The Media Today

The scowl seen ‘round the world

August 25, 2023
Members of the media line the road as the motorcade of former President Donald Trump arrives at the Fulton County Jail, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Eyebrows furrowed. Head tilted slightly. A Fulton County Sheriff’s Office insignia in the top left corner. On cable news, some saw rage in Donald Trump’s mugshot, others a practiced stare. John Bolton, the former national security adviser, saw “a thug”; at least two journalists saw Ben Stiller in Zoolander. Trump posted the picture to X, formerly known as Twitter, breaking a two-and-a-half-year silence there. “It’s going to be on T-shirts,” Lara Trump, his daughter in law, told Newsmax. Soon, it was: the Trump team began offering them in exchange for campaign contributions. You can also, in horrible irony, buy a mugshot mug.

The image—released last night after Trump surrendered at a jail in Georgia, where he faces charges that he led a broad criminal plot to overturn the state’s 2020 election results—became instantly iconic. In some quarters, it served as an entry point to conversations about the wider criminal-justice system. Many viewed it as symbolic of the equal application of justice; others as a testament to the judicial system’s flaws. Mother Jones scolded that mugshots are “bad,” referring to an argument that has gained traction in media circles in recent years (including in CJR) that mugshots stigmatize people—people of color, disproportionately—who have not yet been convicted of a crime.

On the whole, the mugshot and other on-site details were marshaled as atmospherics for yet another media production featuring Trump as the star. (An NBC talking head noted the presence of bedbugs at the jail, by way of saying that it was not a “cozy” environment for Trump, who was only there for twenty minutes.) As with his previous three indictments, viewers were invited to gawp at endless rolling footage of Trump’s plane and motorcade; as Trump was booked, airborne cameras panned, through a golden evening haze, over the roof of the jail. According to The Guardian, Trump organized his surrender to coincide with prime time, in a bid to juice ratings. “He enjoys the fanfare,” Jake Tapper said on CNN, which devoted hours of airtime to the story, replete with epic music and on-screen teaser graphics. “I mean, you couldn’t pick a better time to be arrested.”  

As we should all know by now, Trump will always try to spin inconvenient facts to his benefit. Yet the ample commentary fretting that the optics of the arrest are actually good for him politically can feel hackneyed and overdetermined. As Maggie Haberman, perhaps the preeminent Trump whisperer, told Tapper last night, “He doesn’t want to be mugshotted, he doesn’t want to be arrested.” Personally, I saw in his pose an expression of disempowerment.

The mugshot provided a more intimate look inside Trump’s various criminal proceedings than the press has so far been afforded—indeed, it represents one of the only glimpses, aside from some still shots of him in a New York courtroom earlier this year. Going forward, the Georgia case appears as though it will continue to offer media access, since, unlike in other jurisdictions where Trump has been charged, Georgia typically encourages the filming of court proceedings. That prospect could yet be thwarted—per legal experts, Trump and his co-defendants may succeed in arguing that the case should be moved to a federal court, where cameras are banned. Still, if the case remains in Georgia, it’s not hard to imagine Trump embracing the presence of cameras in much the same way that he has embraced his mugshot and various arraignments.

One key argument against cameras in court: sober administration of justice being turned into a TV spectacle. Trump’s instinct for stagecraft is bound to exacerbate that concern. (And the trial will surely be described as “made for TV” an awful lot.) And yet—as I wrote in 2021 during the televised trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis cop who murdered George Floyd—cameras in court also facilitate transparency. Trump will seek to debase his trials one way or another. The public may as well have real-time visual access to what’s happening, however we choose to interpret it.

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Yesterday, Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton argued, in response to Mother Jones, that “it’s not that *mugshots* themselves are bad,” but rather “the media’s *use* of them that is often bad.” (News organizations have often used mugshots as a magnet for cheap clicks—a criticism that could likewise be leveled at Trump coverage.) Similarly, when it comes to cameras in Trump’s courtroom, it strikes me that the inevitable sensationalism will stem not from the footage itself, but from how the media uses it. So far, Trump has been able to turn his every arraignment into a media circus that journalists have eagerly co-produced. We see what we want to see: a big show. 

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, intimated without explicitly confirming that on Wednesday, Yevgeny Prigozhin—the founder of the Wagner mercenary group who led a mutinous march on Moscow—was killed in a plane crash. The Biden administration shared the assessment that Prigozhin is “likely” dead, while US officials briefed the press that the plane was either shot down or blown up by a bomb on board. Politico’s Eva Hartog reports, however, that many observers don’t yet seem convinced that Prigozhin was really on the plane. Prigozhin has long been “a lover of the theatrical and a Houdini-style master of trickery and deceit,” Hartog writes, adding that “it wouldn’t be beyond him to stage his death.”
  • Fallout continues from the recent police raid at the Marion County Record, a local newspaper in Kansas. (I wrote about the raid, which followed a reporter using a state website to access driving records, in Monday’s newsletter.) Last week, a local prosecutor ordered local law-enforcement officials to return the items that they seized, citing insufficient justificatory evidence—but the Kansas Reflector now reports that officials copied digital evidence and held onto it even after that order arrived. Per the Reflector, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office has now agreed to destroy any files that it copied, and the Record is seeking a court order to ensure compliance.
  • Last year, executives at Warner Bros. Discovery, the newly merged parent company of CNN, killed CNN+, an ambitious streaming service featuring original programming, after only a month of operation. Now WBD is planning to launch “CNN Max,” a streaming channel that will live within the company’s Max streaming platform and offer a combination of original programming and shows borrowed from CNN’s output on linear cable. As Variety’s Brian Steinberg notes, WBD may have to tread carefully around the latter, since cable providers typically expect “first crack” at linear programming. (And for The New Yorker, Clare Malone profiles David Zaslav, the CEO of WBD.)
  • As Vice Media continues its transition out of bankruptcy, the company informed staffers that it will soon be moving out of its headquarters in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The offices have “a larger-than-life place in the minds of many of us,” the executives said in an email, but have “become increasingly unsuited to the needs of our evolving business.” Staff are expected to work remotely while Vice finds a new home. (It wasn’t immediately clear what would happen to the company’s life-sized grizzly bear.)
  • And Insider’s Anna Silman profiled Merve Emre, the literary critic. “Emre’s reach has grown such that she has the power to represent her field in the public imagination much the way Alison Roman has become shorthand for ‘cookbook author’ or Frank Gehry for ‘architect,’” Silman writes. “It leaves her in both a prestigious and precarious position, with seemingly as many people in the cutthroat literary world cheering her on as rooting for her to fail.”

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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.