How to interview this president, plus leaked vetting documents and a clubhouse confrontation

June 24, 2019
Category: Newsletters

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June 24, 2019

Good Monday morning as we head into a big week for the Democrats as they hold the first of their presidential primary debates Wednesday and Thursday. I’ll be watching and giving my thoughts about the debates here in the newsletter the mornings after NBC’s coverage. But let’s look back at the weekend in media, including a controversial interview.

Meet the criticism

Many bashed Chuck Todd’s ‘Meet the Press’ interview, leading us to wonder: How should journalists interview this president?

The media event of the weekend was Chuck Todd’s exclusive interview Sunday with President Donald Trump on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” When it was over, it was a split decision as to who had a worse performance: Trump or Todd.

The interview, taped on Friday, included Todd challenging the president to “do something” to address poor conditions at migrant camps; Trump saying hiring Jeff Sessions as attorney general has been the “biggest mistake” of his presidency; and Trump, once again, sidestepping a question about whether or not he held Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Yet it was Todd who took a beating when it was over. The biggest criticism is that he didn’t push back when Trump lied, especially when Trump said he inherited the child-separation policy from former president Barack Obama. CNN’s Daniel Dale noted that Trump also lied about voter fraud in California, the amount of money the United States receives from military sales to Saudi Arabia and how he referred to WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign. Todd didn’t follow up on many of Trump’s false or misleading statements.

Interviewing this president, who has a track record of lying and combatively plowing through questions, is not easy. In fact, Trump often seems fueled by testy back-and-forth exchanges. Other than Fox News, networks rarely get uninterrupted time with Trump. When this kind of opportunity arises, there are two ways to interview him.

One is to try and get through as many topics as possible in the allotted time. To do so, the interviewer can’t get bogged down every time Trump says something that isn’t true. Then, after the interview, we all can go back and dissect what was said. In other words, ask the questions, get the president on the record and, if needed, point out the times he lied after the interview is over.

The other tactic is to push back each and every time the president lies or mischaracterizes something. The case to be made here is that if you don’t push back against a lie, you are perpetuating that lie. Yet the risk is leaving many subjects unbroached because you spend valuable minutes arguing over a point that Trump might never concede anyway.

Which leads me to wonder: Is it possible that interviewing this president is impossible?

Journalist Soledad O’Brien tweeted:

“With all due respect, you just need people who know how to listen and aren’t afraid to challenge. It’s not brain surgery. But you do need a spine.”

When asked by Todd about the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and whether the FBI should investigate, Trump said the murder has already been “heavily investigated” and that the Middle East is a “vicious, hostile place.” Trump quickly pivoted to the United States’ business ties to Saudi Arabia.

“I only say they spend $400 to $450 billion over a period of time, all money, all jobs, buying equipment,” Trump said. “I’m not like a fool that says, ‘We don’t want to do business with them.’ And by the way, if they don’t do business with us, you know what they do? They’ll do business with the Russians or with the Chinese.”

Must-watch TV

‘Axios on HBO’ had a fascinating look at leaked vetting documents from the Trump transition team.

Axios editor Mike Allen (left) and reporter Jonathan Swan discuss Trump leaked documents on “Axios on HBO.” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

While the Todd interview with Trump got most of the attention, “Axios on HBO” provided the most interesting programming of the weekend with a look at the vetting process inside the Trump administration.

Axios was leaked nearly 100 internal Trump transition team vetting documents that included “red flags” about officials who either received or were considered for jobs inside the Trump White House.

Those red flags included Gen. David Petraeus being “opposed to torture”; Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, having “deep ties to Russia”; and Homeland Security secretary candidate Kris Kobach with possible connections to white supremacy. The report also found vetting documents that stated that Scott Pruitt, who lost his job as EPA administrator, had “allegations of coziness with big energy companies.”

The vetting documents also included Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, John Bolton, Rick Perry, Nikki Haley and a 25-page dossier on Rudy Giuliani’s business ties. The piece on HBO also had former New Jersey governor Chris Christie being shown his vetting papers.

“Oh, it’s fascinating,” Christie said on the show. “And by the way, the interesting part of this, which shows you how disorganized they were, was that they had an entire vice president vetting file on me. … That’s what makes this even funnier that they would go through this.”

How it played

A high-profile sexual assault allegation is made — here’s how different media outlets handled it.

E. Jean Carroll, a New York-based advice columnist, claims Donald Trump sexually assaulted her in a dressing room at a Manhattan department store in the mid-1990s. Trump denies knowing Carroll. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

An excerpt of journalist and advice columnist E. Jean Carroll’s new book was posted Friday on The Cut, accusing Donald Trump of assaulting her in a department store 23 years ago. Trump issued a statement calling the allegations false.

Media Matters dissected how major newspapers played the story the next day because the disparity was notable. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune did not mention the story on their front pages. The Washington Post did. The Los Angeles Times assistant managing editor/lifestyles Stewart Emmrich tweeted that the Post and The Boston Globe put political reporters on the story, while The New York Times treated it as a books story. The LA Times went with wire services.

Live from New York — for a few weeks, anyway

Journalist Norah O’Donnell in 2018. (Photo by Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP)

CBS announced Sunday that Norah O’Donnell’s debut as permanent anchor of the “CBS Evening News” will be Monday, July 15, from New York, with the show moving to Washington, D.C., in the fall. O’Donnell also will serve as the program’s managing editor and will be lead anchor for the network’s political coverage of the primaries and elections nights.

In a recent interview with WUSA-TV, the CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C., O’Donnell seemed to take a shot at primetime cable news networks by saying, “What we want to do at the ‘CBS Evening News’ is be a source of information, not affirmation.”

High heat

Things almost got violent in the Mets clubhouse when a sportswriter asked a question the manager didn’t like.

New York Mets starting pitcher Jason Vargas. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

These are dangerous times to be a reporter, but you would think being a sportswriter in a baseball clubhouse would be a relatively safe haven. Not so. A reporter for New York’s Newsday was nearly assaulted on Sunday by a New York Mets player, who threatened to knock the writer out.

Newsday’s Tim Healy was called an R-rated word by Mets manager Mickey Callaway, who told Healy to leave the clubhouse because Callaway apparently didn’t like Healy’s questions about the manager’s strategy. Then Mets pitcher Jason Vargas stared at Healy, who stared back at Vargas. Vargas had to be restrained by teammates as he told Healy, “I’ll knock you the (expletive) out, bro.”

As a former sportswriter, I’ve had plenty of contentious interviews with players and coaches and once had an NFL coach tell me, “I’m either going to win you over or choke you the (expletive) out.” But I never had a coach or player held back from getting at me. This should be cause for Vargas and maybe even Callaway to be reprimanded, if not by the Mets then by Major League Baseball.

The Mets issued a statement Sunday saying they apologized to Healy and will have “further discussions internally” with all involved. Healy relayed his side of the story to Newsday, and said he appreciated Mets COO Jeff Wilpon reaching out to him to express that he should not be made to feel uncomfortable while doing his job.

Still cozy after all these years

Fox News host Jeanine Pirro and President Donald Trump’s relationship is examined in a new piece in The Washington Post.

Jeanine Pirro in 2015. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

The Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison had a detailed look Sunday at the relationship between President Trump and Fox News host Jeanine Pirro. The two have known each other for more than 25 years and they remain friends and fans of one another.

CNN’s Oliver Darcy pointed out one part of Ellison’s article that could be seen as a major conflict of interest if Fox News were inclined to be bothered by such things. Ellison wrote that Trump considered Pirro for a position in the Justice Department, but that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions put the brakes on that. Soon after, Pirro attacked Sessions on her show.

 

Hot type

A list of great journalism and intriguing media.

  •  “The Pianist and the Lobster” is fascinating piece of work in The New York Times,  a deep dive (about 14,000 words in a five-part interactive essay) into the world of Sviatoslav Richter, one of the 20th century’s greatest concert pianists. During a bout of depression during the 1970s, Richter believed he had to have a plastic lobster nearby to perform. This work was produced by Academy Award-winning documentary film director Errol Morris.
  • ​​​​​​Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan looks ahead to the upcoming Democratic presidential primary debates.
  • Poynter’s Mel Grau interviewed Vicky Ho, deputy editor/online at the Anchorage Daily News about her organization’s “transformation through the Poynter Table Stakes program.” Speaking of which, today is the deadline to sign up for Poynter’s Local News Innovation Program.
  • The New York Times’ publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, tells Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo why he wrote an editorial in the rival Wall Street Journal last week fighting back against President Donald Trump’s media attacks.

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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