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It’s time for some folks in the White House Correspondents’ Association to grow a spine.
Friday came President Trump’s latest assault on the media, followed by Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s clearly premeditated denial of access to some elite (i.e. “liberal”) outlets, such as The New York Times and CNN, at an off-camera, so-called “gaggle,” or briefing. As the Times reported:
“The White House Correspondents’ Association, which represents the press corps, also protested the decision. But Jeff Mason, the organization’s president, pointed out that the White House had provided near-daily briefings and accepted questions from a variety of news outlets since Mr. Trump took office.”
“’We’re not happy with how things went today,’ Mr. Mason said in an interview. ‘But it’s important to keep in mind the context of how things have gone up until now.’ He added: ‘I don’t think that people should rush to judgment to suggest that this is the start of a big crackdown on media access.'”
Not rush to a judgment? For sure, the association statement drew some supportive comments from members on an association listserv. But, rest assured, there were others who rolled their eyes and simply saw the statement as the dictionary definition of “weenie.” They include some past presidents of the association with whom I touched base.
It was disappointing and suggested an underlying craving by some for peace and moderation and press-White House harmony. Intentional or not, it suggested how a bully can intimate his victims and make some of them cower.
Friday’s outrage over the gaggle in Spicer’s office is a hint of things to come. It was a toe in the water. It’s like, as a friend puts it, “The Trump administration is basically boiling the frog, and the frog is better off not being tepid when the water turns lukewarm.”
The mainstream press, present company included, has long had a condescending problem with media bottom feeders. So the notion that it may now be moved to collective action and solidarity — look how Vanity Fair and Bloomberg aren’t hosting the big party after the association’s annual dinner, or how several outlets refused to take part in the gaggle when they realized whom Spicer excluded — is naive.
They’ll never be real solidarity for two reasons: the arrival of diverse new outlets with their own self-interests, and the fear that the bottom feeders will get exclusivity.
So the big guys might agree to not partaking in such gatherings. But that means the more ideologically friendly mainstays could take part and “break” stories in a wickedly competitive environment.
It’s a dynamic at play as the association still tolerates successive administrations to hold background briefings of no substantive consequence, where cockamamie attribution is insisted upon for officials saying nothing. It’s an act of professional self-imprisonment that organizations won’t shy from out of fear that some competitor will grab a morsel that they miss.
The problem ultimately is not about Mason, even as he comes off as rather less than a Woodward-Bernstein-Bradlee-Graham profile in courage.
It’s an administration whose leader craves media attention at the same time he craves to control it. So you don’t stand up to a bully by arranging a meeting where you decorously get lost in the weeds of what access you can have — access to play on the administration’s terms — or whether somebody will be able to stand out on a street corner while Trump has dinner nearby.
Instead, tell the Trump folks, in various vivid ways, to go screw themselves and do your work from the outside. Taking away its control is an initial step in moderating their authoritarianism. And then decide what to do when Spicer or Reince Priebus starts offering you, Mr. or Mrs. Mainstream Stalwart, your very own “background,” or even on-the-record briefing.
But don’t forget the bosses of the people in that briefing room. Mason’s response may look like that of a weenie, but chiding him is akin to blaming the weatherman for the snow forecast.
Focus on the guys in the corner offices back at headquarters. The challenge is to them. It’s time for them to start gaggling and, in a non-theatrical way, setting down some markers for the White House press-bashers.
So far Trump, Bannon & Co. are making some of the press look like a whining opposition party — as they aim to do — rather than a tough-minded countervailing force they fear.
Could you have made this up?
From The Washington Post, though one could have picked any number of news outlets shortly after 11 p.m. last night:
“11:09 p.m.: ‘La La Land’ wins the Oscar for best picture.”
“11:14 p.m.: ‘Moonlight’ wins best picture award after mistakenly being given to ‘La La Land.’”
“11:18 p.m.: In a moment of Oscars insanity, ‘Moonlight’ won best picture after ‘La La Land’ was announced.”
The Los Angeles Times: “‘Moonlight’ wins best picture after botched announcement.”
The Hollywood Reporter: “Oscars: ‘Moonlight’ wins Best Picture in stunning upset after Warren Beatty flubs winner.”
Variety: “Epic Oscars mistake: wrong Best Picture winner.”
In some ways, it saved a very languorous evening. The Academy vaulted to near the top of the pantheon of epic corporate embarrassments, perhaps finding space with pollsters who blew Hillary Clinton’s assured election night victory.
To that extent, Donald Trump should have an affinity with “Moonlight,” even if it chronicles an America that isn’t really his. He could see “La La Land” (Clinton) as the erroneous presumptive favorite and “Moonlight” (Trump) as a surprise winner upending the evil establishment.
Going to the circus
On Sunday, sportswriter Jason Gay went with his family to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, producing a bittersweet (mostly sweet) opus on an American institution that will close soon. He mentions its faults but also notes how, as opposed to the sports events he covers, there were so many kids.
“It was over in a little more than two hours. The motorcycles revved, the lions roared, the clowns clowned, and the good circus escaped from the wrath of the bad circus, or something like that. The Greatest Show on Earth was done, at least until they did it all over again for a new crowd at 3 p.m. We put the kids’ jackets back on and herded them out the street, their faces painted, the circus now a memory.” (The Wall Street Journal)
Slow day for the White House
The White House’s new, Pravda-like press release on “Top highlights from Sunday’s Shows” was really straining.
“Principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on ABC’s This Week: ‘At some point, we get to a place where we have got to move on and start focusing on the things that the American people care about.'”
As an editor would saying to a reporter, “Is that the best you’ve got?”
Mulling fake news in Missoula, Montana
“Hellgate High students could easily answer ‘what is the role of media?’ But ‘what is journalism?’ was a little tougher to define.” (Independent Record)
“Joe Eaton, University of Montana assistant professor of journalism, spoke to Hellgate students on Friday morning as part of the Flagship Program’s Diversity Week at Missoula high schools. His talk, ‘Ethics in Journalism,’ tackled critical thinking, media literacy and the growing controversy around ‘fake news.'”
“Press secretary Sean Spicer is cracking down on leaks coming out of the West Wing, with increased security measures that include random phone checks of White House staffers, overseen by White House attorneys.” (Politico)
Lines of the day
“To some extent, the clash with the press was inevitable. Mr. Trump may be noisier and more confrontational than many of his predecessors, but he is being force-fed lessons all presidents eventually learn — that the iron triangle of the Washington press corps, West Wing staff and federal bureaucracy is simply too powerful to bully.” (The New York Times)
Consider that notion of an “iron triangle of the Washington press corps, West Wing staff and federal bureaucracy.” And how that essentially describes a relationship in which folks are supposed to leak to the press, perhaps in violation of policy, loyalty, even laws.
It’s life in “The Swamp.” And the implicit message is, “Donald, you can’t beat us.”
The morning babble
“Fox & Friends” was reveling in the Oscars’ mistake this morning, presumably with President Trump (it’s his favorite show) looking on. “Award for Best Blunder” was their chyron. But they seemed to find solace in the screw-up overtaking what they deemed cheap shots at Trump. The Fox cast did not bash Warren Beatty but the PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants, who did apologize, for messing up the envelopes, with their modus operandi explained in a 2016 Los Angeles Times story.
“Make no mistake about it, Hollywood hates Donald Trump,” Steve Doocy said, when the team returned to its predictable bashing of what was rather modest derision of Trump. And, per usual, nobody ever notes that “Hollywood” is run by a whole lot of conservative folks, like Rupert Murdoch (Fox’s own boss), and that Trump, Steven Bannon and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin have all made tons of money in Hollywood. (Vanity Fair) Sheesh, I took kids to “The Lego Batman Movie” Saturday and Mnuchin is right there, listed as an executive producer.
“Morning Joe” on MSNBC said Trump won’t be judged by how he “beats the press” in the ongoing dueling, perhaps firming his base but nobody beyond, said Mark Halperin. Mika Brzezinski called Trump’s attitude, as seen again Friday, as “infantile.”
CNN’s “New Day” spent a lot more time on Trump’s budget proposal and big speech to a joint session of Congress tomorrow night (they had a countdown clock going) as it got into the details of coverage levels under any revamped Obamacare and possible rolling made of Obama-era Medicaid expansion in many states. There was discussion, too, about the potential utility of an independent prosecutor to look into Trump campaign communications with Russia.
Buffett, Gates, the press and Trump
Amid the understandable obsession in the media about Trump, there is a Jeffrey Goldberg interview with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in which they underscore the how much of American greatness has zilch to do with presidents. (The Atlantic)
“I believe, and I think this has been borne out over 240 years, that this country gets better all the time,” says Buffett.
Gates notes, “It’s fair to say people are wondering what the policies of this administration will be, but most of the strengths of the U.S. are really independent of the federal government — for example, the speed of scientific research. I just don’t see anything that could slow that down.”
As for our concern about facts, he also says, “First of all, I think it’s overblown, this term ‘post-fact.’ People want success, they want education that works, they want healthcare that works, and so to the degree that certain solutions are created not based on facts, I believe these won’t be as successful as those that are based on facts. Democracy is a self-correcting thing. And so, yes, I think facts will stay strong.”
Atul Gawande on Obamacare
An acute observer of the health system writes, “Now Republicans in Congress are facing the wrath of constituents who don’t want to lose those gains. Conservatives have had to back off from their plan to repeal Obamacare now and worry about replacement later. Instead, they must grapple with what they have tried to ignore: the complexities of our healthcare system, especially in the four vital areas of employer-sponsored coverage, Medicaid, the individual insurance market, and taxes.” (The New Yorker)
Insightful sports commentary
On Saturday night, I was watching Indiana University and Northwestern trying to give one another a victory in a game found on The Big Ten Network. The quality of the announcing fit that of the actual play.
“Sometimes a good miss is a good as a good make,” said the color commentator at one point. “I know that sounds ridiculous.”
He’s got that right (the ridiculous part).
Prepare for the newspaper toss
In his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Warren Buffett makes clear that his upcoming annual meeting in Omaha will again include this:
“On Saturday morning, we will have our sixth International Newspaper Tossing Challenge. Our target will again be the porch of a Clayton Home, located precisely 35 feet from the throwing line. When I was a teenager – in my one brief flirtation with honest labor – I delivered about 500,000 papers. So I think I’m pretty good at this game. Challenge me! Humiliate me! Knock me down a peg! The papers will run 36 to 42 pages, and you must fold them yourself (no rubber bands allowed). The competition will begin about 7:45, and I’ll take on 10 or so competitors selected a few minutes earlier by my assistant, Deb Bosanek.” (Buffett Letter)
Buffett’s fave journalists
Once again, the annual meeting features questioning from a pre-selected trio:
“We will have the same three financial journalists lead the question-and-answer period at the meeting, asking Charlie (Munger) and me questions that shareholders have submitted to them by e-mail. The journalists and their e-mail addresses are: Carol Loomis, the preeminent business journalist of her time, who may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org; Becky Quick, of CNBC, at BerkshireQuestions@cnbc.com; and Andrew Ross Sorkin, of the New York Times, at email@example.com.”
Silberman and “the Greenhouse effect”
Laurence Silberman, a very bright and conservative senior judge on the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., revives his previous notion of a liberal, activist press impacting judges. He’s named his construct after former New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse.
“Since the press’s orientation is sympathetic to activist results, which I think it is safe to say are largely on the left, it is not surprising that the Greenhouse effect is more demonstrable via-a-vis Republican appointees. And the effect has been particularly strong on Washington neophytes — judicial appointees who had to served impair Republican administration and therefore had not yet experienced the attacks of the mainstream press.”
As notable as that skewering is his admission of being a chum of Merrick Garland, the Obama Supreme Court nominee shafted by Republicans. “I thought him the best Democratic nominee.” (The Wall Street Journal)
Black History Month
The Undefeated’s done a fine job all month. Tuesday’s relevant remembrances included the 2015 death of the first Black man to play in the NBA, Earl Lloyd. He arrived for the Washington Capitols on Oct. 31, 1950. (The Undefeated)
Descent into the meaningless
“Trump is upset the media is not reporting a meaningless statistic about the national debt.”
You’ve got to hand it to The Onion.
Except it’s The Washington Post and very true.