An author reflects on Trump, P.T Barnum, fake news and Americans' love of hoaxes

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Why Trump and Barnum are birds of a feather

Donald Trump was on his way from China to Vietnam but appeared to touch down on Chicago's South Side Thursday night as Kevin Young, author and poetry editor of The New Yorker, melded the long history of bunk, humbug and hoaxes with Trump and P.T. Barnum.

He recounted the huge allure of Barnum's hoaxes in the 1800s and how Trump's appeal also rests on hoaxes and fakery that entertain, even enthrall some. "There's something American about it," said Young to a Chicago Humanities Festival audience as he recounted about 150 years worth of de facto fake news, including via the 1830s advent of the so-called penny press, which promised information on the cheap, just like the internet.

Young writes in "Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News" that "the Age of Euphemism has its modern inheritor" to Barnum in Trump, a man similarly aware of the press, "by turns defiant of and dependent on it in ways that only reinforce the spectacle's power."

They both experienced bankruptcies and ran for office (Barnum served one term as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and in the legislature) and, yes, both “planted fake-news story as matter of course.” Admittedly, Barnum didn’t start a phony university, pretend to be his own publicists, or fabricate Time magazine covers that filled halls in his properties.

 

But those are probably distinctions without much of a difference, as he detailed to his audience and has written smartly about. There's the corollary of Barnum's humbugs and hoaxes, one one hand, and, yes, the species of media that vaulted Trump into national consciousness: reality television. "There, too, we can see a promised spectacle implied as real that quickly turns out to be staged."

"As viewers, we inheritors to Barnum's America tend to feel a mix of I can't believe I'm watching this and I can't believe that person did that to I can't wait to see what happens next."

Next? Let's see. Trump arrived in Vietnam and talked tough on trade a la his campaign last year. But he was being drowned out initially by a lot of Roy Moore talk. It meant he'd have to show Barnum aplomb to recapture our attention, even if he would entertain while fooling. Perhaps, as Young noted, like when Barnum enthralled Americans with his Feejee Mermaid, who looked beautiful in ads but, upon actual inspection, was a desiccated monkey torso with a fish hooked up to it. 

In retrospect, Young said as he spoke last night at the gorgeous Mediterranean Revival-style South Shore Cultural Center, "You'd think, 'How could I be so foolish'" to be so enthralled? But many were. And are. Where does it end? Young finds inspiration in a line by the long-ago realist novelist-critic William Dean Howells, about Americans wanting tragedy but with a happy ending.

Not your dad's New York Times 

If I missed the bulletin the first time on my iPhone, it resurfaced eight minutes later as I was watching Northern Ireland get shafted by a bad referee's goal in a World Cup qualifying match against Switzerland:

"The comedian Louis C.K. masturbated in front of two female comics in 2002, the women said. Three others described separate sexual conduct."

During a break in the action, I switched to MSNBC:

"This Just In: Washington Post: Woman Alleges Roy Moore Initiated sexual Ecounter When She was 14, He was 32."

But there was the antidote of, ah, spirited — or blind — defenses of Moore from Trump pro bono spokesman Sean Hannity and Breitbart News. In the latter case, there was "Full Video: Breitbart News’ Joel Pollak vs. MSNBC Over Roy Moore Allegations."

Speaking of Roy Moore ...

Nicolle Wallace on "Morning Joe:" "Every time I hear 'If they (the allegations) are true' ... This is the detailed journalism that the first Harvey Weinstein stories included and nobody said, 'If these are true.' ... Four women have put their name on the story with absolutely nothing to gain."

Yes, it was wall to wall gabbing about the Moore story, with CNN dispatching Martin Savage to Gadsden, Alabama, with the churns to the effect, "Sex Allegations Rock Alabama Senate Race & Washington." Co-host Chris Cuomo and Brian Stelter noted the 30 sources in the Washington Post story, not just the four women who went on the record.

"Trump & Friends" went wall to wall with those allegations. Ah, wait, no, it didn't. It opened with heralding Trump's Asia tour, praised his sucking up to President Xi of China and now his bashing of the World Trade Organization on his first day in Vietnam. It did a drive-by on Moore nine minutes into the show and then, very quickly, segued to Donna Brazile's book and the need to investigate the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Their primary source of analysis was Cleta Mitchell, an attorney and onetime Tea Party diehard.

And then, when that was all done came the full exploration of the Moore mess. Ah, stop, sorry. It was an upbeat interview on the House tax plan, with a buoyant businessman praising it as the epitome of simplicity and job creation. "This is going to be wonderful for American factories," said an ebullient (especially at 6:15 a.m.) Drew Greenblatt, CEO of Marlin Steel Wire Products.

Chinese buy an app for $800 million

Forget toiling to pay your kids' tuition bills. Just get them to create a "buzzy teen social media app," at least according to Bloomberg.

"Beijing ByteDance Technology Co., the company behind giant Chinese media startup Jinri Toutiao, has acquired buzzy teen social video app Musical.ly for about $800 million, according to people familiar with the deal."

"The acquisition represents the biggest venture abroad thus far for a Chinese startup valued at $20 billion that’s already spawned one of the world’s largest news services. Bytedance beat out rival bidders including Kuaishou, the viral video streaming service, the people said, asking not to be identified discussing a private matter. "

Does Trump want Time Warner to dump CNN?

"AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson says no one from the Department of Justice has asked him to sell CNN as a condition of getting his proposed Time Warner deal done," Recode relays.

“'I have never been told that the price of getting the deal done is selling CNN. Period,' Stephenson said at the New York Times DealBook conference in Manhattan."

"And Stephenson reiterated that he has no intention of selling Time Warner’s new network. But asked if anyone from the government had suggested that he should sell off DirecTV, Stephenson said he wouldn’t comment on the details of his negotiations with the Department of Justice, which he described as 'advanced.'"

As a prominent media executive, who knows antitrust politics, puts it to me: "Sounds to me like this is a negotiation with both sides threatening litigation in what they are prepared to do, and various options being explored by both sides to avoid litigation which neither side has as its preferred path — the government because it knows it might lose — and AT&T because it is a far harder way to get a deal done especially if the deal is enjoined pending appeal."

"I doubt Stephenson 'offered' to sell CNN. But in a negotiation like this what would get said is,  'Would it make a difference in the government's position on the merger if we sold CNN?' And then a discussion would ensue from there."

Snap heads south (again)

"Shares of Snap fell for a second straight day Thursday, as investors continued to digest the company's latest earnings report. BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield says he's not impressed by the company's planned redesign or the 12% stake just disclosed by China's Tencent."

"'It's pretty shocking how fast this thing has unraveled,' he told Cheddar."

And the obituaries are already being written, such as this in The Wall Street Journal: "Snap’s Rise and Fall: How a Big, Splashy IPO Prompted the Doubters to Keep Mum — Bankers and investors in Snap’s IPO didn’t want to risk losing a piece of the potentially blockbuster deal."

Sexual harassment and Jews

The Jewish Chronicle offers

"Two ways of helping to prevent sexual harassment: Every single incident of sexual harassment within the Jewish community is one too many, says Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum."

This is no small measure turns on a Poynter piece that keeps on giving, in which I interviewed movie critic Nell Minow about an encounter with David Schwimmer, who proved the decorous anti-Weinstein when the topic arose of where to conduct an interview.

"In a recent interview, American film critic Nell Minow described how reassured she felt when interviewing actor David Schwimmer in 2011, simply because he had offered her a chaperone in advance. 'This wasn’t just about his being a good guy who would not have tried anything,' Minow remarked. 'He understood what it is like to have to be constantly on the alert and he wanted to make sure I understood I was safe.'"

As Birnbaum writes, "Judaism puts rules in place which, if followed correctly, prevent the integrity of either party being compromised, however remote it may seem."

Meanwhile, CNN had a town hall on the subject of harassment but had slim Hollywood bookings. Host Alisyn Camerota told actress Jessica Barth the network had invited "dozens" of actors who had alleged harassment but only Barth agreed to come.

Steve Bannon in the belly of the media beast

The New York Times "Maga Day" online video interview with Steven Bannon is good but perhaps not as good as the run-up to the session, with its pre-chat strategizing among several reporters including Jeremy Peters, Carl Hulse and Peter Baker, and senior staff editor Mikayla Bouchard. 

In the piece, he predicts Mitch McConnell won't be Senate Majority Leader a year from now because he's a sellout. Outgoing Republican Sen. Jeff Flake is "total, complete phony," he says. The claim of Trump appealing to white nationalists is "MSNBC nonsense" and "a complete media fabrication."

ESPN layoffs

"ESPN will lay off more than 100 staffers after the Thanksgiving holidays, multiple sources tell Sports Illustrated. The layoffs, which were described by a person briefed on the plans, will hit positions across ESPN including front-facing talent on the television side, producers, executives, and digital and technology staffers. The SportsCenter franchise is expected to be hit hard — including on-air people — given the frequency of the show has lessened considerably on main network ESPN."

A CNN correction

Good for them to note it online. "On CNN.com now: CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect neither Trump nor President Barack Obama took questions alongside his Chinese counterpart during their first visit to the country. A previous version misstated that Obama had."

The Paradise Papers

Even in slow news periods, the massive investigation of offshore tax havens by a consortium of media worldwide would not be the easiest for television. But throw in the far easier-to-handle Texas church massacre and Trump's Asian jaunt and it's a tough sell. But, of the modest U.S. cable news attempts so far, the best might be this Ari Melber effort on MSNBC.

A revealing change in sports coverage

NBC will use not one but two SkyCams for a Nov. 16 NFL game between Pittsburgh and Tennessee. Why?

"By pivoting to the SkyCam, NBC hopes to attract younger viewers who grew up playing 'Madden' video games, which employs a view from behind the quarterback. 'Younger generations of NFL fans have grown accustomed to watching football from this angle through their love of video games. This telecast will have a look and feel akin to that experience,'" said Fred Guadelli, an NBC sports executive.

Now can we attract them to "Meet the Press" or "The CBS Evening News" with overhead shots of Chuck Todd and Jeff Glor?

Bye, Bye Boies

It was just a few months ago that The New York Times touted David Boies' law firm merging with another. Now it's firing one of the most prominent (and idiosyncratic attorneys) and the firm as an outside counsel after disclosing how he tried to stymie the paper's investigation of client Harvey Weinstein and hired private investigators to trail women making accusations again Weinstein.

Some great litigators have nasty streaks. It can help, especially in pre-trial discovery and in cross-examination of witnesses, as one bloodlessly seeks victory. Boies was very aggressive and not forthcoming about his representation. And now one of his most prized clients not only jettisons him but runs an op-ed going after him as a scum. It's the handiwork of Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode.

"Mr. Boies personally signed a contract with a private investigation organization, Black Cube, to unearth, as the contract specified, 'intelligence which will help the client’s efforts to completely stop the publication of a new negative article in a leading NY Newspaper.' The client was Mr. Weinstein. The contract also authorized investigators to look for material to discredit 'harmful negative information' about Mr. Weinstein in a forthcoming book. Having Mr. Boies rather than Mr. Weinstein sign the contract had the advantage of protecting the resulting information under the attorney-client privilege, which would shield it from disclosure in subsequent disputes."

She concludes, "Such moral myopia is particularly dispiriting when it involves leaders of the Bar. Mr. Boies is a renowned litigator, a champion of same-sex marriage and, according to his own statement, an attorney with a long history of 'protecting the rights of women.' When leaders with such high visibility cut ethical corners, it sends a powerful and corrosive message."

Boies contends he wasn't in conflict. Talk to big-time lawyers and you'll hear that it's inconceivable he didn't know what private investigators were doing. Did he merely exhibit hubris in believing he could get away with it because the outrageous conduct of Weinstein, a longtime client, wouldn't ultimately surface because, well, he was Harvey Weinstein and represented by legend-in-his-own mind Boies?

Well, now that the paper is among those exposing the wealthy's plentiful use of tax havens, maybe he should go represent Wilbur Ross, any number of Vladimir Putin buddies, Apple, Queen Elizabeth, Madonna, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers, too. All have been outed in the tax expose.

* * *

That's it as the weekend beckons. No school for the kids due to early celebration of Veterans Day. The sports schedule begins with the Chicago City Soccer Cub U9 Red facing off with the Wilmette Wings 2009 Red at, ugh, 7:45 a.m. Saturday, a choir rehearsal, another soccer game and a documentary on NFL concussions with post-screening analysis by The Washington Post's David Maraniss and long-ago NFL renegade linebacker David Meggyesy. And, maybe, taking photos of the kids for a Christmas card. Yes, the holidays beckon. Cheers.

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.

 

CORRECTION: The original version included the speaker's assertion that P.T Barnum, unlike President Trump, had not won an election.  He was elected mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1875 (serving one term) and previously served in the state legislature.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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