CNN anchor Don Lemon’s unprofessional laughing fit draws President Trump’s ire » The Post reverses a contentious suspension » BuzzFeed’s editor leaves for NYT

January 29, 2020
Category: Newsletters

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Trump supporters outraged by CNN

The whole thing lasted less than a minute. Was it all just good-natured ribbing? Was it an inexcusable lack of professionalism and respect? Was it one big misunderstanding?

Whatever it was, it has turned into a viral clip that once again has President Donald Trump and his supporters squaring off against CNN.

This actually happened on Don Lemon’s show last Saturday, but it didn’t gain traction until Trump commented on it just after midnight early Tuesday morning. It was a segment in which, in an attempt to be funny, a panel of Lemon, New York Times columnist and CNN contributor Wajahat Ali, and ex-GOP strategist Rick Wilson laughed at and mocked Trump and then his supporters with fake Southern accents that obviously were meant to question their intelligence.

The conversation was about the dustup between NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over questions about Ukraine. Wilson said, “(Pompeo) also knows deep within his heart that Donald Trump couldn’t find Ukraine on a map if you had the letter U and a picture of an actual physical crane next to it.”

That set Lemon into an over-the-top laughing fit as Wilson and Ali started talking in Southern accents as if they were imitating those who support Trump.

“‘Donald Trump’s the smart one — and y’all elitists are dumb!’” Wilson said.

Ali joined in, saying, “‘You elitists with your geography and your maps — and your spelling!’”

“‘Your math and your reading!’” Wilson added. “‘All those lines on the map!’”

The two kept going as they all laughed, including Lemon, who wiped tears from his eyes.

Trump later retweeted the segment and called Lemon the “dumbest man in America.” The clip then went viral on Tuesday with Trump supporters outraged.

Lemon, however, said Tuesday night that he was only laughing at Wilson’s original joke about Trump and Ukraine on a map, and not Wilson and Ali mocking Trump supporters.

“This is personally important to me to address this,” Lemon said during his opening monologue on Tuesday night’s show. “Ask anyone who knows me, they’ll tell you I don’t believe in belittling people, belittling anyone for who they are, what they believe or where they’re from. During an interview on Saturday night one of my guests said something that made me laugh. And in the moment I found that joke humorous, and I didn’t catch everything that was said. Just to make this perfectly clear, I was laughing at the joke and not at any group of people.”

Lemon seemed sincere, but the damage had already been done.

Now it’s not likely that anyone who might have been offended even watches Lemon, who is consistently critical of the president. Still, this is CNN. This a professional news broadcast, not some late-night talk show or buddies yukking it up over drinks. And moments like this only lend credence to those who believe CNN is not an objective news organization. Fairly or unfairly, this does damage to the entire network.

Ivanka Trump tweeted, “You consistently make fun of half the country and then complain that it is divided.”

But Wilson wasn’t having any of that, calling the whole thing “fake outrage.” He tweeted, “The MAGA world wants the freedom to attack, insult, demean, and abuse anyone who doesn’t aggressively worship Donald Trump. They can’t stand anyone who punches back, and hope they can intimidate or shame me.”

Ali tweeted, “I refuse to be intimidated & bullied by bad faith actors who cry fake victimhood, whining about a harmless, silly 30 second clip while endorsing Trump, a cruel vulgarian who debases everyone.”

Still, this goes back to Lemon. Wilson and Ali were brought on as guests and, while they are the ones who said it, the responsibility is on Lemon to maintain some level of control, respect and professionalism. Bending over and laughing until you cry while being oblivious to what your guests are doing was not a good look for Lemon. It was an even worse look for CNN.

The Post comes to its senses

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Turns out, The Washington Post admits what the rest of us already knew: One of its reporters didn’t do anything worthy of being suspended.

I wrote in Tuesday’s newsletter how the Post had suspended political reporter Felicia Sonmez after Sonmez tweeted about Kobe Bryant in the moments after the former NBA star was killed — along with eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter — in a helicopter crash on Sunday. Sonmez pointed out that Bryant was accused of sexual assault in 2003. She immediately faced a backlash on Twitter and even left her home that night after receiving threats. The Post then suspended her because she had “violated The Post newsroom’s social media policy.”

The New York Times’ Rachel Abrams reported Post executive editor Marty Baron sent Sonmez an email that said, “Felicia. A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.”

Well, on Tuesday, the Post put out a statement saying it had done an internal review and determined Sonmez’s tweets were “ill-timed,” but did not violate the Post’s social media policy. Sonmez is no longer suspended.

The statement, signed by managing editor Tracy Grant, said in part, “We consistently urge restraint, which is particularly important when there are tragic deaths. We regret having spoken publicly about a personnel matter.”

The Post’s statement came out after the Washington Post Guild and more than 300 Post journalists signed a letter supporting Sonmez.

“This is not the first time that The Post has sought to control how Felicia speaks on matters of sexual violence,” the letter said. “Felicia herself is a survivor of assault who bravely came forward with her story two years ago. … The Post’s handling of this issue shows utter disregard for best practices in supporting survivors of sexual violence — including the practices we use in our own journalism. Assault survivors inside and outside this newsroom deserve treatment that is fair and transparent; that does not blame victims or compromise the safety of survivors.”

The letter also criticized the Post’s inconsistent social media policy, saying, “We have repeatedly seen colleagues — including members of management — share contentious opinions on social media platforms without sanction. But here a valued colleague is being censured for making a statement of fact.”

The Post remains one of the gold standards of American journalism, but its impulsive reaction to Sonmez’s tweets made for a couple of days that fell short of living up to its normally good reputation.

The latest buzz

For those who enjoy following the media industry, here’s a blockbuster announcement. The New York Times is getting a new media columnist and the name is a surprising one.

Ben Smith, who helped build BuzzFeed News into a respectable news outfit as its editor-in-chief, is leaving for the Times. The news was first reported by NBC’s Dylan Byers.

The move is surprising because it seemed as if Smith was entrenched at BuzzFeed News, where he had been editor-in-chief since 2012. Does Smith’s departure signal anything about the future of BuzzFeed News?

Meanwhile, at the Times, Smith will take over the “Media Equation” column, previously written by the late David Carr. Jim Rutenberg took over in 2015, but the Times announced last week that he was becoming a writer-at-large. Smith will start March 2.

In its announcement, the Times said Smith is a “relentless innovator who helped change the shape of modern journalism.”

Smith has a writing background, having worked at Politico, The New York Sun, The News York Observer and the New York Daily News.

In a rather sharp take by longtime journalist and Daily News sports columnist, Jane McManus tweeted, “Interesting given that, that the NYT still doesn’t have a public editor. As a media columnist, I’d be disappointed if Ben is limited to directing his reporting outside of the NYT.”

CNN’s Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy reported that BuzzFeed News will consider both internal and external candidates to replace Smith.

On the move

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Wesley Lowery is leaving The Washington Post for a new “60 Minutes” program on Quibi, CBS’s upcoming mobile streaming service.

Lowery was a part of the Post’s project “Fatal Force,” which examined police shootings across the U.S. The project won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. Lowery, who just completed a term on Poynter’s National Advisory Board, is a former writing fellow at the Los Angeles Times and staff writer for The Boston Globe before joining the Post in 2014.

The show Lowery is joining is called “60 in 6.” It’s a weekly original program that will tell “60 Minutes”-type stories in only six minutes. It’s expected to debut when Quibi launches in April.

In a statement, Lowery said, “To be a part of this innovative new platform adds another level of fulfillment to me as a journalist, and opens the door for me to master a new, vital type of storytelling.”

To vote or not to vote?

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Should journalists vote in primaries? That’s the question in a must-read column by my colleague, Poynter senior vice president Kelly McBride, who is the Chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership.

It’s not a simple answer. By voting in primaries, a journalist’s political affiliation could be subject to public record, meaning readers and politicians could find out if a reporter is a Democrat or Republican. And could that damage the trust a reader has in that journalist?

Most journalists at major news outlets are told by their employers to not donate to political causes, put bumper stickers on their cars or signs in their yards in support of a particular candidate, but should those restrictions carry over to one of our most basic rights?

Journalism that matters

Typically, I save some of the best journalism of the day for the bottom section of the newsletter under the heading “Hot type.” Today, however, I wanted to call special attention to a must-read project from ProPublica that was co-published with the Houston Chronicle.

Here’s the disturbing headline: “Catholic Leaders Promised Transparency About Child Abuse. They Haven’t Delivered.” Written by Lexi Churchill, Ellis Simani and Topher Sanders, it chronicles how the Catholic Church is releasing the list of names of priests involved in child abuse, but that the list is “inconsistent, incomplete and omits key details.”

In addition, ProPublica assembled the only national database of priests deemed credibly accused of abuse. Here’s how they did it, and here’s the list.

Hot type

San Francisco 49ers assistant coach Katie Sowers arrives for the NFL Super Bowl 54 football game Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, at the Miami International Airport in Miami. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

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

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  • It’s hard to believe WaPo could have made such dumb decision to suspend its reporter, and then to make it public. Be better!