November 11, 2016

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It wasn’t Bill O’Reilly, Drudge, Breitbart or Donald Trump. It was Charlie Cook — a revered and assiduously fair-minded elections expert.

In his own polite way, a jowly two-legged Washington institution on Thursday underscored the unease with mainstream campaign coverage — and why some esteemed papers might do after-action analyses that go beyond the mountainous coverage of errant polling and use of Big Data.

He didn’t mention names during a one-hour election post-mortem at the Newseum in Washington sponsored by National Journal. But think “The New York Times” and “The Washington Post” as you consider words during the question-and-answer epilogue from a man who opined for NBC News on a marathon election night.

“Then in the last six weeks or so, some newspapers I love and respect enormously, they kind of went a little far the other way and got really, really aggressive. It’s one thing to say ‘Mr. Trump said this but the record shows this, this and this.’ But to call something a lie in a news story, wow. I think I would have gotten an F in high school journalism if I tried that. That’s a new place.”

“Even though I have no sympathy for Donald Trump, I got really uncomfortable seeing some of the finest newspapers in the country…it was like watching a badly refereed basketball game, with getting a lot of make-up calls at the end. You kind of wince. I’m not sure print journalism had a lot to make up for. It was more on the television side, where a lot of the transgressions had been.”

Will those papers “be able to get your standards up down the road for somebody else? Maybe you should have left all the standards where they were. I think a lot of us have a lot to be thinking about.”

Again, this wasn’t a media-bashing polemicist like O’Reilly, who simultaneously derides The Times and hopes for its approval (especially when one of his books comes out). It was a core, sophisticated consumer of high-end journalism.

But it’s more than just newspapers. He looked at younger voters who don’t distinguish between news and opinion or are confused by the lack of differentiation by the press. And then there are the cable news networks.

This campaign was notable, he said, for the troubling tendency to just run whole speeches, especially by Trump, with virtually no filter, a la C-SPAN.

The problem is that, unlike C-SPAN, they became an extension of the Trump campaign when “the networks realized that ‘every time we put this guy on, our ratings would go sky-high — which helps my bonus’ but made the wall between profit-making and journalism a little more permeable.”

And then there were the soft TV interrogations where “they would ask the obligatory questions about ‘When will you release your income tax returns?’ And he’d say ‘after the audit.’ But as far as somebody grilling him and really going after him, they didn’t do that.”

He cited one exception: the March 30 Green Bay, Wisconsin one-on-one between MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and Trump. (Poynter) That was the one in which Matthews was “like a dog with a bone” on abortion — and Trump badly stumbled.

It was a mini-classic, but also an exception that proved a rule. The rule? “If I give him a really hard time, maybe he won’t come back on.”

Rather than lapse into righteous defensiveness, elite media just might do some polling of an important constituency: loyal, smart and paying customers like Charlie Cook. And, next time, covering the country as much as the candidates.

Zuckerberg derides “fake news” criticism

“Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, it’s a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” said Mark Zuckerberg, addressing the rise of B.S. “news” on Facebook. (Business Insider)

The President-elect spurns the press (again)

“President-elect Donald Trump on Thursday refused to let a group of journalists travel with him to cover his historic first meeting with President Barack Obama, breaking a long-standing practice intended to ensure the public has a watchful eye on the nation’s leader.” (The Associated Press)

“Trump flew from New York to Washington on his private jet without that ‘pool’ of reporters, photographers and television cameras that have traveled with presidents and presidents-elect.”

There’s been an unceasing, growing tendency of presidential administrations to increasingly limit press access. Obama’s been the same. It will continue.

“Why the Media Blew It”

Writing on Bill Moyers’ website, Alicia Shepard notes that “CBS’s Trump team of three — embed Sopan Deb, producer Aiden Farhi and CBS chief correspondent Major Garrett — asked a key question last Thursday in a podcast that may explain what happened.” (Bill Moyers)

Would it be a better investment for news organizations to deploy more reporters covering more issues in more places, than spending so much money on polls? What if polls weren’t used to determine occasionally key coverage tactics.

“I think the answer to that is yes,” Garrett said. “We do over-poll. We saturate the American consciousness with polling data in ways that simply are not useful.'”

Wisdom handed down from Mount Hannity

“My advice to Donald Trump tonight is to move fast and keep all of your promises,” declared Fox News’ Sean Hannity amid his ongoing post-election policy manifestos. The Supreme Court, ditching energy regulations, lowering taxes, “identifying America’s enemies” and “not being afraid to use the term ‘radical Islam,’ build factories, create millions of jobs,” and put Rudy Giuliani in charge of the Coast Guard or the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation.

Well, he didn’t say that about Giuliani but had him on for his 1,438th (or 1,439th?) cable TV appearance in recent months.

The morning babble

“Fox & Friends,” displaying Fox’s monopoly on patriotism, opened Veterans Day with the U.S. Army Field Band singing “America the Beautiful” from its Manhattan plaza at 6 a.m. Eastern.

On CNN’s “New Day” it was “TRUMP RETURNS TO TWITTER, HITS MEDIA, CALLS PROTESTS UNFAIR.” Yes, the President-elect had returned to Twitter in chief status after his Oval Office and congressional meetings: “Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!” The Washington Post’s Philip Bump was “alarmed” by such behavior.

On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,”there was the Obama-Trump conclave. Co-host Mika Brzezinski said her daughter is “scared, she’s worried about women, about other minorities she feels will be left out” and underscored Obama’s efforts for women and girls. “At this point we have to keep an open mind but at this point it feels like a setback.”

There was mention of that ungracious tweet there, too, but then, around 6:15 a.m., as if he’d been watching the cable TV criticisms, Trump tweeted the exact opposite sentiment: “Love the fact that the small groups of protesters last night have passion for our great country. We will all come together and be proud!” (@realDonaldTrump)

A new media order

Writes Lloyd Grove: “In the most visible sign of the New World Order, the Trump-loving Breitbart News Network — which operated as a propaganda conduit and outrage engine for the reality show billionaire’s angry-populist juggernaut — announced that it was planning to expand its business internationally into Germany and France, where Breitbart’s resentful sensibility is apt to receive a warm welcome from white nationalists indignant at the presence of Muslims in their midst and panicked by an influx of Syrian refugees.” (The Daily Beast)

Then, he says, we have these likely beneficiaries: “stokers of sinister conspiracy theories like Texas-based radio demagogue Alex Jones and British-born Trumpkin Paul Joseph Watson of Infowars; cultish Irish-Canadian podcaster Stefan Molyneux; alt-right rabble-rouser Milo Yiannopoulos (nominally the tech editor of Breitbart, but better known for his personal brand of minority-hating, white-nationalist outrage); rightwing rumor-monger Jim Hoft of The Gateway Pundit; hoaxer videographer James O’Keefe of Veritas; internet troll Charles C. (“Chuck”) Johnson of, and self-styled male empowerment guru and alt-right operative Mike Cernovich, who is frequently described as a rape apologist.”

The Vermont take on polling

“In the early 2000s, when I was the editor in Keene (New Hampshire) and local voters were besieged by pollsters, we were able to document how people got fed up with polling calls,” says Tom Kearney, now executive editor of The Stowe Reporter, Waterbury Record and News & Citizen of Morrisville, Vermont.

“’Got three of them this morning,’ a man told us. ‘Told ‘em all something different.’”

Says Kearney, “I know of no other ‘science’ that hinges entirely on people telling the absolute truth to strangers. I can’t believe how poll reports have absolutely taken over campaign reporting. And now we have the November surprise.”

Forgotten by Clinton

The new “Vice News Tonight” on HBO is in the early stages of trying to offer an alternative to the giant broadcast newscasts. It’s doing some fine work (especially on the battle for Mosul) but in recent days it couldn’t avoid election coverage that was pretty similar in substance, if not tone, to the Big Guys.

Still, there was a solid look last night at a rural Wisconsin county that surprisingly went for Trump. People in the swing county “feel forgotten out in these parts” and, said one local Democratic official, “all we got out here was Barney Frank in the Jefferson office at 11:30 on a weekday.”

It was a good window onto folks who have been abandoned by the business, intellectual and cultural communities. The deck is stacked against exactly these citizens, who don’t have the money to be heard — whether liberals or conservatives. Don’t doubt that they’re pissed, will cut Trump slack for a bit but could turn on him, too.

Leonard Cohen R.I.P

Leonard Cohen, the brilliant singer-writer-troubadour, died. (Rolling Stone) By great coincidence, New Yorker Editor and polymath David Remnick got the last interview, part of a wonderful profile just last month that includes great insights on Cohen from Bob Dylan. It’s revelatory and poignant, especially with the tale of his final farewell to Marianne Ihlen, an evocative farewell letter to his long-ago lover and creative muse (inspiration for “So Long, Marianne”), making clear he was right behind just before she passed away in August. (The New Yorker)

Now he’s right behind. A fascinating life, with his great meditations on love, sex and music among those creations that will endure. “Hallelujah.”


“The phonemes in a name can themselves convey meaning. This idea goes back to Plato’s dialogue Cratylus. A philosopher called Hermogenes argues that the relationship between a word and its meaning is purely arbitrary; Cratylus, another philosopher, disagrees; and Socrates eventually concludes that there is sometimes a connection between meaning and sound. Linguistics has mostly taken Hermogenes’ side, but, in the past eighty years, a field of research called phonetic symbolism has shown that Cratylus was onto something.”

James Surowiecki of The New Yorker, you think we didn’t know that?!

Anyway, it’s in “What’s In A Brand Name?” both his broad overview of branding and the specific pillorying of turning Tribune Publishing into Tronc.

“As a name for a digital company Tronc is a mismatch in the Edsel league.”

Well, post-election hangover aside, have a great weekend. A couple of soccer games and a bar mitzvah on our kids’ agenda. The republic will survive (maybe).

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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.…
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