Pushing buttons: How the media worsens the Trump-Kim nuclear circus

The 'media puppet show'

International affairs now includes a kindergarten-like spitball match over who's got a bigger button. It's Donald Trump's Jock and Awe social media strategy. And the press just laps it up.

"He puts stability on the table, I think, as an issue — his stability. The president of the United States, his stability," said Mike Barnicle at the start of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" this morning, where the very first topic was, well, you can guess.

Unless you were doing a final holiday Netflix binge-watching of whole seasons of "Mindhunter" or Showtime's "Homeland" — please, don't admit, as I must, that I chaperoned kids to "Pitch Perfect 3" — you probably couldn't avoid President Trump's tweet: "North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un just stated that the 'Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.' Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!"

Alisyn Camerota called it "eyebrow raising" on CNN's "New Day" though, no surprise, there was rather less critical response on "Trump & Friends." Indeed, Trump was portrayed as a tough-minded, cagey truth-teller whose admonishments are working, even prodding North Korea to call South Korea about participating in next month's Winter Olympics in South Korea. There was no talk about mental stability, as was distinctly the case on MSNBC and CNN. (All this North Korean stuff "is hugely abnormal as it relates to the presidency, it is not hugely abnormal as it relates to Donald Trump and his life," opined CNN's Chris Cillizza, in what appeared a distinction without much of a difference, its patina of historical context aside.)

Let's see. One could also ask an actual and bright White House correspondent, such as Major Garrett of CBS News or Maggie Haberman of The New York Times, about this. Or a shrink. Or, perhaps better still, John Mecklin, Texas-based editor in chief of the Chicago-based Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (you know them from their fabled "Doomsday Clock").

Mecklin has previously argued that Kim Jong-un is neither nuts nor suicidal and, as telling, "In light of the undeniable reality of mutual deterrence, the North Korean 'crisis' of 2017 can most accurately be seen as a media puppet show put on by Chairman Kim and President Trump for their own public relations purposes." And, in his mind, the press aids and abets a lot of the mutual craziness.

His point: Yes, this is all pretty dangerous but, "In the current overheated media environment, some piece of international theater by Kim or Trump — undertaken for political effect or negotiating edge or ego gratification — could become so magnified by breathless, 24/7 repetition on cable TV and the internet that it becomes seen as a humiliating national insult."

Of course, somebody might do something really stupid. But as far as buttons?

"I don't pretend to understand President Trump's tweeting practices and have no idea whether there is some method behind their apparent madness," Mecklin said Tuesday evening, making clear he was speaking for himself. "I can restate the obvious: The United States will almost certainly not attack North Korea, because the result would be at least hundreds of thousands — and probably millions — of dead people. And North Korea will not attack the United States or its South Korean and Japanese allies, because to do so would constitute almost instant national suicide."

But, for sure, "There is a danger to Trump's North Korean tweets: They increase the probability that North Korea will misinterpret normal military exercises as an attack and respond with force. This could result in a back-and-forth series of military actions that might — actually, really — lead to worldwide thermonuclear war and the end of the human experiment."

"This is a real possibility. This is why President Trump's tweets about North Korea are, in my opinion, an existential threat to humanity."

It is, after all, all about pushing buttons.

Michelle Bachmann for Senate?

Tom Edsall, the cerebral New York Times online politics columnist and a journalism teacher at Columbia University, tweeted, "DNC Should Finance Bachmann Candidacy." That's DNC as in Democratic National Committee.

Oh, it may say something about the impact of the "Jim Bakker Show" that people only just got around to realizing what she said on the show on Dec. 27 about running for the Al Franken seat in Minnesota.

Who might be saddest to see Orrin Hatch exit?

Media coverage of the Utah senator's retirement announcement naturally focused on the politics and the chance Mitt Romney will run for the seat. It took STAT, the new health sciences chronicle, to focus on Hatch as the pharmaceutical industry's biggest ally in the Senate. 

How Kaepernick rates

The Washington Post has a fun "Colin Kaepernick Tracker," comparing the primary quarterbacks for each of the 32 NFL teams with the possibly blackballed former NFL player's 2016 statistics. "Over the course of the season, 10 quarterbacks were worse than Kaepernick, 7 were about the same (plus or minus 0.35 ANY/A) and 15 were better."

The fallout over a Nashville TV anchor being canned

"If the reaction to WSMV's decision to force Demetria Kalodimos off the air after more than three decades at the anchor desk wasn't unanimous, it certainly seemed like it," reports Nashville Scene. The longtime anchor-investigative reporter was unceremoniously shown the door (via a letter at her desk). Wonder about the potency of local TV news in most markets? 

"Our story about her ouster hadn't been live for eight hours before it received more unique page views than any individual Pith in the Wind post in all of 2017."

Hoda Kotb to 'Today'

Read deep in a New York Times opus about the Matt Lauer permanent replacement and one finds, "Though NBC wanted to alert its viewers first, the decision had been made for at least a week and one magazine interview had been arranged. Right at 7 a.m., as the on-air announcement was being made, People magazine released its cover for next week, featuring a smiling Ms. Kotb and Ms. Guthrie under the somewhat incongruous headline 'Our hearts were broken.' (That referred to Mr. Lauer.) Both co-anchors were quoted by the magazine, discussing their excitement about the new NBC morning hour."

Unrelated, might one wonder about this: In trying to clean up a sexual harassment issue, has the network inadvertently stepped into a potential pay equity issue? A network source notes a giant disparity in her pay and that of Lauer. And in her pay and that of Megyn Kelly, who now follows in what is a far less important time slot for sponsors. Remember the whole notion of potentially placing Kelly in one of those more prestigious slots? From a viewer standpoint, the best move was likely made with Kotb. But you might like to be her agent.

What the passing of cartoons' golden age tell us

Can you imagine that in 1922 the Chicago Tribune was paying a cartoonist $100,000 a year and giving him his own Rolls-Royce? It's an aside in a terrific new book by Cullen Murphy, a top editor at Vanity Fair and son of the late John Cullen Murphy, a prominent cartoonist-illustrator who is best known for the "Prince Valiant" strip. But what does the demise of a longtime American staple — many of whose practitioners were idiosyncratic World War II vets who happened to live near one another in Fairfield County, Connecticut — tell us about the country? Read our interview with Murphy.

If you like Zac Posen, maybe you'll subscribe to The Post?

Could we one day think of The Washington Post as "cheap chic"? Well, Target shares rose after one prominent research report maintained Target would be a perfect purchase by Amazon this year. So maybe the estimable Marty Baron will one day be deemed right there with Zac Posen, Michael Graves and others whose classy but inexpensive handiwork is found at Target. What about buying two Women's Strappy Y Back Sequin Mesh Dresses and getting a steep discount on a digital subscription?

'Areas for improvement'

Margaret Talev, a Bloomberg reporter who this year heads the White House Correspondents Association, wraps up the past year's state of play in media-Trump relations in a note to members that opens with mention of some improvements, especially in dealing with Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her operation. Then comes "Areas for improvement:"

 "Public denigration of the free press, rhetorical threats against individual reporters and news organizations and inaccurate assertions that mainstream news outlets are not real undermines the First Amendment and carries global implications."

"The president has mostly stayed away from full-format news conferences, which can give the public more information about his views on a range of subjects."

"Pool and open-press coverage on foreign trips has proven more restrictive in practice than envisioned in pre-trip planning discussions. WHCA is continuing to work with the White House to encourage firm negotiations with host countries early in the process."

The press prods the cops

A doctoral graduate student in neuroscience at Northwestern Univeristy is not quite the stereotype of a person likely to push another off a subway platform and get charged with attempted first-degree murder. But that's the end result of a depressing bit of Chicago police passivity that changed only amid subsequent Chicago Tribune disclosures. The under-performing cops were outed and then belatedly released video of the suspect. That prompted tips from the public and, now, an arrest.

The mix of urban mayhem and law enforcement incompetence can be potent.

Stunned in Cincinnati

The awful Bengals surprised the sporting press by rehiring, not canning, their coach of 15 years, Marvin Lewis, who's overseen two awful seasons of late and gone 0-7 in playoff games before that. The Enquirer's Paul Daugherty took special note of some tough talk by Lewis in seeming to warn his employer that he'd best give him a new deal. He wrote:

"On Tuesday, I asked two prominent local CEOs how they might react if one of their managers had gone public with a similar barrage. Both said without hesitation, paraphrasing, 'If I had a manager talk to me like that, he wouldn’t be here.' "

"Coat, hat, door."

"Not a two-year contract. For a coach who hasn’t won a playoff game. Whose team won 13 games in the past two seasons, same as the Steelers won this season. Anywhere else, this is outrageous. Here, it’s business as usual."

2018: The year of 'censored social media?'

From Bloomberg: "This year, don't count on the social networks to provide (their) core service: an uncensored platform for every imaginable view. The censorship has already begun, and it'll only get heavier."

"A 2017 law in Germany obliging social networks to delete hate speech as soon as it's reported or face massive fines went into effect on Jan. 1 — and immediately claimed its first 'victim.' " Huh?

"On New Year's Eve, Beatrix von Storch, a legislator from the far-right Alternative for Germany party, took issue with a harmless tweet in Arabic sent by the state police of North Rhine-Westphalia, which often communicates in ethnic minorities' languages. 'What the hell is going on in this country?' she tweeted in response. 'Do you mean to soften up the barbaric, Muslim, group-raping male hordes in this way?' "

"On Monday, von Storch's tweet was gone and her Twitter account briefly suspended."

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

 

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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 chief media writer, The Poynter Institute.

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