The Media Today

After four years, Trump’s words still matter

October 9, 2020

Yesterday, President Trump bookended his day with appearances on Fox. In the morning, he called into Maria Bartiromo’s show on Fox Business and spoke for nearly an hour. Among other things, he said that he feels well enough to go back to holding rallies, even though he was in the hospital with COVID-19 as recently as Monday; that he doesn’t “think” he’s contagious anymore; that he may have contracted COVID from fallen soldiers’ family members who got too close to him; that Attorney General William Barr should indict his political nemeses; that he’s disappointed in Christopher Wray, the FBI director, for refusing to amplify Trumpian disinformation about mail-in voting; and that Kamala Harris is a “monster.” In the evening, Trump called into Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News and floated the prospect of doing a rally as soon as this Saturday. He also coughed down the phone.

Yesterday’s news cycle—which was driven, in no small part, by Trump’s Fox interviews—itself felt like a bookend on Trump’s presidency as a whole. In the weeks after Trump took office in 2017, a conversation swelled about the state of his mental health: psychologists and psychiatrists debated the appropriateness of diagnosing Trump from afar—the American Psychiatric Association’s “Goldwater Rule” typically bars remote diagnosis, but many professionals felt that Trump was a special case—and media figures held a similar, parallel debate. (Lee Siegel wrote for CJR at the time that reporters failing to raise Trump’s mental health would constitute “a betrayal of the public trust.”) This week, Trump’s mental state has been back on the media agenda in a big way, as his hospitalization and apparent treatment with an extensive menu of drugs have driven concern and speculation about his fitness for office. On MSNBC last night, Joy Reid said, of Trump’s Bartiromo interview, that “this is not a man who sounds well”; on CNN, David Axelrod echoed the point. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Bloomberg that Trump is in an “altered state” right now; today, she plans to present legislation that would form a commission on “presidential capacity,” as outlined by the 25th Amendment. This probably won’t lead to anything much, but it has already propelled a round of media coverage.

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Yesterday felt like a throwback to 2017 in more ways than just the 25th Amendment chatter: it felt like we were, collectively, hanging on Trump’s every word again. They drove cable punditry all night; online, CNN’s Chris Cillizza compiled “the 48 most unhinged lines from Donald Trump’s Fox Business interview,” which called to my mind his 2017 oeuvre, “the 29 most cringe-worthy lines from Donald Trump’s hyper-political speech to the Boy Scouts.” (Trump thanked a crowd of children for voting to “Make America Great Again”; never forget.) As I wrote last year—after Trump defaced an official hurricane map with a Sharpie—Trumpian absurdities and outrages that would each have driven breathless coverage in 2017, especially if they came in tweeted form, have come to pass without much comment. The context of Trump’s recent ill health seems, to my eye, to have re-intensified media focus on stray strands of his rhetoric.

Then again, maybe I’m wrong. Some of the stuff he said on Fox yesterday—a reference to the “Deep State,” for instance—passed without remark even though it was, objectively, remarkable that the president was saying it. As Ben Rhodes, a former Obama adviser, told Reid on MSNBC, “We’re not even commenting on the fact that, in the middle of a pandemic, [Trump is] spending his time calling a Fox Business anchor for one hour on the phone. If any other president did anything like that, our heads would fall off our bodies. This is where we are. We’ve been conditioned to think it’s somehow normal.” Even soundbites that did make news—Trump’s demands that Barr indict his rivals, for instance—will probably be forgotten by later today. “In any other age this would BE the headline,” NPR’s David Folkenflik noted yesterday. “For days.”

This is all hard to wrestle with for a number of reasons. Is the impression that we pay less heed to Trump’s throwaway nonsense a clear supply-side issue of less coverage, or is it more a function of us, as news consumers, glossing past such coverage? (Cillizza has written plenty of Trump listicles since the Boy Scout one; I just stopped caring about them at some point.) Have these sorts of stories diminished in prominence because of some conscious journalistic impulse, or is there simply (as I wrote on Tuesday) so much more news these days that every story gets less airtime? If it is a journalistic impulse, is it a good one or a bad one? Does downplaying aspects of Trump’s obscenity reflect us wising up to his distraction tactics, or does it reflect a dangerous normalization? It feels like we’re better, these days, at separating his empty, oft-repeated bluster from newer, more-immediate threats (to not accept the election result, for instance). But doesn’t the bluster contribute to a broader, toxic climate?

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Yesterday, between Trump’s Fox hits, that toxic climate hit us with yet another gut punch. The FBI and state officials in Michigan reported that they’d busted a far-right militia plot to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, the state’s Democratic governor; the plot, officials said, was well-advanced, with suspects allegedly having scoped out Whitmer’s vacation home as well as a local bridge where they considered planting explosives. There’s no indication so far that the plot was directly inspired by Trump; clearly, domestic terrorism predates his political rise. But, as many commentators pointed out throughout the day, it’s impossible to entirely separate isolated hate crimes from a national atmosphere of hate that Trump has stoked. Whitmer herself pointed to Trump’s failure, at last week’s debate, to condemn far-right groups (he told one such group, the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by,” which members took as encouragement), and Dana Nessel, Michigan’s attorney general, confirmed that suspects in Whitmer’s case were involved in the frightening anti-lockdown rallies at the state’s capitol this spring—events that Trump encouraged, including by tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.” Last night, Trump tweeted that Whitmer is doing a “terrible job,” and chastised her for failing to thank him following the foiling of the plot against her; he wrote that he doesn’t tolerate extreme violence, then called on Whitmer to “open up your state, open up your schools, and open up your churches!”

Trump’s rhetoric has been linked to violence many times—last year, for example, lawyers for Cesar Sayoc, a “Trump superfan,” claimed that he drew inspiration from the president when, in 2018, he mailed pipe bombs to Trump critics, including CNN. (No one was harmed.) Trump’s offhand attacks may not always be new or even particularly interesting—but they all add up to something dangerous and febrile, and always have done, regardless of the president’s drug regimen. The current, rampant speculation about Trump’s mental state isn’t especially helpful or necessary: unhinged tweetstorms and Fox interviews are nothing new for him. That’s not to say we shouldn’t demand medical transparency—we should. But we should also shine a strong light on the real-world consequences of the president’s words.

Below, more on Trump:

  • Long live the debates: Yesterday morning, the Commission on Presidential Debates said that Trump and Joe Biden’s second faceoff, which was scheduled for next Thursday, October 15, would occur virtually. Shortly afterward, Trump told Bartiromo that he didn’t want a virtual debate, and was pulling out; later, Biden booked a town hall with ABC News for the same night. There followed a day of conflicting plans and messages too confusing and pointless to round up here. The New York Times, which concluded that the second debate is now merely “on the verge of cancellation,” has a roundup of the details.
  • What about Trump’s health now?: White House officials are still refusing to say when Trump last tested negative for COVID; last night, the president wouldn’t even answer Hannity’s questions about his testing schedule. We do know, thanks to Carol E. Lee and Courtney Kube of NBC News, that Trump made staffers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center sign nondisclosure agreements when he was admitted to the facility last year, a visit that remains shrouded in secrecy. It’s not clear whether Trump made similar demands around his recent visit.
  • Taking Trump at his word?: On Tuesday, Trump tweeted: “I have fully authorized the total Declassification of any & all documents pertaining to the single greatest political CRIME in American History, the Russia Hoax. Likewise, the Hillary Clinton Email Scandal. No redactions!” Yesterday, BuzzFeed and CNN filed an emergency motion in federal court in a bid to hold Trump to that promise. They’re asking a judge to order the release of thousands of pages of Russia-probe documents prior to election day.
  • Amy Dorris: Last month, Amy Dorris, a former model, told The Guardian that Trump sexually assaulted her at the US Open in 1997. (Trump denies this.) Now Jodi Kantor, of the Times, has on-the-record interviews with two friends who say that Dorris told them about Trump’s alleged assault at the time.
  • Trump and the news cycle: In 2016, a flood of election news arguably worked in Trump’s favor: as the New Republic’s Alex Shephard writes, he was able to “keep the focus on one story—Hillary Clinton’s emails and alleged corruption—while there were so many Trump scandals circulating at once that no single story could fell him.” This time around, though, the busy news cycle seems to be working against Trump. “As COVID-19 has swept through the White House,” Shephard argues, “it’s also created one big story that Trump can’t escape: a story about his myriad failures in office and the increasing likelihood of electoral disaster.”

Other notable stories: 

  • It’s been a sad couple of days for the world of journalism. On Wednesday, Donald MacGillis, a former editor of the Berkshire Eagle and editorial writer at the Boston Globe, died following a hiking accident in Maine. He was 74. Yesterday, we learned of the loss of Monica Roberts, a Black trans journalist who ran the influential blog TransGriot. She was 58. Also yesterday, Jim Dwyer, a veteran New York reporter and columnist for the Times, died. He was 63. In 2016, Ben Cosgrove interviewed Dwyer for CJR, and asked him if he thought he had the best job in journalism. “I believe I do,” Dwyer replied.
  • For CJR, I went deep on The Lancet, a leading British medical journal that has rarely been far from controversy. “I feel very strongly that we should be using The Lancet as a platform for advocacy,” Richard Horton, its top editor, told me. “There’s not much point in publishing science unless you do something with it.” Horton has a bold view of scientific progress that entails risks given The Lancet’s prestige, I found. Elsewhere in the world of medical journals, the New England Journal of Medicine ran an editorial urging voters to kick Trump out of office—the first time that it has ever weighed in on electoral politics.
  • After Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a press release condemning a tweet by Talia Lavin, then of the New Yorker, in 2018, The Nation’s Ken Klippenstein filed a FOIA request to find out what happened behind the scenes. The records he eventually obtained “evoke a deeply politicized and at times paranoid atmosphere” at ICE; in one instance, officials worked “to dispatch federal agents to respond to what appears to be a single off-color tweet.” (ICYMI, Sam Thielman recently spoke with Klippenstein for CJR.)
  • On Wednesday, hundreds of religious Jews gathered in Borough Park, Brooklyn, to protest social-distancing measures that New York officials recently imposed on the neighborhood. At one point, a group of protesters chased Jacob Kornbluh, a journalist with Jewish Insider, down the street, then hit him in the head, kicked him, and called him “Hitler” and “a Nazi.” The Forward has more details of the attack.
  • For CJR, Bill Grueskin reports on the fascinating case of Natalie Edwards, a former Treasury official who leaked hundreds of documents to BuzzFeed and faces jail time for doing so. BuzzFeed has never said that Edwards was its source; in fact, it has only ever mentioned her arrest once in print. There may be good reasons for that—but readers deserve to know what can happen to sources who risk their freedom, Grueskin argues.
  • ProPublica is launching three regional “hubs” committed to local investigative journalism: one will cover the South out of Atlanta, another will cover the Southwest out of Phoenix, and the third will cover a broader swath of the Midwest out of ProPublica’s existing newsroom in Chicago. ProPublica will also make three-year grants to six investigative reporters at local outlets, an outgrowth of its existing Local Reporting Network.
  • In the UK, Boris Johnson’s government appointed Allegra Stratton—a former journalist with the BBC, ITV, and The Guardianto front White House-style televised daily press briefings. The press secretary-type role is a new development in British politics; currently, a spokesperson for the prime minister briefs reporters behind closed doors.
  • For CJR, Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, condemns the press-bashing tactics of Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador who has gone after El Faro, an independent investigative outlet in the country. Bukele has received glowing coverage in the US and the Trump administration has taken his side.
  • And the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Tom Toles will retire from the Washington Post next month after eighteen years at the paper. He previously worked for titles in Buffalo, New York. Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor at the Post, credited Toles with an “almost unimaginable standard of consistent excellence.” Washingtonian has more.

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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.