February 7, 2020

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What a week. It started in Iowa with caucus controversy and wraps up tonight with a Democratic debate in New Hampshire. In between, we had the State of the Union, an impeachment acquittal and town halls.

Thursday was another wild day, with the president swearing on live TV, a contentious interview about Kobe Bryant that has Snoop Dogg fuming mad at Gayle King, and a column criticizing Rush Limbaugh’s recent honor.

All that is in today’s newsletter, so buckle up. Let’s start with the King-Kobe controversy.

This is why we say context matters

Let’s make this clear right out of the gate: Gayle King did nothing wrong and she has nothing to apologize for, or to explain. Yet even she is upset with her network.

The “CBS This Morning” co-anchor is taking heat for her interview Wednesday with WNBA legend Lisa Leslie regarding the legacy of Kobe Bryant. The controversy stems from King asking about the 2003 allegation that Bryant sexually assaulted a woman. The criminal case was dropped when the alleged victim refused to testify, but Bryant settled the civil case out of court.

After asking Leslie about Bryant’s life and career and legacy, King brought up the rape allegation. Leslie, who was friends with Bryant, said it was complicated for her and “That’s just not the person that I know.”

King followed up with, “But Lisa, you wouldn’t see it, though. As his friend, you wouldn’t see it.”

Leslie said that was possible: “I’m not saying things didn’t happen. I just don’t believe that things didn’t happen with force.”

Then King got to the heart of the matter by asking if it’s fair to ask such questions right after Bryant’s death.

“I think that the media should be more respectful at this time,” Leslie said. “It’s like, if you had questions about it, you had many years to ask him that. I don’t think it’s something that we should keep hanging over his legacy.”

The backlash was swift and nasty, including pushback from Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and LeBron James.

Now here’s why this thing blew up: at first, only an excerpt of the interview — the part about the accusations — was posted online by CBS. That’s what some people reacted to. If you saw the entire segment, you would have seen a broad interview with other questions about Bryant’s positive contributions.

In a statement, CBS News said, “Gayle conducted a thoughtful, wide-ranging interview with Lisa Leslie about the legacy of Kobe Bryant. An excerpt was posted that did not reflect the nature and tone of the full interview.  We are addressing the internal process that led to this and changes have already been made.”

In a video statement on Instagram, King said she understood why people were upset if they only saw a portion of the interview. “I am mortified. I’m embarrassed and I am very angry,” she said.

King said she was told by CBS to not say anything and let it blow over, but she said she could not let it go. She said she talked to Leslie again after the interview and then criticized the network for putting up the “salacious part” of the interview without context. She also said she had no intention of disparaging Bryant.

But she should not apologize for any questions she asked. If we’re going to talk about legacies, then everything in a person’s life is fair game. If we aren’t going to talk about this now, when will we? King is a journalist and she asked the questions any good journalist would ask. Her questions were respectful and absolutely appropriate. The result — even the small part of the interview — was an interesting and civil conversation between King and Leslie, who has the perspective of being in the media and a friend of Bryant.


What’s all the cuss about?

President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House on Thursday. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump swore on live TV during his impeachment acquittal victory lap Thursday. In addressing the media from the White House, he said, “We first went through Russia, Russia, Russia. It was all bull—-.”

There was nothing that TV and radio could do live in the moment, but how should news organizations handle these moments when reporting after the fact?

The New York Times, for instance, ran the word in full saying it was a “rare presidential use of profanity on camera in the East Room.”

There’s a lot to consider. If you air or print the word, might you offend your audience? Is bleeping it out better? Could not airing actually be protecting the president from language that some might find as un-presidential?

Poynter’s Al Tompkins wrote a column about it, ultimately coming down on the side that it simply wasn’t newsworthy. I’m with him. The president swore. It’s not the first time. It won’t be the last. It might be unbecoming, but it’s not unusual.

“The context in which he used it today is no different from what he has said repeatedly,” Tompkins said.

Tell us how you really feel

The New Yorker editor David Remnick has a new column examining Trump’s decision to honor controversial conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the State of the Union. The day before Limbaugh was honored, he told his nationally syndicated audience that he has advanced lung cancer.

But Remnick didn’t hold back in his criticism.

“Empathy is due to anyone who is suffering,” Remnick said. “But not high honors, not a celebration of a life’s work devoted to the mockery and derision of the Other. For the President of the United States to bestow one of the nation’s highest laurels on Limbaugh is a morally corrosive and politically cynical act. It is a kind of assault on the achievements of so many previous award winners, a list that includes Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Václav Havel, Rosa Parks, and John Lewis. It is appalling to see Rush Limbaugh’s name listed alongside theirs.”


The media can’t have it both ways in Iowa

Iowa Democratic Party chairman Troy Price walks off stage after speaking about the delay in Iowa caucus results on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Let’s head back to the start of the week and Iowa.

One headline read: “Joe Biden’s new reality: What happens when a candidate who guarantees wins starts by losing?” That was on CNN.

Another said: “How Joe Biden Blew It.” That was in The Atlantic.

Other headlines praised Pete Buttigieg’s performance in Iowa.

But there were these headlines, too:

“The Iowa Caucuses Just Died Forever.” That was on CNN, which quoted sources as saying the caucuses should be scrapped.

Another column in The Atlantic said, “Still, there’s no denying that the Iowa caucus, as it has grown in pointless complexity, is an offense against logic, an insult to our great god, efficiency.”

So which is it? Because we can’t have it both ways.

Iowa is either a meaningless mess or an important measuring stick. You can’t rip the Iowa caucuses for being too small, too inconsequential and a misrepresentation of the country and then turn around and make bold sweeping statements about how important the results are.

Does Iowa mean anything or not?

I’m not just picking on CNN and The Atlantic because most news organizations fell victim to the flip-flopping. In fact, the hypocrisy was on display all week. Before Monday, news organizations spent months in Iowa talking up its importance. Few were talking about how there were only 41 delegates and how Iowa was too white and too rural.

That only started being discussed again when results did not come in right away. The delay in the announcement of results did nothing to add to or take away from whatever issues anyone might have already had about Iowa.

Part of it can be blamed on the chaotic news cycle that the media has helped create. On Monday night, in the moment, the story was about problems getting results, which led to griping about everything that is wrong with Iowa. As time passed, we started getting results — and THAT became the story. Then it ended up having a horse race feel to it, which is particularly risky.

Jumping on the latest story, even if it contradicts yesterday’s story, is an easy trap to fall into, but one the media must be careful to avoid to keep from losing credibility.

Digital subscriptions still growing for NYT

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

Interesting earnings report from The New York Times. I’ll turn this item over to Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds:

The New York Times added another 342,000 digital subscribers net in the fourth quarter of 2019. Revenue from that growth saved what was otherwise a lackluster quarter financially — print ad revenues off 10.5% compared to the same quarter in 2018, and print subscription revenue and digital advertising down, too. But the digital subscription growth led to a 1% revenue increase overall.

The Times now has total paid circulation of 5,250,000 — about 825,000 of that from print and nearly a million from its crossword and cooking verticals.

Many have speculated that the Times, with its aggressive coverage of the president, has grown mainly because of a “Trump bump.” But in comments to analysts, CEO Mark Thompson disputed that as “faulty analysis.”

Sure, stories like the impeachment drama and primaries attract subscribers, he said. But already in 2020, there have been a number of other big stories — the coronavirus, Kobe Bryant’s fatal accident and Harry and Meghan. The biggest strength of the Times, Thompson said, is the breadth of its coverage.

Also the company’s podcast, “The Daily,” and recently launched TV and streaming show “The Weekly” are thriving, executives said. The two have very different business models. “The Weekly” airs on FX and is bought as content by Hulu; “The Daily” is ad-supported, commanding a premium rate because of the size of its audience and frequency.

The report included another index of the Times’ financial success compared to the struggling local newspaper sector: As many companies are seeking relief from pension payments due in 2020, the Times’ pension plan is 99% funded. And it has no debt. So it is expecting interest income rather than any interest expense in 2020.

The company also expects to phase in its first increase in digital subscription rates in years, with full price going from $15 per four weeks to $17.

‘Vice News’ is back on TV

(Photo courtesy of Vice TV)

This is good news: “Vice News Tonight” is returning to TV. The one-time HBO show is returning to Vice TV on Wednesday, March 4 at 8 p.m. Eastern with a new hour-long format. The newscast will air live Monday through Thursday. The show had aired for three seasons on HBO until its run there ended in September.

Geared toward a younger audience, “Vice News Tonight” will combine in-studio interviews with what it’s best known for: on-the-ground field packages.

Longtime MSNBC veteran Nikki Egan will be executive producer. The show brings back many of the journalists who worked on the HBO show and has hired as many as 20 more, proving Vice TV’s commitment to making the show work.

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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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