By:
September 1, 2020

If you want to know how the rest of President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is going to go, his news conference Monday was likely a good indication.

He was there to, supposedly, talk about the coronavirus. He spent most of his time talking about protests, including what appeared to be a stunning defense of the 17-year-old accused of killing two with a semi-automatic weapon on the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, during a protest there.

It was a COVID-19 press conference that, instead, turned into a campaign rally ripping into Joe Biden and left-wing mobs and his continuing criticism of Democratic-run cities. But it also might have been a preview of what’s to come.

“I think it really reflects his strategy in this campaign,” CNN commentator and former Obama senior adviser David Axelrod said on air after Trump’s press conference. “He’s in a bad position. He’s in a bad position because he’s widely perceived as having mishandled this virus, which is an epic tragedy for this country. The economy is in a hole. He wanted to run on it and it’s in a hole right now. He has to change the subject and this is how he has chosen to change the subject.”

The subject from here on out likely will be “law and order.” While Trump condemned protesters who have turned violent or destructive, he did not condemn his supporters. That includes Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old Trump supporter charged with killing two in the Kenosha protests. When specifically asked if he wanted to condemn Rittenhouse’s alleged actions, Trump seemingly supported Rittenhouse.

“That was an interesting situation,” Trump said. “He was trying to get away from them … looks like and he fell. … And then they very violently attacked him. … I guess he was in very big trouble. He probably would’ve been killed.”

Trump said he would be “looking into” the situation, but his comments were … well, what were they?

“This president did what I think people thought he would do, but it still is shocking for the president of the United States to get up there and essentially make excuses for someone who has been accused of such a horrendous crime,” CNN’s Nia-Malika Henderson said. “It’s one thing to sort of say he doesn’t want to comment on it at all — it is a court proceeding, it’s an individual who is innocent before being proven guilty. But that is not what he did. He essentially sort of defended him, saying this young man was acting in self-defense.”

Trump also did not condemn Trump supporters in Portland who fired paintball guns, and possibly pepper spray.

Two quick thoughts: One, those who cover the president cannot lose sight of the coronavirus. While Trump might prefer to keep talking about protests and “law and order” and Biden, the coronavirus needs to continue being a focal point for the media.

And when it comes to protests, more of the same from Monday. CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and others continued to ask Trump questions about the actions of those involved in protests — including Trump supporters. They got him on the record and need to continue doing so as the country, while dealing with a pandemic, continues to deal with racial unrest.

The White House press asked the right questions Monday. It needs to keep asking such urgent questions.

Changing the numbers

The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake points out that there was a time when President Trump said that his administration would be doing a good job if it kept the death toll from the coronavirus in the U.S. between 100,000 and 200,000. Well, that is no longer realistic. The U.S. has already passed 180,000. The country could pass 200,000 by the end of September.

Instead of changing the expectations, however, Trump is trying to change the number. And, Blake notes, he’s taking his cue from where he often gets his talking points: Fox News.

Trump already retweeted a QAnon supporter who floated an unproven conspiracy theory about COVID-related deaths. (The tweet was later deleted.)

But Blake also writes that Fox News personalities such as Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson and Brit Hume have questioned coronavirus deaths — such as whether those who had preexisting conditions or had, say, pneumonia, were actually being counted as COVID deaths. But health experts, including Trump’s own White House coronavirus task force doctors Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci, dismissed such theories. In fact, many health experts believe the number of COVID-19 deaths in the country is actually higher than the official total.

Blake wrote, “But as the number creeps closer to the upper bound of Trump’s benchmark for success — and given his affinity for such conspiracy theories and his media allies’ anxiety to push them — it’s not difficult to see this kind of thing rearing its ugly head again. The election is too close, and that number is a major liability.”

Jemele Hill and Dan Rather talk about the media

(Courtesy: Spotify)

If you haven’t listened to it, you should really check out Jemele Hill’s podcast “Jemele Hill Is Unbothered.” It’s outstanding and the guests are top-notch, including past episodes that featured Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ellen Pompeo, Ice Cube, Regina King and John Legend.

The latest episode is a conversation with veteran journalist Dan Rather. The longtime news anchor talks about the comparisons between Donald Trump and Richard Nixon, the backlash of Twitter and covering Martin Luther King Jr. The two also had a lengthy discussion about the media and how to cover Trump. Rather doesn’t believe the “traditional way” of doing things can work with this president.

“I would say the last year, year and a half, that there have been some strides made in understanding that, for example, that when President Trump appears on television, you don’t absolutely have to carry every time he walks out and has something self-serving to say,” Rather said. “Increasingly television that works, for example, may carry the top of something to see what it’s about, and when he goes into self-serving what I would call pure outright propaganda, cut away from it and do what journalists are supposed to do, which is to edit the material to say, what’s the news in here. If there’s any news, it reports the news. …  President Trump for better or for worse — and I would argue for worse — has affected the whole direction of American journalism, over the three and a half years he’s been in office. And my guess is, I’m sorry to say that, however long he’s in office, that effect of this will be felt far into the future.”

Hill also asked Rather about local newspapers. Many used to be family or locally owned, but now many have been consolidated into a handful of larger corporations.

“It’s not healthy for journalism,” Rather said. “It’s not healthy for the country.”

Rather points out how many cities used to have two or more newspapers. Now many have just one.

“The disappearance of local news coverage … is devastating for us in many ways, not the least of which is that, for example … the news coverage of state legislators today is at an almost modern all-time low,” Rather said. “And when you don’t have reporters around a place like a state legislature, corruption has a piece, and we all know that that’s true, but there’s very little coverage of state government. … I don’t think it’s too strong to say it’s a threat to our democracy and we should (spend) a lot of time thinking about it and see what we can do to turn it around.”

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Question of the day

When I say “Question of the day,” I don’t mean in a good way. If you had any lingering questions about the legitimacy of OANN as a news organization, this question should pretty much put an end to that. CNN’s Daniel Dale tweeted that this was the first question OANN’s Chanel Rion asked of President Trump in a recent interview:

“When you’re hosting that briefing room, sitting across from you there are people there who, if in any other circumstance, you probably would get along with them fine, if you weren’t president and they weren’t journalists. Something happens, though. Somewhere along the way, the cameras turn on and all of a sudden the vitriol starts. Their questions, often devoid of rationality, reason, decency. So my question to you is, do you think these attacks against you in that briefing room … are they organic questions from individual, free-thinking people or do you think that these journalists are afraid they might lose their jobs if they don’t attack you the way they do every day?”

I was going to make a comment about Rion’s question, but just repeating the question shows the ridiculousness of Rion’s credibility as a journalist.

Mixed messages

Less than half of Americans believe journalists act in the best interest of the country. Yet nearly two-thirds believe some wariness of the news media is good for society. And most Americans (75%) said it’s possible to improve their level of confidence in the media. That’s in the latest study from Pew Research Center’s American News Pathways project. And Eliana Miller wrote about it for Poynter.

Pew senior researcher Jeffrey Gottfried said, “There are all of these negative views of the media, and at the same time, there is this sense of optimism for the future.”

The Killing of Breonna Taylor

(Courtesy: The New York Times)

In case you missed my mention in Monday’s newsletter, be sure to check out the extraordinary work of The New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi in “Breonna Taylor’s Life Was Changing. Then Police Came to Her Door.”

Callimachi’s reporting — based on dozens of interviews, jailhouse recordings and thousands of pages of police and court documents — is featured in the next episode of the Times’ TV show “The New York Times Presents.” The episode, called “The Killing of Breonna Taylor,” airs Friday at 10 p.m. Eastern on FX and can be streamed on Hulu. Here’s a trailer for the episode.

Media tidbits

  • Speaking of The New York Times, the paper, along with Verizon,  announced it is extending its offer of free digital access of NYTimes.com until September 2021 for students and teachers in high schools in the U.S. Originally, the Times was offering free access from April 6 to July 6, but is now extending that because of the coronavirus.
  • One more Times item. The Times announced last week that Kurt Streeter has been named sports columnist. Streeter, who has been with the Times since 2017 (mostly as a sports feature writer), also has worked at the Los Angeles Times and ESPN The Magazine. Streeter’s first “Sports of the Times” column — “With Walkouts, a New High Bar for Protests in Sports Is Set” — ran last week.
  • The Verge has a new project out examining the documentation of police brutality called “Capturing the Police.” It looks at activism and trauma caused by videos of police brutality; a closer look at the comparison between body cameras and dashcam footage; politicians’ response to activists and much more. The project is edited and produced by Bijan Stephen and Mariya Abdulkaf. Vox Media has a Q&A with Stephen and Abdulkaf.
  • From New York Post sports media columnist Andrew Marchand’s latest column: ESPN has hired recently-retired NBA star Vince Carter as an analyst and signed Sarah Spain to a new deal. Spain will continue to appear on “Around the Horn” and co-host a nightly national ESPN Radio show with Jason Fitz. Also, ESPN announced it has re-signed play-by-play man Sean McDonough to an extension. A top-notch broadcaster, McDonough mostly calls college football and basketball, as well as golf.

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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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