A night of unrest in Minneapolis

Your Friday Poynter Report

May 29, 2020
Category: Newsletters

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This morning’s newsletter was written and edited early Thursday evening, and focused on what we thought was going to be the big media story of the moment: President Donald Trump’s feud with Twitter.

And then everything changed.

We turned on our TVs Thursday night and saw the disturbing images of a city on fire. We saw the city of Minneapolis overcome by grief, frustration and anger over the death of George Floyd, who died while in police custody earlier this week.

Protests on Thursday boiled over and took a frightening and combustible turn as fires ravaged a Minneapolis police precinct and then overtook several other buildings. Well after midnight, flames continued to overwhelm parts of downtown as thousands of protestors moved through the streets.

This is a media newsletter, so the focus is going to be on the coverage of Thursday night’s scene.

On a national scale, both CNN and MSNBC delivered incredibly detailed and comprehensive coverage with smart analysis from the studio, key interviews with various experts (including Minneapolis city officials) and, most of all, thorough reporting from reporters at the scene. The work of the photojournalists was especially insightful in the middle of a chaotic and potentially dangerous situation.

Meantime, while CNN and MSNBC were providing superb coverage, Fox News went with late-night reruns of Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. It briefly broke in at 1 a.m. Eastern for a quick update from Minneapolis, but then went right back to Hannity. To show reruns of earlier programs with all that was going on in Minneapolis was embarrassing and completely negligent for a cable news network. CNN began mixing in other news coverage around 1:30 a.m. but kept providing regular updates from Minnesota.

On the local level, the headline of The Minneapolis Star Tribune said it all: “A State of Agony.”

My Poynter colleague Al Tompkins monitored what local Twin Cities outlets were doing. He writes:

“WCCO, KARE-11, KSTP and KMSP-TV all worked late into the night and this morning covering the multiple fires. WCCO’s Jeff Wagner reported just before midnight Central time that he saw ‘a lot of people getting hit with mace and rubber bullets,’ as police seemed to be organizing a response to the fires.

“Wagner was reporting on TV using Facebook Live. Others used a LiveU bonded cellular transmission, which allows them to go live using backpack-sized transmitter units and not have to be hooked to live trucks, which often become targets in uprisings. Demonstrators occasionally hurled insults and obscenities live on TV.

“As the 3rd police precinct burned, WCCO sent up its helicopter. Several times during the coverage it appeared someone on the ground was aiming a green laser at the helicopter. Lasers are extremely dangerous to pilots because the light fills the cockpit and disorients the pilot.

“KARE-11’s Danny Spewak said when police started firing tear gas, the emotions exploded. ‘Once it went dark, it started,’ he said.”

In addition to Minneapolis, protests broke out in Ohio and Kentucky.

Finally, President Trump tweeted just before 1 a.m.:

“I can’t stand back & watch this happen to a great American City, Minneapolis. A total lack of leadership. Either the very weak Radical Left Mayor, Jacob Frey, get his act together and bring the City under control, or I will send in the National Guard & get the job done right…..”

And:

“….These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”

Twitter tagged Trump’s tweet as violating its rules. Twitter didn’t remove the tweet, but added a label that said, “This Tweet violated Twitter rules about glorifying violence. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible.”

CNN crew arrested

In an absolutely stunning moment, four members of a CNN crew, including reporter Omar Jimenez, were arrested live on TV while covering the protests in Minnesota. The arrests occurred at 5:11 a.m. Central time in Minnesota as the crew merely covered police sweeping the streets.

Jimenez and his crew were peaceful and told police they would move to wherever they were told. But police arrested Jimenez, who asked why he was being arrested but was given no answer.

Within the hour, CNN put out a statement that said, “A CNN reporter & his production team were arrested this morning in Minneapolis for doing their jobs, despite identifying themselves – a clear violation of their First Amendment rights. The authorities in Minnesota, incl. the Governor, must release the 3 CNN employees immediately.”

The three were later released. Jimenez continued broadcasting. For more on that, here’s Al Tompkins.

Now onto the rest of today’s newsletter …

Should President Trump even want to win his fight against Twitter?

President Donald Trump holds up a copy of the New York Post in the White House before signing an executive order aimed at curbing protections for social media giants. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Let’s see if we got this right. President Trump is so upset with Twitter that he signed an executive order that could force Twitter to be even harder on abusive users … like President Trump.

In other words, the one person who could be hurt most by Trump’s latest actions is actually Trump.

You see, if Trump actually gets his way, instead of fact-checking Trump in the future, Twitter might be better off deleting Trump’s tweets altogether. That would occasionally deny him his most-used platform where, up until now, he has said pretty much anything he wants. Think about it: He’s picking a fight with what has undoubtedly been his most effective megaphone, going all the way back to before he was even elected.

So what’s his beef?

Well, when Twitter fact-checked a couple of his tweets this week, Trump claims they were making “editorial decisions” — and that was just like political activism. He said he was being censored. By signing the executive order, Trump’s hope is online companies would lose their liability protection from lawsuits for what is posted on their platforms.

But without that liability protection, wouldn’t social media platforms like Twitter, in an effort to be safe rather than sorry, be better off simply yanking down anything that comes close to being false or defamatory?

That means a person who often benefits from Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which lays out the rules for online media, is the one person trying to rewrite it.

Here’s the rub: The whole thing might be a waste of time. By revising Section 230, Trump is claiming power that seems unlikely to stand up against a legal challenge.

On his Fox News show, host Neil Cavuto said, “(Trump) might be careful what he wishes for on this. Because if you are limiting their protection from any legal action because of something users are saying, that presumably could include no less than the president of the United States, among Twitter’s biggest users on the entire planet. If they feel uncomfortable about something he is saying, next time forget fact-checking him, they might have to take him down. That’s what the president has set in motion here.”

New York Times political reporter Nick Confessore took it a step further, explaining on MSNBC that Section 230 already encourages platforms to moderate content.

“That’s why it was passed,” Confessore said. “(Trump) is trying to use some powers he doesn’t actually have to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. It’s ridiculous.”

It comes back to this: What’s the point? Because it isn’t as if Twitter even took down the tweets in question. They’re still there. They’ve always been there. The “fact-check” merely links to links — and don’t carry near the weight they are intended to.

He could be doing all this to fire up his base, as if it was political theater. It pits Trump against media giants, further playing into his claim that the media is against him. And Trump loves a good fight, no matter the opponent, but especially anything media related.

Or, maybe Trump’s ego couldn’t stand being fact-checked for tweeting something about mail-in ballots that simply wasn’t true and couldn’t help but lash out.

Or, it could just be a way to distract the public from the fact that the United States just passed 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus and the economy is still in the tank. Instead of talking about COVID-19, bandwidth is being used on a petty fight.

So, you might ask, why am I writing about it? Well, it is news. This will lead to more questions about Section 230 and renewed efforts to rewrite it. This will also lead to more questions about the rules for Twitter and other social media companies.

But that’s in the long term. In the short term, it feels like a fight that Trump cannot win. And, come to think of it, he probably shouldn’t even want to.

Media vs. conservatives

This Trump vs. Twitter feud is deeper than just Trump vs. Twitter. This is a conservatives vs. media fight. One of the big beefs that Trump and many of his supporters have is that companies like Twitter and Facebook are biased against conservatives. But is that really the case?

Appearing on MSNBC’s “MTP Daily” on Wednesday, Washington Post senior tech reporter Tony Romm said, “This issue of conservative bias — it’s really important that we look at what experts are saying here. And it’s that there is no empirical evidence that Facebook and Google and Twitter systematically try and put down conservatives. This is something that the president has said at times, even at some points suggesting the tech industry is undermining his reelection campaign. But there’s no evidence for that.”

‘Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth’

Mark Zuckerberg. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Who said the above quote? None other than Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg when asked if social media companies such as Twitter should fact-check the president.

In an interview that aired in its entirety Thursday, Zuckerberg told Fox News’ “The Daily Briefing” and anchor Dana Perino that, “We have a different policy I think than Twitter on this. You know, I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online. I think in general, private companies probably shouldn’t be — or especially these platform companies — shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”

That quote is gaining lots of attention. Even White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany cited it during a press conference Thursday.

All along, Zuckerberg has been steadfast in his position that Facebook should not fact-check politicians. In his interview Thursday, he put that onus on the media.

“But at Facebook,” Zuckerberg said, “we’ve tried to distinguish ourselves as being really strong in favor of giving people a voice and free expression.”

Zuckerberg told Perino that Facebook does take action when it comes to physical threats or whatever the online equivalent of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater is. But, he said, Facebook uses the First Amendment as its guide.

Twitter CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey clapped back at Zuckerberg — on Twitter, of course. Dorsey tweeted, “This does not make us an ‘arbiter of truth.’ Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves. More transparency from us is critical so folks can clearly see the why behind our actions.”

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Fighting back

Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC host who President Trump has accused via a series of tweets of having something to do with the death of one of his staffers in 2001, wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post. In it, Scarborough said Trump is, “so obsessed with a morning cable news show that he has sought retribution by repeatedly defaming a dead woman’s memory.”

Scarborough’s op-ed is less about defending himself against Trump’s baseless attacks and more about sticking up for the family of Lori Klausutis, the late staffer.

Scarborough wrote, “I believe Lori’s selfless vision of America will prove stronger than Trump’s. Lori entered public service to help others; Trump has demonstrated time and again that he holds his position to gain praise and hoard media attention, even if it shatters a family and slanders a good woman in the process.”

Baron at Harvard

Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron was the principal speaker at Harvard University’s virtual event honoring the class of 2020. You can watch his speech here. He talked about his time as editor of The Boston Globe when it covered sexual assault by Catholic priests, the dangers of being a journalist all across the world in 2020 and the important role journalism provides.

Among his most noteworthy comments from his nearly 22-minute speech:

  • “Facts and truth are matters of life and death. Misinformation, disinformation, delusions, and deceit can kill. Here is what can move us forward: Science and medicine. Study and knowledge. Expertise and reason. In other words, fact and truth.”
  • “To determine what is factual and true, we rely on certain building blocks. Start with education. Then there is expertise. And experience. And, above all, we rely on evidence.”
  • “Ours is a profession that still has many flaws. We make mistakes of fact, and we make mistakes of judgment. We are at times overly impressed with what we know when much remains for us to learn. In making mistakes, we are like people in every other profession. And we, too, must be held accountable. What frequently gets lost, though, is the contribution of a free and independent press to our communities and our country — and to the truth.”

Tuning out

No one expected the Lance Armstrong documentary to pick up exactly where the Michael Jordan documentary left off for ESPN. The 10-part Jordan doc averaged 5.6 million viewers per episode, making it the most-watched documentary ever on ESPN. But turns out, part one of the two-part Armstrong documentary fell flat with only 857,000 viewers. Part two is Sunday night.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Because of his doping and especially because of his aggressive and vindictive denials of that doping, Armstrong remains despised by most sports fans. I found part one of the documentary to be interesting, even though it felt like it was building a case for Armstrong’s redemption. You can understand sports fans having no appetite to hear from or about the cyclist.

Imperfect

Ten years ago today, baseball star Roy Halladay pitched just the 20th perfect game in Major League Baseball history. On Nov. 7, 2017, Halladay was killed when the private plane he was piloting crashed into the Gulf of Mexico off Florida’s west coast. Between those two events, Halladay struggled with an opioid addiction. The triumphs and tragedies of Halladay’s life will be explored in an ESPN “E:60” special called “Imperfect,” which debuts tonight at 7 p.m. Eastern.

Here’s the trailer for the special, which includes interviews with Halladay’s wife, Brandy.

Media tidbits

A scene from NBC News’ new “Meet the Press: College Roundtable.” (Courtesy: NBC News)

  • This morning, NBC News and “Meet the Press” released the first episode of “Meet the Press: College Roundtable.” The episodes, which feature moderator Chuck Todd and college journalists, will be available each Friday on NBC News’ digital platforms, including NBC News’ YouTube Channel, NBC News’ Stay Tuned on Snapchat and on Peacock, NBCUniversal’s news streaming service. This week’s roundtable, which you can watch here, features Gabe Fleisher, an incoming freshman at Georgetown University; Aiyana Ishmael, a rising senior at Florida A&M University; and Sami Sparber, a rising senior at the University of Texas at Austin.
  • Joy Reid will host a special Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern called “American Crisis: Poverty and the Pandemic.” She will speak with farmers, meatpackers, minimum-wage workers and others. Special guests include Rev. Dr. William Barber, Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), musician Willie Nelson and chef Andrew Zimmern.
  • Some more details about the layoffs at CBS News. CNN’s Brian Stelter reported that the layoff numbers were around 75. New York Magazine and HuffPost contributor Yashar Ali tweeted that veteran and respected White House reporter Mark Knoller was among the cuts. Knoller has been with CBS News for 32 years, reporting mostly for CBS News Radio. Knoller tweeted, “Thanks to all for the many kind words. Much appreciated. For the time being, I’m still on the job, still keeping count on the president. Will see what happens. Thanks again.”

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

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