January 15, 2020

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Debate’s biggest misfire: a media mistake

It was a stunning moment. Stunning in its ineptness, and stunning in its unprofessionalism.

And it left a stain — not a big one, but a stain nonetheless — on what otherwise was a substantive Democratic presidential debate Tuesday.

Of all the questions asked Tuesday night, it was one that was not asked that led to the low point. The topic was one we were all waiting for: whether or not Bernie Sanders had once told Elizabeth Warren that a woman could not become president.

So when CNN’s Abby Phillip brought up the topic, she smartly started with Sanders, who denied saying it. When he finished with his answer, which included saying he believed a woman absolutely could be president, Phillip followed up — again smartly — with a direct question: “I do want to be clear here. You’re saying that you never told Senator Warren that a woman could not win the election?”

Sanders said, “That is correct.”

The next logical question is to turn to Warren and ask, “Senator Warren, did Senator Sanders ever tell you that?”

Instead, in a jaw-dropping moment, Phillip asked Warren, “Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”


It was tantamount to calling Sanders a liar, and that certainly should not be a moderator’s job, especially when Phillip had the opportunity to ask Warren directly if Sanders ever told her that. If Warren said yes, then and only then should Phillip have asked what Warren thought.

For the record, Warren started her answer with, “I disagreed.” But it doesn’t erase what was a shameful moment for Phillip. It also nearly overshadowed the heart of this matter, which is the very real sexism that female presidential candidates face.

As far as the rest of the debate, the moderating team of Phillip, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and the Des Moines Register’s Brianne Pfannenstiel were fine. They weren’t the best of the moderators we’ve seen, but not the worst either. Compared to the previous debates, Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate might have felt more meticulous, more deliberate. You might even go as far as to call it a bit boring.

That doesn’t mean it was any less substantive as all the pertinent topics — including Iran, impeachment, trade, health care and climate change — were covered. There really weren’t any of the fireworks that we’ve seen in previous debates — no zingers or one-liners — but plenty of serious talk, which is what a debate is supposed to be.

No lights, no cameras, no action

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo). (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The impeachment will not be televised. Not in its entirety, anyway.

Much of it will be, but Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo) said Tuesday that the closed session portions will not.

“I mean closed session,” said Blunt, who as Senate Rules chairman is in charge of enforcing rules about press coverage and public access. “I mean there will be nobody there but senators and essential staff. No cameras, no C-Span, no coverage — what the rules say happened last time.”

Blunt was referring to the restrictions put in place for the Clinton impeachment trial in 1999.

In a long Twitter thread, Sarah D. Wire, who covers Congress for the Los Angeles Times and is the Chair of the Standing Committee of Correspondents, said:

“These potential restrictions fail to acknowledge what currently works on Capitol Hill, or the way the American public expects to be able to follow a vital news event about their government in the digital age.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists tweeted:

“The proposed restrictions on media access at the upcoming Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump would hamper journalists’ ability to report on an event of public interest. Politicians should allow the press to freely cover the trial, rather than limiting media access to this critical news event.”

‘The Weekly’ documents big pick

The New York Times editorial board is scheduled to reveal its endorsement for the Democratic presidential nomination this Sunday on its TV show, “The Weekly.” (The show airs at 10 p.m. Eastern on FX and is streamed the next day on Hulu.)

The show will feature highlights from the editorial board interviews with each of the main nominees. The Times has been publishing those interviews in recent days. On Tuesday, its interview with Elizabeth Warren was published. (Go here to see the landing page for the Times’ interviews, video clips and, eventually, the ultimate choice.)

Not only is it an interesting look at the candidates, but it’s a great way to see exactly how editorial boards work and how they come to a decision about endorsing a candidate.

Family feud over climate change?

James and Kathryn Murdoch in 2016. (Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)

Last week, The New York Times’ Damien Cave wrote an analysis of how Rupert Murdoch and his media empire might be shifting blame away from conservative leaders and climate change when it comes to the Australian bushfire.

Now someone surprising has joined the criticism: Murdoch’s son.

A spokesperson for James Murdoch and his wife, Kathryn, told The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Cartwright, “Kathryn and James’ views on climate are well established and their frustration with some of the News Corp and Fox coverage of the topic is also well known. They are particularly disappointed with the ongoing denial among the news outlets in Australia given obvious evidence to the contrary.”

A source told The Daily Beast that the statement shows the rising tensions inside the Murdoch family over climate change.

James and Kathryn Murdoch’s statement comes after several News Corp media outlets have downplayed climate change as having a role in the bushfires. That includes columns in The Australian and The Herald Sun in Australia, as well as coverage on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show.

Reacting to a ‘Bombshell’

The late Roger Ailes, the former head of Fox News, and former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. (AP Photo)

If you’ve not seen it, you should check out Megyn Kelly’s half-hour YouTube piece on her reaction — and the reaction of others — to the movie “Bombshell,” which was based on the sexual harassment experiences Kelly and others faced at Fox News. Kelly watches the movie and then discusses it with former Fox News’ employees Juliet Huddy, Rudi Bakhtiar and Julie Zann, as well as Kelly’s husband, Doug Brunt.

The group discusses what parts of the movie are true, and which parts are either exaggerated or didn’t happen. Overall, the group felt the movie got the gist of what happened accurately. And as bad as it made late Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes look, Zann said it was “worse than that” and she thought Ailes was let “off easy” in the movie.

A part that the movie got wrong, according to Kelly, had to do with that famous question she asked then-presidential candidate Donald Trump during a debate about his making derogatory comments about women. The movie claims Kelly got approval from Fox News owners, the Murdochs, before the debate. Kelly said that was not true.

“(Ailes) didn’t like the question at all,” Kelly said. “And at one point he actually told me, ‘No more female empowerment stuff.’”

About that letters to the editor policy …

A disturbing letter to the editor ran last week in the Lakeland (Florida) Ledger. A reader from Winter Haven, Florida, wrote what could reasonably be seen as a letter advocating violence against the media. Here’s how the letter started:

“The time has come for all American patriots to stand tall. Those of us who are true to God and country and will fight for what is ours will be the ones that allow the cowardly news media known as CNN, MSNBC, CBS, to spew their ugly rhetoric. These are the few that live by the lies and garbage they stand for. These are the cowards that prey on ignorance and our troubled few. The bullies of the world are dangerous to America, and it’s time for all of American patriots to pick up their guns and stand with our president.”

You can read the entire letter here, but it goes on to say that people shouldn’t listen to the “cowardly media” and that it was time to take the country back.

Letters to the editor are meant to give readers a chance to express their opinions, even if those opinions are not popular or unanimously supported. But is it wise for a newspaper to publish a letter that seems to go beyond the typical anti-media rhetoric?

I reached out to the Ledger for comment, but did not hear back. While admirable that a media organization would be willing to publish the opinion of someone who is anti-media, it still seems questionable to publish the thoughts of anyone who might advocate violence against the media, or any group for that matter.

And how ironic that someone who apparently despises the media uses the media to say how much he despises the media.

Cheaters or victims?

Former Major League Baseball star Pete Rose. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The next Baseball Hall of Fame class will be revealed Jan. 21. Major League Baseball hit king Pete Rose will not be among that class. He has been banned because he gambled on baseball and then lied about it. “Shoeless” Joe Jackson also won’t be included. He is banned for his role (although he might not have played much of a role at all) in the 1919 Black Sox scandal when the Chicago White Sox purposefully lost the World Series.

The legacy of those two men will be examined in the second episode of ESPN’s “Backstory.” The episode, called “Banned for Life,” debuts Sunday at 3 p.m. Eastern and re-airs at 9 p.m. Eastern on ESPN. It features the reporting of three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Don Van Natta Jr., who interviews Rose.

“Is taking money to throw a World Series game the same as betting on your own team to win? It is very different,” Rose said in the interview. “I’m the one who’s lost 30 years. Just to take baseball out of my heart penalized me more than you could imagine.”

Coincidently, this show comes on the heels of one of baseball’s biggest scandals with the Houston Astros being accused of using technology to steal opponents’ signs.

Media tidbits

  • iHeartMedia announced a “new organizational structure” Tuesday. What’s that mean? In a word: layoffs. In a statement to Variety, iHeart said the layoffs are “relatively small.” Billboard used the number “dozens” to describe the layoffs and quoted one who lost his job as saying it was a “bloodbath.”
  • The New York Times announced Tuesday that it now has 5 million total subscribers, including 3.4 million core news, 900,000 print, 600,000 crossword and 300,000 cooking. Times CEO Mark Thompson said the Times has surpassed $800 million of annual digital revenue — a year ahead of its goal.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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