This is the Poynter Institute’s daily newsletter. To have it delivered to your inbox Monday-Friday, click here.
Good Monday morning. Let’s dive right into a blockbuster media story published Sunday by The New York Times.
‘Aggressive operation’: discredit journalists
Allies of President Donald Trump have started a campaign to discredit news organizations and journalists they consider to be anti-Trump. The “aggressive operation” aims to publicize damaging information about journalists to “undercut the influence of legitimate news reporting.”
This is all according to a story in Sunday’s New York Times by Kenneth P. Vogel and Jeremy W. Peters. According to the story, the group already has released information about journalists at CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times. The information comes from closely examining more than a decade’s worth of public posts and statements by journalists. The story said, “Only a fraction of what the network claims to have uncovered has been made public … with more to be disclosed as the 2020 election heats up.”
The Times said it is impossible to independently assess the claims about how much damaging information this group has, but that material publicized so far has “proved authentic, and much of it has been professionally harmful to targets.”
The White House has denied knowing anything about the operation. The Times named Arthur Schwartz, a conservative consultant and “friend and informal adviser” to Donald Trump Jr., as a key figure in the force to take down journalists. (As CNN’s Oliver Darcy noted, The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani wrote about Schwartz and this topic in January.)
Last week, a New York Times political editor got into trouble for tweets nearly a decade old, when he was in college, that ridiculed Jews, Native Americans and the Amish. The story first appeared on Breitbart News then spread quickly when Donald Trump Jr. tweeted it to his 3.8 million followers.
“If the @nytimes thinks this settles the matter we can expose a few of their other bigots. Lots more where this came from.”
The Times story goes on to say that the group not only is targeting high-profile journalists, but anyone who works for news outlets who are seen as being hostile toward the president to undermine the credibility of that outlet.
In a statement, New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger said, “They are seeking to harass and embarrass anyone affiliated with the leading news organizations that are asking tough questions and bringing uncomfortable truths to light. The goal of this campaign is clearly to intimidate journalists from doing their job, which includes serving as a check on power and exposing wrongdoing when it occurs. The Times will not be intimidated or silenced.”
Sulzberger also wrote a note to the staff, which the Times published online. In it, he showed support for the journalists at the Times, but added, “I also want to be clear: No organization is above scrutiny, including The Times. We have high standards, own our mistakes and always strive to do better. If anyone — even those acting in bad faith — brings legitimate problems to our attention, we’ll look into them and respond appropriately.”
So, you might say, if journalists never tweeted or said or did anything embarrassing then they have no need to worry, right? And if they have, shouldn’t it be exposed?
It’s not that simple.
According to this story, what this group is doing seems to be two-fold. One is to blackmail news organizations from questioning, criticizing and holding the president accountable. The other is to chip away at the media’s credibility so it cannot effectively keep the president in check.
In other words: stop the media from getting out information and, if they do get it out, make sure it’s not believed.
That’s incredibly damaging to our country because it’s an attempt to undercut one of the most essential parts of our democracy: a free and open press whose primary role is to hold the powerful accountable.
Yes, absolutely, the media should be held accountable, too. But stories published or aired by reputable news organizations stand up to scrutiny through the use of facts, sources and citations. Because this operation can’t discredit such stories, the next best thing to do is discredit the journalists and outlets by combing through tweets and Facebook and Instagram posts from years gone by.
Will this group find examples of stupid social media activity? Probably. Might it find journalists who had some legal or financial trouble in their distant past? Perhaps. Might there be some embarrassing text messages or emails uncovered? Possibly.
But ask yourself, what’s more important: What the president is doing right now or what some unknown copy editor who has nothing to do with a Trump story said on Twitter a decade ago? Which is more important to our democracy: holding the president accountable or seeing to it that a production assistant at CNN is punished for an Instagram post from a New Year’s Eve party five years ago?
This operation has no interest in making our country better or supporting an independent press. It only is interested in distracting the public with unimportant items to allow the president to rule ungoverned, unchecked and unhampered.
Tweet of the day
Not sure I actually believe this is what world leaders were asking, but here’s what President Trump tweeted on Sunday:
“The question I was asked most today by fellow World Leaders, who think the USA is doing so well and is stronger than ever before, happens to be, ‘Mr. President, why does the American media hate your Country so much? Why are they rooting for it to fail?’”
CNN jumped the gun on this hire
CNN is taking plenty of heat — and deservedly so — for hiring former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe as a contributor. McCabe was fired by the FBI last year after he allegedly made an unauthorized disclosure to the media and then lied about it. He is accused of breaking FBI rules by disclosing information about an investigation into Hillary Clinton. The Justice Department’s inspector general said in April of last year that McCabe “lacked candor” in four instances when he discussed his role in those disclosures.
McCabe is fighting his termination in court. Still, until this matter is cleared, it feels wrong for CNN to hire someone with credibility issues who remains a key figure in an ongoing news story.
Trump ‘knows how to read a room’
French President Emmanuel Macron, left, and President Donald Trump, right, participate in a G-7 Working Session on the Global Economy, Foreign Policy, and Security Affairs the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, on Sunday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)
One of the more interesting moments during the Sunday morning news shows was NBC “Meet The Press” host Chuck Todd saying “MTP” had a hard timebooking a guest to speak on behalf of President Donald Trump. Why, exactly?
Todd said, on air, “… and it may be because of misinterpretations of what the president may mean at any given point in time.”
This stems from Trumps’ comments Sunday at the G-7 summit in France. When asked if he had second thoughts about tariffs on Chinese goods, Trump said, “Yeah, sure, why not? Might as well.” He added, “I have second thoughts about everything.”
Apparently, however, what Trump said and what he meant are two different things. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Sunday that what Trump meant was he regrets not raising the tariffs higher.
Speaking from France on “Meet the Press,” NBC News’ Hallie Jackson said, “You ask me to explain what the president meant there, Chuck? I can’t tell you.”
Jackson said the White House seems to want it both ways. Next to other leaders, Trump appeared to back off his stance on China. But to the American people, Trump wants to appear tough.
“This is a president,” Jackson said, “who knows how to read a room.”
Jackson went onto explain that, on this trip, Trump does not want to be a “wrecking ball,” but still wants to let America know he is fighting on their behalf.
Bodyguard went too far, journalist says
April Ryan in 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
CNN contributor April Ryan finally spoke publicly about an incident when her bodyguard allegedly assaulted a reporter at a speaking engagement Aug. 3 in New Jersey. Appearing on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday, Ryan told host Brian Stelter, “I did not order anyone to do anything. I didn’t know what was going on or said. I was on stage at the time.”
Ryan said she presumed her bodyguard was worried about her safety and that’s why he removed New Brunswick Today editor Charlie Kratovil from videotaping her speech. Ryan, who said she has received death threats in the past, denies Kratovil’s claims that he had permission to tape her speech at a closed non-profit event.
What’s ironic is Ryan has been known for being a strong advocate for freedom of the press. As Washington Post media critic Eric Wemple wrote, “It’s one thing to hire a bodyguard to protect a freedom-of-press advocate from death threats; it’s another thing when the bodyguard undermines freedom of the press on behalf of the freedom-of-press advocate.”
Ryan said, “Yes,” when Stelter asked her if the bodyguard “overreacted.”
NJ.com reported last week that charges had been filed against the bodyguard. Two videos of the incident appear to show Kratovil’s removal from the ballroomwhile another from the hotel lobby shows him arguing and being ejected.
The media’s response to running out of Luck
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck announces his retirement Saturday night in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Huge news in the NFL over the weekend as Andrew Luck, star quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, unexpectedly retired at the age of 29. Luck said constant injuries have taken away his love of the game and enjoyment in his life. This goes down as one of the most surprising retirements in sports history and one of the biggest sports stories in years.
Let’s look at some of the winners and losers of the Luck story.
Winner: Adam Schefter. The ESPN reporter, who seems to break most big NFL stories, broke the Luck news Saturday night. The Big League called it the biggest sports scoop of the Twitter era.
Loser: Media writers like me who call attention to goofy stuff said by the likes of Doug Gottlieb and Dan Dakich.
Winner: NFL Network. It broke into coverage of a preseason game to show Luck’s late-night news conference announcing his retirement. The ability to quickly shift to breaking news is the whole point of having a network dedicated solely to one sports league.
Loser: Football fans who will no longer get to see one of the most talented players in the game.
Actor Brian Cox of “Succession.” (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)
- If you love the HBO show “Succession” (and if you’ve seen it, you definitely love it .. and if you haven’t seen it, what’s wrong with you?) then you’re also obsessed with the show’s hypnotic theme song. Vulture’s Devon Ivie interviewed the theme’s composer, Nicholas Britell, and found out why it’s a theme song you don’t fast-forward through.
- Speaking of “Succession,” former Deadspin editor Megan Greenwell uses the show as a jumping off point to write a goodbye Deadspin column that’s not only about Deadspin, but about digital media, too. A must-read.
- A British journalist was stopped at customs and asked if he was “fake news” by an immigration officer. And the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol confirmed that the incident did take place. Newsweek’s Asher Stockler has the story.
Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Upcoming Poynter training:
- Defamation Law in the 21st Century (webinar). Sept. 26 at 2 p.m. Eastern.
- Essential Skills for Rising Newsroom Leaders (seminar). Apply by Oct. 28.
Want to get this briefing in your inbox? Sign up here.