Media struggles to make sense of the 'locker room' debate

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The second Clinton-Trump debate made one thing clear early on: If Donald Trump's campaign is the anatomy of politics gone awry, it's also the tale of our public discourse gone anatomical.

Right out of the box, "in an almost unremittingly hostile debate," there was a town hall attendee's question about "modeling appropriate behavior" for youth. CNN's Anderson Cooper refined it into presidential debate history's first question inspired by "Access Hollywood."

Trump offered a brazen, intimidating reply from the Tony Soprano School of Debate and climaxed a weekend where parents strained to answer queries from children who inquired, "What is pussy?"

Mainstream media spent part of the weekend wondering what to do with that word. Many mulled this rhetorical improvised explosive device (a Trump IED), held their noses and went with it.

As New York Times Editor Dean Baquet said Sunday, "Of course we hesitated and discussed. But we thought this was extraordinary and not using actual language wouldn't capture what he said, and the context."

Sheila McCann, managing editor of the Salt Lake, Utah Tribune informed, "I was in the newsroom as our first story was going up, and our editor, Jennifer Napier-Pearce, was out of the office. In one of the cruder texts I've sent, I sent her the initial dashing plan for the b-word, the p-word and said we were planning to use 'tits.' She responded, 'Yuck — but yes.'"

When the debate came, Trump was a two-legged basket of deplorables, to steal a phrase, who used his own nuclear option against Hillary Clinton — and blew himself up.

"This might be something of a wash," said Jake Tapper, probably correct in lieu of real polls in a few days. "This felt like a status quo debate to us," writes University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato in his Sabato's Crystal Ball this morning.

Meanwhile, Republican politicians were scurrying from Trump, as if the "Access Hollywood" tape had divulged something not previously known about their candidate. MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski nailed that hypocrisy-laden exodus this morning: "All this information is baked into the cake, really, yes, do a little googling. This guy says a lot of things like that...this is what put you over the edge?!"

Winners and losers last night

Winner: Trump's red meat base.

Winner: Co-moderator Martha Raddatz.

Loser: Town hall attendees and their underwhelming questions. We'd have been better off with just Raddatz, who should have moderated a debate solo, and Anderson Cooper.

Winner and loser: Fact-checking. There was superior real-time work by several organizations, notably The New York Times and The Washington Post. They revealed far greater bending of the truth by Trump than Clinton. But post-debate punditry focused far more on the style of his performance than the accuracy of his claims.

Megyn Kelly nonplussed

Last night, Fox host Megyn Kelly asked Trump acolyte Katrina Pierson about the "Access Hollywood" tape. Her reaction? "Look I have two brothers, I was in sports, so I was around a lot of athletes. This truly was two men who had what they thought was a private conversation, talking about an attractive woman. He called it locker room banter."

"Do your brothers talk about grabbing women by the genitals?" asked Kelly.

"I don't know what they talk about specifically because when I walk into the room they stop the discussion," said Pierson.

It went on and on. It was a rather abysmal performance by Pierson, far better by Kelly. "Great to see you," Kelly ended with her customary salutation (which seemed especially robotic this time).

Endorsement scorecard

It's now 29 major newspapers for Clinton, three for Gary Johnson and zero for Trump. The Columbus, Ohio Dispatch has hopped on the bandwagon, deciding to endorse a Democrat every 100 years (it liked Woodrow Wilson in 1916).

Dear Washington Post...

We know that branding and being provocative are deemed essential these days. And one Post political reporter was spoken to after his multiple over-the-top Twitter musings. (Poynter) Now we have reporter Jose DelReal, who last evening felt his legion of followers had to know, "Holy shit that press conference with Clinton accusers. Just wow." (@jdelreal)

It might already be time to resend that previous memo from a deputy managing editor on acting "as a representative of The Washington Post." Of course, that sentiment might be deemed prudish in these early days of a digital Wild West, with the mainstream trying so hard not to look, well, mainstream.

Twitter's next move

"Twitter Inc., struggling to find new users, will need to rely more heavily on its live video streaming strategy after top potential bidders were said to have lost interest in making offers amid pressure from their investors." (Bloomberg)

LeBron gets quick action

So LeBron James tweeted the NBA: "GameTime App 2016-2017 can we please fix the box score portion. It's to (sic) challenging scrolling through and remembering previous stats." Bingo, they quickly made the change. (SB Nation) "Dev team is working on an update today."

The morning babble

"Fox & Friends": After Trump's "messy beginning," he had a better night than at the Hofstra (first debate)," said John Roberts, its Trump reporter. Co-host Steve Doocy wondered about the fly that wound up on Clinton's head.

"Morning Joe": The debate "stripped away any pretense of being a politician, any presence of civility and said 'I'm throwing everything at her,'" said Willie Geist. "It was a fantasy come true for people who haven't liked Hillary Clinton for 25 years."

CNN's "New Day": The pundit crew talked of how Trump "stabilized" his campaign and "stanched the bleeding," and that Clinton was exceedingly cautious ("lawyerly," said David Gregory), if not downright "spooked" by the references to the Bill Clinton's women of yesteryear and the full-frontal assault on her email ambiguities.

Sex scandal, you want a media sex scandal?!

Go get fabled illustrator Edward Sorel'sMary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936.” Yes, a very famous actress kept record of all her dalliances and amid a child custody dispute, a spurned husband went public with them — and the tabs ate it up, especially details of her and Broadway playwright and Hollywood scriptwriter George S. Kaufman. (The Wall Street Journal)

The fate of NBC News' Billy Bush

Tom Bowen, a Democratic consultant based in Chicago, asks a bunch of questions. They include: 1) Shouldn't some executives at NBC News or Comcast be pissed at its entertainment division, home of "Access Hollywood"? 2) Trump's been running for President for a year and a half, so might somebody have done a previous search of the video archives? 3) Is somebody going to get reprimanded for utter incompetence?

He's got a point (or points). These Trumpean tendencies were, after all, what Donald Rumsfeld would call a "known known." NBCUniversal and Comcast might want to engage The Poynter Institute in some reporting and ethics consulting.

It would be suitable as they handle their Billy Bush untidiness — inaction for days (blame it on the lawyers), a bit of corporate agonizing, a few meetings, dispatch some bigshot executive for a one-on-one with him, decide to temporarily suspend him from his new "Today" gig (which they did Sunday), then test the waters of inherently fleeting public opinion before deciding what to do longer term.

Maybe they will opt for an exclusive, contrition-filled Bush interview with Matt Lauer or, given the subject matter, Savannah Guthrie. Then they'll put him back on the air, knowing that we're all imperfect, tolerance is a virtue, rehabilitation a valued aim and ratings might go up for the back half of "Today" whose intellectual and ethical rigor is probably short of that of, say, The New York Times editorial board's, anyway.

White House correspondent's seppuku

BuzzFeed's John Stanton was in the press travel pool Friday as President Obama headed home to Chicago for the weekend (fundraisers, kicking back with buds and round of golf No. 316 at a very elite private course). But Stanton quickly corrected one comment he'd attributed to White House spokesman Eric Schultz on the flight there.

"Eric, obviously, said steps undermining voting rights are a step in the 'wrong' NOT 'right' direction. Also informed the funding for Haiti relief should be in the millions, not billions, for both DoD and USAID. Your pooler is profusely sorry, and will commit transcription seppuku, as is the custom of our people."

Ted Cruz's principled (not) decision

"In phone calls with advisers Saturday that stretched well into the night, he debated whether to rescind his endorsement or to try simply changing the subject by going on offense against the media, according to a Cruz source with knowledge of the conversations. (Politico) "On Sunday morning, the latter course of action won out, and the question of whether to rescind the endorsement was tabled."

Journalists as "dupes"

Former Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger opines on "Panama: The Hidden Trillions," namely the Panama Papers, in The New York Review of Books. He opens in a seminar room at Oxford, where Luke Harding, former Moscow correspondent for The Guardian, discussed his involvement with about 400 journalists worldwide who had access to the 2.6 terabytes of documents on tax evasion.

“'Basically, we’re the dupes in this story,' he (Harding) says. 'Previously, we thought that the offshore world was a shadowy, but minor, part of our economic system. What we learned from the Panama Papers is that it is the economic system.'" (New York Review of Books)

The Clinton campaign's view of its media friends

"Internal strategy documents and emails among Clinton staffers shed light on friendly and highly useful relationships between the campaign and various members of the U.S. media, as well as the campaign’s strategies for manipulating those relationships." (The Intercept) In sum, "As these internal documents demonstrate, a central component of the Clinton campaign strategy is ensuring that journalists they believe are favorable to Clinton are tasked to report the stories the campaign wants circulated."

There's a long list of journalists they clearly believe are both important and potentially swayable. One 2015 internal note from Nick Merrill, a top Clinton spokesman, referenced Maggie Haberman, a very good and aggressive reporter, formerly at Politico and now at The New York Times. "We have had her tee up stories for us before and have never been disappointed."

The Intercept also says the following: "That strategy document plotted how Clinton aides could induce Haberman to write a story on the thoroughness and profound introspection involved in Clinton’s decision-making process. The following month, when she was at the Times, Haberman published two stories on Clinton’s vetting process; in this instance, Haberman’s stories were more sophisticated, nuanced, and even somewhat more critical than what the Clinton memo envisioned.

But, "they nonetheless accomplished the goal Clinton campaign aides wanted to fulfill of casting the appearance of transparency on Clinton’s vetting process in a way that made clear she was moving carefully but inexorably toward a presidential run."

The Cubs and Stephen King

ESPN's estimable baseball reporter Jason Starkgot a bit carried away covering Saturday's Cubs-Giant playoff game in Chicago. The analogies and metaphors were flying and hackneyed. As for the Cubs:

"They have more plotlines up their sleeves than Stephen King. They live life so far outside the box, they need GPS just to find the box."


And, be informed, some might have seen Game 2's outcome playing out as it did. "But even if you did, we guarantee you never would have figured that Game 2 would have about as much in common with Game 1 as Usher has with, say, Johann Sebastian Bach." (ESPN)

A Trump story we all missed!

"Donald Trump's sycophantic, vitriolic treatment of architecture critics." Yes, Chicago Tribune Pulitzer-winning critic Blair Kamin delves into the topic, though critics, plural, means him and then-New York Times critic Paul Goldberger. In Kamin's case, there's a pretty hefty history with Trump.

"Over the years, Trump has courted me, comforted me, criticized me and sent me a handful of sometimes-fawning letters and notes. I saved the correspondence. Wouldn't you?"

In 2004, he responded to Kamin's nice critique of the then-update design for his Chicago tower with "Blair — You are the best!" But 10 years later, amid his reporting on controversy over the building's gigantic TRUMP sign, Trump was on NBC's"Today" where he said, "This was started by a third-rate architectural critic from the Chicago Tribune who I thought got fired."

And, during a related interview, when Kamin told him he thought the final product was good, the Trump response? "'Good?' Trump said, sounding shocked. He had 'sucked up' to me for all these years, he said, 'and all I get is good?'" (Chicago Tribune) Well, if elected, he can dispatch a special prosecutor to look into Kamin, too.

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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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