges including rape and human trafficking. Bouachrine has called the charges politically motivated.
  • And on Saturday, the singer Morrissey, formerly of The Smiths, performed in LA wearing a vest that said “Fuck The Guardian.”

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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.