So President Donald Trump is not nuts, suffering from dementia, in peril of an imminent heart attack or going goofy from too much cable news watching while chowing down McDonald's in bed at 6:30 p.m. Don't believe him? Well, we can once again ask Dr. Lawrence K. Altman.
In a long-ago episode of "The West Wing," President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was prepped for a news conference where he was to publicly disclose his multiple sclerosis. His press secretary, C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), declares, "You'll want to take the first question from Lawrence Altman, the Times' chief medical correspondent."
Ah, yes, in both real and fictional worlds, the imprimatur of health legitimacy is Altman, the Cal Ripken of covering presidential health. So should one be surprised that the newspaper's coverage of an unprecedented and exhaustingly detailed press briefing — whether it was about his heart, reliance on Purell hand sanitizer, diet, you name it —included a co-byline for Altman, now 80? It was as if the Yankees beckoned relief pitcher Sparky Lyle, 73, from the bullpen, or the Boston Celtics enlisted sixth man extraordinaire, John Havlicek, now 77. And they actually performed well.
For sure, the event's significance was not the messengers of a surprisingly upbeat health reality for the overweight (239 pounds) and mercurial leader — who included CNN's Baby Boomer Dr. Sanjay Gupta (48) inside the White House briefing room— but the message. As The Atlantic's David Graham writes about the meticulously detailed 65-minute performance of Rear Admiral Dr. Ronny Jackson, the president's physician:
"Never before has the Trump White House shown such transparency. There have been masquerades at it — stacks of paper arrayed when the president announced his supposed divestment plan, for example — but never the real thing."
"Even better for the White House, the messenger is highly credible, unlike the goofy Harold Bornstein, who examined Trump during the presidential campaign. Jackson is a respected doctor who took up his role during Barack Obama’s term, and Obama administration officials lined up to vouch for Jackson’s probity. There are reasonable questions to be asked — Is Trump stretching his height? How much does the Montreal Cognitive Assessment really tell us? — but Jackson’s reputation and detailed answers grant the report real gravitas."
So one bottom line, perhaps to the chagrin of many CNN and MSNBC diehards after the marathon questioning Wednesday that included about everything short of colonoscopy images: Trump is not losing it. He can drive without glasses. His overall health is excellent, with a need for some diet and exercise.
Second bottom line: Altman was beckoned from the bullpen 37 years after he interviewed President Ronald Reagan about his health, which was believed to have been a first. He was right there, in the newspaper's Washington bureau, watching on television with reporter Michael Shear, then assisting in the writing (he's working these days at the Wilson Center on a book about politicians' health). And it was 48 years since Altman was hired by the paper and thought to be the first doctor to work full-time for a daily newspaper.
"My coverage of the health of political leaders began in 1972 when the Democratic presidential nominee, Senator George S. McGovern of South Dakota, dropped his running mate, Senator Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri, less than three weeks after choosing him at the last minute at the convention," he's written. "Because of the stigma of mental illness, Mr. Eagleton deliberately withheld that he had endured three hospitalizations for depression and received electroshock therapy twice. In doing so, Mr. Eagleton created a political liability for his potential boss and president by raising an important question about trust: What else might the vice-presidential nominee have withheld?"
And, so, for decades, covering this whole topic has been entrusted to Altman, who was born on June 19, 1937, in Quincy, Mass., graduated from Harvard with a government degree and got his medical degree from Tufts in 1962. In both college and medical school, he worked part-time at the Quincy Patriot Ledger (he worked on the Lampoon, too, while at Harvard, serving as advertising manager and treasurer). By the way, he occasionally contributes still to the Times, mostly to "The Doctor's World" column in the Science Times section.
And his latest account for the paper did include the necessary dose of professional skepticism, especially when it came to one much-touted test overseen by Dr. Jackson. "Psychiatric experts said the brief, 10- to 15-minute screening test is not comprehensive and might not catch all patients with early stages of dementia. Dr. Bandy Lee, the author of 'The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,' which expresses concern about the president’s mental health, said in a brief interview that the president requires a full, detailed neuropsychiatric evaluation."
Oh, in that 2001 "West Wing" episode, Bartlet never actually called on the fictional Dr. Altman. Instead, Altman has recalled, Mr. Bartlet passed over his Hollywood doppelgänger for a political reporter. But, ultimately, as Times readers learn again in this story, a president can't totally avoid Dr. Altman.
So knock on wood that at least one doctor still makes journalistic house calls. And thus, it's nice to know that at least one American employer allows an 80-year-old back on the premises. Look around your newsroom (or insurance office, bank, law firm or tech start-up). Can you say the same? Even if there's an old colleague who just might be as healthy as, say, Donald Trump?
The Morning Babel (mental fitness edition)
It's genetics, the doctor said in summing matters up amid the seeming surprise of many in the press corps, but to the delight of Trump's morning fave, "Trump & Friends." Co-host Steve Doocy listed what he deemed dumb questions from the meanie anti-Trumpers posing as press: "Is he obese, does he have heart problems, is he a germaphobe, any hint of Alzheimer's, is he OCD and what about dentures? For the White House press corps this was the single most disappointing day … The president is not crazy."
Well, Dr. Gupta was back this morning on "New Day" ("he does have heart disease," Gupta underscored) this morning but MSNBC and CNN tended to explore other topics with more gusto, such as a government shutdown over at CNN's "New Day" and subpoenas out for Steve Bannon in the Russia investigation via the House of Representatives and Robert Mueller. They might have heralded the seeming reality of Trump being primed for at least three more years of fours to five hours sleep, no exercise, a lousy diet, inordinate amounts of television — and the ability to tweet away and bash the media without any grave danger of collapsing.
When it comes to any dark and wishful thinking of Trump's many media critics, it sounds like they best throw in the towel for now, or at least a bottle of Purell. On "Morning Joe," Mika Brzezinski said, "I'm not sure if it makes me feel any better that this doctor says that he has no cognitive issues. Makes me feel worse and more worried for the country." Well, we do have to find the dark cloud amid the silver linings.
Stop blaming the messenger
A new Gallup-Knight survey of more than 19,000 Americans underscores their lack of trust in the press, ideological divisions when analyzing media and their being conflicted over regulation. It's solid, not pathbreaking and, in line with longer-term Gallup work on declining trust in the process, is the latest reason to be chagrined. It tells us more of what we've known.
It finds that "57 percent of Americans say the methods that websites use to choose which stories to show to visitors — including their past viewing history — presents 'a major problem' for democracy. But they are divided on what to do about it: 49 percent favor regulation of how websites provide news, while 47 percent said the sites should be free to use whatever methods they choose."
And this truly depressing window onto collective ignorance: "Forty percent of Republicans say accurate news stories that cast a politician or political group in a negative light should 'always' be considered fake news."
YouTube's new rules for advertisers
"YouTube is making it more difficult for video creators to join in its ads program so it can better control the platform for advertisers," informs Ad Age.
"YouTube announced the new eligibility requirements for video makers in a blog post Tuesday, and they set a new bar for popularity a creator must achieve in order to show ads. YouTube, owned by Google, also changed the protocols for vetting Google Preferred videos, promising full human oversight of the program."
A tone deaf MLK Jr. holiday story
The Sarasota, Florida, Herald-Tribune chose the holiday to run a profile of Phil Chalmers, a "true-crime author who doubles as a church youth director," and his claim that the majority of serial killers are black.
“It’s a myth that all serial killers are crazy white guys — that’s what most people think,” says Chalmers, a "criminologist and Bradenton resident" who it says is author of the self-published "Inside the Mind of a Teen Killer." He is quoted thus: “The reality is, there’s been a major shift in the past 20, 30 years, but nobody really wants to talk about it."
“What I’m doing is standing up for the victims, a lot of whom are black females, black children, people who get little if any coverage, and no one knows their stories. People have a different reaction to victims when they’re suburban to upper class, especially if they’re white — those will get huge headlines. But if the victims are lower class, drug addicts, prostitutes of color, the media usually ignores it.”
Hmmmm. Quite the tale for the holiday, eh, going to bat for a self-published author with no apparent standing in the criminal justice universe. I asked experts at the University of Chicago and Yale University, and they did a collective "huh?" about Chalmers and the thesis. I also tracked down James Fox of Northeastern University Law School, who has done serious research on serial killers.
Whites, he made clear, are the biggest group, though nobody's claimed there weren't many black serial killers (they tend not to get the media attention of whites since their victims tend to be black). Perhaps 40 percent are black. The FBI lowered the threshold to two victims, a move Fox disagreed with for various reasons.
"Blacks are a larger share of the two-victim killers than the more prolific ones. The further back you go, the more of the twos are missed because of trying to back fill these cases. As a result the share of blacks increase in more recent years."
But two-victim killers, he says, are very different from their more deadly counterparts. "The move to include them has changed the overall characteristics of the offender pool. Thus, I haven’t followed the reduction in threshold, and some others haven’t as well. Two-victim killers are indeed repeat offenders, but not serial ones … even the definition of a series (in math) is three or more. "
He sticks with a definition of four or more. "It takes more to make my list, I guess."
A makeover at Slate, and more on Stormy Daniels
Slate unveiled a new logo and home page, with an explanation from Julia Turner, editor in chief
Meanwhile, her boss, Jacob Weisberg, discloses his 2016 dealings with porn actress Stormy Daniels about her intimacies with Trump. She wanted a play for pay deal.
"I told Daniels that Slate did not pay sources but encouraged her to come forward without compensation. I proposed interviewing her on Trumpcast and writing her story. She never said yes and never said no. Late in the discussion, I asked a Slate colleague to help me verify her account. We both spoke to Daniels and to Gina Rodriguez, a former porn actress turned agent, who Daniels was using to negotiate with media organizations. I gathered that Daniels was also discussing going public on Good Morning America. At one point she considered holding a press conference in Dallas, where she lives." It didn't happen.
Daniels stopped responding to calls and texts, and Weisberg very briefly mulled running a story about her even without her cooperation. The Wall Street Journal ran a story on how American Media and the National Enquirer were in the tank with Trump on the Daniels matter. Now it's reported that a top Trump consigliere "arranged a $130,000 payment to [Daniels] a month before the 2016 election as part of an agreement that precluded her from publicly discussing an alleged sexual encounter with Mr. Trump.”
Wonders Weisberg: "Why is the story coming out now? An intensified #MeToo-inspired effort to report on sexual abuse allegations against Trump and others is likely one factor, but beyond that I have no idea. The Journal’s report about Trump paying for Daniels’ silence came out of the blue, and the attribution to 'people familiar with the matter' is extremely vague. I can’t guess who the Journal’s sources are or why they are speaking up 15 months later."
Bloomberg in Dubai
Arab News reports, "Aspiring Saudi journalists are learning the ways of financial news via a training scheme set up by the Bloomberg news and information group in partnership with the MiSK Foundation, the Kingdom’s youth education and leadership body. The training course — designed to advance financial literacy in Saudi Arabia — began at the Bloomberg Middle East headquarters in Dubai on Sunday, where some 30 undergraduates started a week-long intensive course to master Bloomberg’s brand of data-driven journalism." It's being run by longtime Michael Bloomberg aide-de-camp Matt Winkler, who co-founded Bloomberg News in 1990 and was a profound presence in developing its data-driven, intense and at times idiosyncratic culture until he exited in 2014.
"Yes, I am about to become an anchor monster," writes Recode's Kara Swisher.
"No, really. Because this year, Recode is partnering with MSNBC to produce a town hall event series — name to come! — starting Jan. 19. It will broadcast on television and on the web and look at how technology is impacting every aspect of our lives from business to politics to science to health to jobs to climate to culture to education."
"Since we are just beginning to address this accelerated change and the disruption it brings around the globe, we hope to use this moment to have substantive conversations about what is happening, the challenges we face and the solutions that are available."
Personal disarray in Silicon Valley
TechCrunch reports, "Former Uber engineer Anthony Levandowski, who has been accused of stealing trade secrets from former employer Waymo, might have thought things couldn’t get much worse. But a new lawsuit filed by Levandowski’s former nanny suggests that the exact opposite is true."
In fact, much of the nanny’s lawsuit — filed by a personal injury attorney in Fair Oaks, Calif., and rife with complaints, including of a retaliatory and hostile work environment, age discrimination, failure to pay wages, and other labor and health code violations — reads rather like a concerted attempt to ruin Levandowski, given what are arguably a lot of extraneous details.
Unsolicited advice for The Times
"Sell the New York Times. Now. And other unsolicited advice for A.G. Sulzberger" is the headline on a Politico opus by Jack Shafer that cites my 2016 Poynter piece, asking folks for advice for A.G. Sulzberger, whose appointment as the next publisher had just been announced. He says industry observers' reactions read like "notes from an autopsy." Perhaps. A more updated take came in this Vanity Fair piece on the Washington Post-Times competition in covering Trump. It underscored the cohesion among the family in sticking with the enterprise, investing in it and rolling the dice with quality.
As for Shafer, "Obviously, one family member can’t sell the paper on his own. A.G. owns only a sliver of it, and as publisher he’s a mere employee of the family trust. But who better to counsel regicide to satisfy the terms of his ancestor’s will?"
"Kill the king, A.G., and crown a new one! Just make sure he has the right values and enough gold."