The Media Today

Crowd size is not a moral metric

June 22, 2020

This weekend, the Trump-presidency news cycle called back to its beginnings with a silly debate about crowd size, this time with 100-percent less Sean Spicer. On Saturday, Trump held a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, his first since COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, suspended in-person campaigning. Ahead of time, Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, said more than a million people had registered to attend. In the end, only around 6,000 supporters showed, per local fire officials; two thirds of the arena’s capacity went unfilled, and Trump nixed plans to address an overflow space outside. Parscale blamed “radical protestors” and “apocalyptic media coverage” for scaring away would-be rally-goers. News organizations reported that users of the video app TikTok had inflated attendance expectations by registering for tickets they had no intention of using; online, there was debate around whether this constituted activism or a “prank” (as the New York Times and others called it), and the extent of the impact it had on the turnout (probably minimal). Whatever caused it, the emptiness echoed through coverage. The Washington Post ran the headline, “Trump rallies in red-state America—and faces a sea of empty blue seats.” A photo by the Post’s Jabin Botsford illustrated that point.

Even without the TikTok activism, the rally was a debacle from pre-start to post-finish. Many observers—including health officials and the editorial board of the Tulsa World—said it shouldn’t have happened at all, due to the risks of COVID-19; in the hours before the rally, we learned that six staffers working on it had tested positive for the disease. Trump reportedly was furious that that news got out. The rally was initially scheduled for Friday, which meant it would have clashed with Juneteenth, the holiday marking the end of slavery in Texas; Trump changed the rally date (and tried to take credit for making Juneteenth “very famous”), but still faced criticism for holding it in Tulsa, the site of one of the worst acts of racist violence in US history. Trump didn’t mention that context during the rally; nor did he mention George Floyd, whose recent killing by police in Minneapolis sparked massive protests nationwide. The president did disparage Rep. Ilhan Omar and “the country from where she came,” use a racist slur to describe the coronavirus, and say that he wanted testing to be slowed down because it illustrates viral spread. His aides later insisted the last remark was a joke. He also spent nearly 15 minutes lashing out at media coverage of his unsteady ramp-walking and water-drinking at West Point last weekend.

ICYMI: Why we capitalize ‘Black’ (and not ‘white’)

Yesterday, all these details jostled for room in the news cycle amid other big Trump-related stories. One of them involved Geoffrey Berman, the top prosecutor in the Southern District of New York. On Friday night (yes, again), William Barr, the attorney general, said Berman was resigning. Berman said he wasn’t resigning, so on Saturday, Barr said Trump had fired Berman—but Trump then said it was all Barr’s doing. The reasons for the firing remain murky, but Berman’s office had investigated Trump associates Michael Cohen and Rudy Giuliani. Another big story involved John Bolton, the former national security adviser, and his new book, The Room Where It Happened, in which Bolton claims, among other things, that Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help him win reelection, and said that it was okay for Xi to put Muslims in detention camps. On Saturday, a judge rejected Trump’s efforts to stall publication of the book, in part because the key details had already escaped. The judge also said that Bolton had “gambled” with national security, and violated an agreement with the White House by curtailing its prepublication review of the book. Bolton could now lose his book profits, or worse.

In short, it was another manic weekend. As the Trump presidency has advanced, a news cycle which, at any given moment, has felt impossibly saturated somehow continues to take on water at a quickening rate. Developments that previously dominated lengthy news cycles—Trump allegedly asking a foreign power for election help, Trump making racist remarks about a Congresswoman and her birthplace, Trump firing a prosecutor known to be probing too close to home—get compressed, or lost. The slew of facts can induce whiplash. So, too, can the ever-changing tone of what we’re watching. One moment we’re appalled by an apparent admission of massive presidential negligence in the handling of a deadly pandemic, the next we’re being told to lighten up. One moment Trump is being racist, the next he’s proving he can drink water with one hand then tossing the glass triumphantly to the side. One moment the government is assaulting peaceful protesters, the next Trump is posing, awkwardly, with a Bible in front of a gaggle of bemused reporters. Rarely have such dark times felt so clownish.

How should news coverage account for the deluge, and its sudden temperature changes? The most useful coverage of the Trump era is that which has sought to observe the moment through a moral lens. That approach was visible over the weekend—a number of journalists and outlets pointed out, for example, the gross symbolism of Trump choosing to rally in Tulsa, and that his testing joke wasn’t funny (and likely wasn’t even a joke). Consistency, however, remains an issue; as per usual, we also saw the weekend’s many outrages through the less useful lenses of campaign strategy and Beltway politicking. The recent protests and reckoning over racial injustice have caused many journalists to reassess the organizing principles of their coverage. Race is far from the only area where the view-from-nowhere approach has been proven deficient.

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The size of a crowd, in particular, can have moral dimensions—one need only look as far as the protests and the mechanisms by which COVID-19 spreads between bodies to see that. Some coverage assessed Trump’s Tulsa crowd on the latter terms. Much of the crowd coverage, however, felt like a relic of the age of Spicer. Crowd size is not, in itself, a useful or reliable moral metric. Centering it risks dragging the conversation onto Trump’s showman-style turf, even if the intention of doing so is to show him up. What the president says matters more.

Below, more on Trump:

  • Remember Mueller?: On Friday, the Justice Department published previously redacted portions of the Mueller report pertaining to Roger Stone, whose trial was ongoing when the report came out last year. According to BuzzFeed—which, along with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, asked a court to unredact the material once Stone had been sentenced—Trump knew that Stone was in contact with WikiLeaks regarding hacked emails from inside the Clinton campaign. Trump denied such knowledge in his written submission to Mueller. In news cycles past, this, too, would have been a bigger story.
  • Scenes from Tulsa: On Saturday, ahead of Trump’s rally, police arrested an apparently peaceful protester wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt for “trespassing” outside the venue. MSNBC broadcast the arrest live; the protester could repeatedly be heard telling police that she had a ticket for the rally. Also in the vicinity of the rally, Beatrice-Elizabeth Peterson, a Black ABC News journalist, reported receiving racist abuse.
  • Deferring action: Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration has not provided adequate legal justification for ending DACA—the Obama-era package of protections for undocumented migrants brought to the US as children—meaning the program can continue for now. In an op-ed, Andrea Lopez-Villafaña, a reporter at the San Diego Union-Tribune, who is covered by DACA, wrote that the ruling “gave me peace and a sense of relief knowing that I can continue covering the stories of San Diego’s neighborhoods and doing my part to highlight inequity in our communities.”
  • Something about Mary: Last week, the Daily Beast reported that Mary Trump, Trump’s niece, is writing a tell-all book about the president. In an interview with Jonathan Swan, of Axios, Donald Trump alleged that Mary Trump is subject to a nondisclosure agreement that “covers everything,” and thus is “not allowed” to publish the book.

Other notable stories:

  • Earlier this month, Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, said that the administration would not be naming the businesses that received money under the Paycheck Protection Program that it instituted in response to the pandemic, calling such details “proprietary.” On Friday, the administration did a partial U-turn: it now plans to release data about recipients, but it will use dollar ranges to hide the exact amount that each received, and businesses that received less than $150,000 won’t be named at all.
  • From July 6, Gannett will exclude all its reporters and visual journalists from the furlough scheme it initiated due to COVID-19; Maribel Wadsworth, Gannett’s president of news, said she wants “reporting firepower back to full strength.” Other employees in Gannett’s news division will continue to be subject to furloughs and wage cuts, however. Poynter’s Kristen Hare has more. In other news, Gannett no longer has two CEOs. One of them, Paul Bascobert, is out, ending a quirky legacy of Gannett’s merger with GateHouse.
  • Joe Flint and Erich Schwartzel, of the Wall Street Journal, profile Jeff Shell, who became CEO of NBCUniversal this year. Shell already ousted Andy Lack as head of NBC News, replacing him with Cesar Conde, and reportedly wants to turn CNBC into “a destination for centrist and libertarian viewers,” distinguishing it from both MSNBC and Fox News. (For more on Shell, Lack, and Conde, read Adam Piore’s profile of MSNBC for CJR.)
  • Yesterday, The Tennessean published a full-page ad in which the Ministry of Future for America, a religious group that claims Trump’s presidency was prophesied, wrote that “Islam is going to detonate a nuclear device” in Nashville. The Tennessean apologized for the ad and said it would investigate how it came to be published. The paper ran a similar ad from the group last week, though that one did not contain the “Islam” slur.
  • On Friday, the AP changed its style guide—which is a baseline for newsrooms across the US—to capitalize the words “Black” and “Indigenous” as they pertain to race and culture. This was already CJR’s style; last week, our copy editor, Mike Laws, explained why. Also last week, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke with Meg Kissinger and Dr. Stephanie Le Melle about race, mental illness, and police brutality on our podcast, The Kicker.
  • In the UK, Clive Myrie, a BBC news anchor, has spoken out about the racism he faces. “I could count on the fingers of one hand the amount of racist abuse that I received from when I started in journalism in 1988 through to about 2008, though there was a guy in the early 90s who would send faeces,” Myrie told The Guardian. “But it has picked up in the last decade and become incredibly more prevalent in the last few years.”
  • And John Bompengo, a visual journalist for the AP in Congo, has died after contracting the coronavirus. He was 52. Among other big stories, Bompengo documented a tumultuous election in 2006, and an Ebola outbreak in the north of the country in 2018.

ICYMI: A new group devoted to transparency is exposing secrets Wikileaks chose to keep

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.