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August 5, 2020

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It’s hard to pick out one jaw-dropping, head-scratching, he-can’t-be-serious moment from President Donald Trump’s interview with Axios’ Jonathan Swan on HBO Monday night.

That’s because there were so many.

Like when Trump said you can test too much for the coronavirus. Or when he claimed the U.S. was doing better than the rest of the world when it comes to the coronavirus. Or when he said he never confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin about intelligence indicating Russia paid the Taliban to kill U.S. troops because that’s not what their recent phone conversation was about. Or more claims of election fraud. Or when he said he has done more for Black Americans than any president ever, except for Abraham Lincoln. Or, in an incredibly petty display, his comments when asked about the legacy of the late John Lewis.

“I really don’t know,” Trump said. “I don’t know. I don’t know John Lewis. He chose not to come to my inauguration.”

Trump’s answers ranged from baffling to ridiculous. Poynter’s PolitiFact fact-checked 22 things Trump said in the interview, determining that most of them were wrong, misleading, out of context or exaggerated. CNN’s Daniel Dale determined that Trump made at least 19 false or misleading claims during the 35-minute interview.

But Swan’s questions were spot-on, as he challenged the president as we’ve rarely seen. This exchange (and this is just one example) shows Swan’s refusal to let Trump say just anything:

Trump: “You know, there are those that say you can test too much, you do know that.”

Swan: “Who says that?”

Trump: “Oh, just read the manuals. Read the books.”

Swan: “Manuals? What manuals?”

Trump: “Read the books. Read the books.”

Swan: “What books?”

The only thing better than Swan’s questions were the incredulous looks on his face — something that went viral on Twitter.

But despite all of Trump’s wild statements and Swan’s excellent pushback and preparation, and despite all the attention the interview continues to get, does it make any difference?

In other words, what’s the point?

As longtime journalist Jeff Greenfield tweeted: “1. The Swan interview was masterful. 2. Did any prospective Trump voter watch it (or highlights) and conclude: ‘I’ve changed my mind; I can’t vote for him.’?”

Greenfield brings up a point that we already suspect: Those who despise Trump will use the interview to further validate their feelings. And there’s likely nothing Trump can say or do that will dissuade his voters, including the interview with Swan.

So, in the end, it’s unlikely that anyone’s vote was changed because of the interview.

But it still was an important interview even if it was to show, as many are describing it, the emperor-has-no-clothes aspect of it. During one exchange with Swan, Trump kept insisting how well the U.S. was doing in deaths compared to those tested. Swan, however, noted deaths compared to total population — a more relevant statistic — shows how poorly the U.S. is doing.

Trump said, “You can’t do that.”

To which Swan said, “Why can’t I do that?”

Trump seemed stumped.

As The Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote in an opinion piece, “Even within the confines of Trump’s bounded successes, though, it quickly became apparent that he didn’t have a grasp on what was happening with the pandemic. He was holding numbers in his hands, but didn’t understand what they showed and, importantly, what they didn’t.”

Bump also writes, “It’s clear that Trump wasn’t prepared for this interview. The question that follows is why. Was it simply that, after months of doing almost no interviews besides overtly friendly ones on Fox News, he was unprepared to be challenged on basic points? Or, more alarmingly, was it that he didn’t actually understand the scope of the pandemic that his team insists is the central focus of his time?”

Again, why does any of this matter?

Perhaps Trump’s staff and other political allies will see such interviews and realize their responsibility to become more involved in areas where Trump seems confused or wrong. Although doubtful, perhaps Trump, so sensitive to criticism, will see the reaction to the Axios interview and realize how badly his administration is handling this crisis and work to improve it.

But it is important, when given the opportunity, that media outlets continue to interview and press the president as Swan did Monday night. Even if the point of the interview is to help viewers determine whether Trump should be reelected in November.

Hold the applause

Axios’ Jonathan Swan, during his interview with President Trump. (Courtesy: HBO)

This would be a good spot to mention another opinion piece in The Washington Post, this one from columnist Jennifer Rubin. One of her points: Yeah, sure, Swan did a good job and deserves praise (as did Fox News’ Chris Wallace for his recent interview with Trump), but it just goes to show how poorly many others have done interviewing Trump.

Rubin wrote, “Swan and Wallace expertly displayed their craft, but they (and the reaction of their peers) wound up demonstrating how sadly deficient TV interviewers have been in the Trump era. There are two problems: the personnel hired to do tough, combative interviews and the mindset of too many news outlets.”

Rubin goes on to write, “TV news personalities are hired in part because they are congenial, likable and watchable. They put guests and the audience at ease. They do not allow pregnant pauses. They bail out interviewees who are at a loss for words. This is the wrong skill set for interrogating a president, especially one who is a serial liar. In nearly four years, TV news outlets have not figured this out; some simply threw in the towel and declined to switch to more effective interviewers because their star anchors draw TV viewers.”

I’m not sure I agree with Rubin’s generalizations and stereotypes about TV news personalities. I can think of plenty of popular TV people who could deliver tough interviews with Trump, Joe Biden or any newsmaker. Just because you might be kind and friendly doesn’t mean you’re incapable of being really good at interviews.

So-called “stars” such as Lester Holt, Margaret Brennan, Gayle King, George Stephanopoulos, Judy Woodruff and Brianna Keilar (just to name a few) are more than capable of delivering tough interviews. And, when it comes to Trump, how many lengthy, extensive interviews as he really done outside of Fox News? So we can’t even really judge how Trump has been treated by interviewers outside of Fox News.

Still, there are many who might agree with Rubin’s latest column, and Rubin is typically a solid read, so I include her column here.

“It is what it is”

This didn’t take long. Joe Biden is already using a clip from the Axios interview in a campaign ad. He took Trump’s line about 1,000 Americans dying a day — “It is what it is” — and echoed it over and over in an attempt to show Trump’s failures when it comes to the coronavirus.

Dobbs’s softball interview with Trump

Advice to anyone: If you’re planning on a softball interview with President Trump, best not to do it only hours after someone does a hardball interview with him. Someone should’ve told Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs that. Dobbs interviewed Trump live on his 5 p.m. show Tuesday, less than 24 hours after Jonathan Swan’s no-holding-back interview with Trump aired Monday night.

At one point, Dobbs told Trump, “We’re very fortunate to have you in the White House.”

Not only did Dobbs not challenge Trump or call him out on any misleading or false statements, he even said to Trump that it was clear that there was a conspiracy during the Obama administration to stop Trump from becoming president.

Although no one expected Dobbs, a very vocal on-air supporter of the president, to conduct anything that resembled a real interview, we should’ve known there was no chance when Trump told him, “You’ve been there from the beginning, and we really appreciated this. So I do things with you, and I don’t bother with others.” Trump also told Dobbs, “You are one hell of a man.”

Any self-respecting journalist would be embarrassed if the president told him or her this during an interview at this moment in history. And the network and company that employed that journalist would be bothered, too. Somehow, I get the sense that Dobbs and Fox Business Network are not bothered. And that, too, is a problem.

Harris calls Trump “petty”

MSNBC’s Chris Jansing, left, interviews California Sen. Kamala Harris on Tuesday. (Courtesy: MSNBC)

Speaking of Trump’s interview with Axios, California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris was asked about it during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Deadline: White House.”

Harris told host Chris Jansing, “First of all, we have a president who is petty. He’s petty. But also, there’s something about Donald Trump that is just the antithesis of what we want, as an American leader and as our president, which is we want a president who has a generosity of spirit. There’s nothing about Donald Trump that is generous. He’s generous to himself, but he has no generosity toward an icon, a hero who has been described as a saint, John Lewis, or the American people, quite frankly, when you look at his policies. And that’s why I do believe he’s going to be defeated in November and I believe that he is just becoming more and more petty as we get closer to an election, the outcome of which will be that Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States.”

Harris is a candidate to become Biden’s vice-presidential running mate. When asked about that, Harris said, “I support the outcome.”

Jill Biden goes on Fox News

Fox News’ Dana Perino, right, interviews Dr. Jill Biden on Tuesday’s “The Daily Briefing.” (Courtesy: Fox News.)

Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino had a good get and good interview Tuesday with Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Perino’s questions were solid as she asked about pertinent topics in a non-combative style that made for an insightful and fair interview.

As an example, Perino asked about attacks on Joe Biden’s mental fitness to be president, to which Jill Biden said, “You know, Joe is anything but that characterization. You know we’ve been campaigning, we’ve been listening to the experts, the scientists, and the doctors, and they have told us stay home and be safe, and I think Donald Trump is really about Joe’s age right? I think there’s like two or three years difference.”

Perino also asked about the latest topic du jour: whether Biden will participate in any debates. Jill Biden said, “He’ll be there.”

Perino also asked about Joe Biden’s potential running mates, whether schools should be opening and whether Joe Biden has moved too far left. (You can watch the interview here.) They also talked about Jill Biden’s book, which is about her life, career, family and faith.

It was another good get for Perino, who also got attention for the interview she did in May with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

It’s all about trust

A new report from Gallup and the Knight Foundation about the media is out. As Poynter’s Nicole Asbury writes, “a majority of Americans believe the media is vital for democracy, but see an increasing level of bias in news coverage.”

The numbers break down like this: 84% said the news media is “critical” or “very important” to democracy. However, 49% of them see “a great deal” of political bias in news coverage.

These numbers are hardly surprising, although when talking about “the media,” you wonder if those surveyed are thinking more about national television and websites, as opposed to local news?

Poynter senior vice president Kelly McBride joined guests Eugene Scott of The Washington Post and Sam Gill of The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to talk to “1A” host Jennifer White about media trust and these latest findings.

Media tidbits

  • Bloomberg Media is launching a bundled subscription with The Athletic — the ad-free, subscription-based sports website. Axios’ Sara Fischer broke the story and reports the bundle will come with a discount: A $290 annual Bloomberg.com subscription (originally $415) will include a free six-month trial to The Athletic. There is also a monthly subscription package. The deal also includes a video element where journalists from The Athletic will be featured on QuickTake, Bloomberg Media’s digital news network, to report on business, culture and technology in sports. As Fischer smartly notes: “The subscription landscape is growing so competitive that news companies banding together to sell joint subscription packages may be the next big trend.”
  • NBC Sports digital properties — which includes “talk” websites such as Hardball Talk, College Football Talk and College Basketball Talk — were hit by layoffs Tuesday. Barrett Sports Media’s Brandon Contes has the details.
  • Did you see any of the videos of the explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday? If not, check out this and this and this and this. They are incredibly jarring. It’s going to take a while before exact numbers come in, but early reports are dozens are dead, and perhaps, thousands injured. Los Angeles Times executive editor Norman Pearlstine told staff that Times journalist Nabih Bulos was injured in the blast while riding his motorcycle. He was treated at a hospital, but his injuries were not life-threatening. Bulos tweeted, “Still here.”
  • Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds has the latest on the McClatchy sale.

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

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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  • The Democrats see this interview as a failing in Trump – I see it as a strength. Mr Swan, waked in feeling so cock sure of himself – like most of the Dems. Thinking his figures were rock solid black and white. And the President methodically scattered them to the wind. Incredible gall and entitled attitudes do not make headway with our President, especially when they present bias and clever rhetoric. He sees it, and he cuts through. A triumph in my opinion, and a great demonstration of skill , and brinkmanship, that unfortunately, is needed to be used in these times of extreme polarization in views.