The Media Today

Whistleblowers and the cacophonous sounds of America

September 18, 2020

A year ago today, the Washington Post reported details about a whistleblower complaint filed from someone in the US intelligence community, vague word of which had been swirling below the news cycle for days: Trump had made a “troubling” promise to a foreign leader. The Post’s story accelerated a media-wide rush to find out more; soon, we learned that the leader in question was Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, and that Trump had asked him to investigate Hunter Biden, son of Joe. After four months, those revelations culminated in Trump’s impeachment in the House of Representatives and acquittal in the Senate.

In hindsight, that was a quieter time. During the past week alone, we’ve learned details of three whistleblower complaints alleging misconduct across the Trump administration. First, we found out that Brian Murphy, a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security, filed a complaint claiming that he was told to suppress and/or doctor intelligence reports—on Russian interference, domestic white supremacy, and other urgent matters—that risked contradicting Trump’s political priorities. (Murphy, it should be noted, was recently removed from his post atop a DHS office that compiled intelligence reports on journalists; former officials told the Post that Murphy was a “poor manager,” but confirmed that the substance of his complaint is valid.) Then Dawn Wooten, a nurse at a privately-run ICE detention facility in Georgia, revealed that she filed a complaint alleging that the facility recklessly mismanaged COVID-19 cases and subjected Spanish-speaking female detainees to hysterectomies—frequently, and possibly without their informed consent. (Her account has been corroborated, including by The Intercept.)

ICYMI: Journalism’s Gates keepers

Yesterday, the Post reported a claim by Adam D. DeMarco, a major in the DC National Guard, who gave whistleblower testimony about the decision to violently clear peaceful protesters outside the White House, in June, when Trump staged a photo-op with a Bible. Hours before Trump took a step toward Lafayette Square, DeMarco said, federal officials had been stockpiling ammunition and seeking weapons—including a “heat ray” designed to make targets feel as if their skin is on fire—that have repeatedly been deemed inappropriate for use in war zones.

Also yesterday, we learned of two other claims—not from whistleblowers per se, but disturbing just the same. In an interview with The Guardian’s Lucy Osborne, Amy Dorris, a former model, alleged that Trump sexually assaulted her in 1997 at the US Open. Several sources confirmed that Dorris told them about the alleged assault at the time or subsequently. Dorris is at least the twenty-fourth woman to have accused Trump of sexual misconduct; E. Jean Carroll, an advice columnist, has accused him of rape. Later in the day, Olivia Troye—a former aide to Vice President Mike Pence, and who served on the White House’s coronavirus task force—said that Trump’s response to the virus was guided primarily by reelection concerns; she alleged that the president said the pandemic could be a “good thing” if it stopped him from having to shake hands with “disgusting people”—an apparent reference to his supporters.

Given their dizzying pace, it’s hard to keep all these revelations in mind—let alone prominently in the news cycle—at once. This time, there will be no impeachment inquiry to hang the reporting around. Yesterday, when I flicked over from CNN, where Wolf Blitzer was discussing Troye’s remarks, to MSNBC, it took me a while to realize that they weren’t discussing the same story, but rather the Post’s coverage of DeMarco and heat rays. Stephen Colbert put it well: “The news can be depressing these days,” he tweeted, “so take a mental wellness break from reading about how the president sexually assaulted someone to read about how he tried to use a heat ray against his own citizens.” Not that either of those stories is conspicuous on many major news homepages this morning. We may already have moved on.

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There’s also the stuff that Trump says and does publicly, wrenching the attention of the news cycle. Yesterday, at the National Archives museum, he condemned the 1619 Project—a major New York Times Magazine initiative that aims to root the American story in the history of slavery. An important part of the 1619 Project is educational material, which Trump called “ideological poison.” He also referred to the teaching of critical race theory as “a form of child abuse, in the truest sense of those words.” The speech was surreal (I, for one, did not have “Howard Zinn” marked on my Trump-insult bingo card) and part of his effort to reframe the election campaign around conservative theories of the past, since things aren’t going so well in the present.

Amid the swirl of reports about Trump’s insults and abuses, we must try and keep a sustained spotlight on testimony that credibly alleges the abuse of human rights, especially when such abuses are ongoing. The ICE story, in particular, must not fall victim to the fleetingness of our outrage. The institutional racism and violence there, worsened by Trump, will outlast him. Come election day, and the days after, we must remember what America has done.

Below, more on everything:

  • Another new story: American Oversight, a watchdog group, used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain nearly 10,000 pages of documents from the US Postal Service, then handed the records to the Post; they contain damning details about dysfunction at the agency during the months of March and April, several months before the USPS became a national election story. At one point, the postal service was planning to deliver 650 million face masks nationwide, but the plan never came to fruition. Separately, yesterday, a federal judge in Washington state temporarily blocked Louis DeJoy, the Republican donor turned postmaster general, from instituting operational charges at the USPS; the judge accused the Trump administration of “a politically motivated attack” on the agency that will likely slow the delivery of mail ballots.
  • Another old story: Yesterday, the Center for Public Integrity debuted The Heist, a new investigative podcast exploring how Trump’s 2017 tax cuts (remember them?) benefited the rich and exploded the national debt, even though Trump said they’d help the middle classes the most. “Something similar happened again with the 2020 pandemic bailout,” the team behind The Heist writes. “Promises made, promises broken.”
  • A response: After Trump attacked the 1619 Project, its lead author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, responded on Twitter. “I take great satisfaction from knowing that now even Trump’s supporters know the date 1619 and mark it as the beginning American slavery,” she wrote. “1619 is part of the national lexicon. That cannot be undone, no matter how hard they try.”
  • A threat: Yesterday, Christopher Wray, the FBI director, told lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee that Russia has been “very active” in sowing a disinformation campaign aimed at smearing Joe Biden. The campaign mimics Russia’s tactics in 2016, when it also tried to target election infrastructure, though the latter threat has not yet recurred, Wray said. (ICYMI, I wrote on Tuesday about Russian disinformation, and how the press ought to conceptualize it.)
  • A swan song: Drew Magary is ending his regular politics column at Gen because “writing about politics sucks.” Doing so every week, he writes, “is like your old man catching you with a pack of Marlboros and forcing you to smoke the entire thing in one sitting to make you sick. I can’t do this shit anymore. I don’t know how any human can.” Most TV politics commentators, Magary adds, are “a parade of scum.”

Other notable stories:

  • In a cover story for Bloomberg Businessweek, Sarah Frier and Kurt Wagner make the case that “Facebook needs Trump even more than Trump needs Facebook.” (The cover shows a cartoon of Zuckerberg wearing a MAGA hat, along with the words, “What, me partisan?”  Alfred E. Neuman would approve.) Frier and Wagner write that above all, Zuckerberg cares about “Facebook’s ubiquity and its potential for growth. The result, critics say, has been an alliance of convenience between the world’s largest social network and the White House, in which Facebook looks the other way while Trump spreads misinformation about voting.”
  • For CJR, Bill Grueskin writes that the moderators of the presidential debates between Trump and Biden must call out lies in real time. The hosts “need to have Glenn Kessler– or Daniel Dale-quality fact checkers in their control room, providing instantaneous quality control on the candidates’ claims,” Grueskin argues. “So armed, moderators can help voters see which candidate is more capable of handling and delivering the truth.”
  • This week, dozens of staffers at BuzzFeed received an email from an outside source accusing one of their colleagues of harassment. (The allegations have not been corroborated, and the staffer facing them has not been publicly named.) Managers at BuzzFeed pledged to investigate—but also deleted the original email from all inboxes, a move that alarmed BuzzFeed staffers. The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani has more.
  • In 2016, managers at WAMU, an NPR station in Washington, DC, tried to fire Martin Di Caro, a transportation reporter who was repeatedly accused of sexual harassment. Then HR bosses at American University, which holds WAMU’s license, stopped the firing. (The university disputes this.) Di Caro left WAMU in December 2017 and went on to work for Bloomberg Radio. Rachel Kurzius has more for DCist.
  • Poynter’s Kristen Hare profiles Mountain State Spotlight, a new investigative newsroom in West Virginia. Its founders—Greg Moore, Eric Eyre, and Ken Ward, Jr.—initially intended to launch the site under the banner of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, where they all previously worked, but ended up striking out on their own. Mountain State Spotlight is receiving support from Report for America, the American Journalism Project, and ProPublica.
  • For CJR, Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, lists ten questions lawmakers should ask Michael Pack—the head of the US Agency for Global Media, which oversees state-backed outlets including Voice of America. When Pack entered his position, in June, many feared what his leadership would mean for editorial independence. Next week, Pack will appear before a House committee. (“Who are you working for?” Simon wants to know. And: “Why on earth would you suggest journalists are spies?”)
  • With New York City schools set to begin a phased reopening next week, Alexander Russo, of The Grade, argues that coverage should prioritize “school-based experiences and carefully contextualized data” and not “scary anecdotes and political infighting.” So far, he writes, much coverage has been “unnecessarily alarmist.” (ICYMI, we discussed back-to-school coverage on a recent episode of our podcast, The Kicker.)
  • Vanity Fair’s Keziah Weir profiles Skyhorse, the independent publishing house responsible for recent books by Woody Allen, Roger Stone, and Michael Cohen, among others. Crown, a division of Penguin Random House, announced that it will publish A Promised Land, the first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoir, on November 17, two weeks after the election.
  • And CJR’s Betsy Morais asked Roger Angell, a New Yorker writer and editor known for his baseball pieces, to suggest a reading list to fans in honor of his hundredth birthday (which is tomorrow). “He sits motionless in the hot sunshine, with a shapeless canvas hat cocked over his eyes,” Angell writes, in his profile of a baseball scout. “At last, responding to something on the field not perceptible to the rest of us, he takes out a little notebook and writes a few words in it, and then replaces it in his windbreaker pocket.” We’re tipping our caps.

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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.