President Trump’s latest media attacks are actually surprising … and disturbing

Your Friday Poynter Report

May 22, 2020
Category: Newsletters

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President Donald Trump is tweeting about the media again, but wait, this isn’t the broken record you think it is.

This one is different. And bizarre. And troubling.

This time, the president is complaining about Fox News — and this isn’t the first time of late.

On Thursday, Trump tweeted, “Many will disagree, but @FoxNews is doing nothing to help Republicans, and me, get re-elected on November 3rd. Sure, there are some truly GREAT people on Fox, but you also have some real ‘garbage’ littered all over the network, people like Dummy Juan Williams, Schumerite Chris Hahn, Richard Goodstein, Donna Brazile, Niel Cavuto, and many others. They repeat the worst of the Democrat speaking points, and lies. All of the good is totally nullified, and more. Net Result = BAD! CNN & MSDNC are all in for the Do Nothing Democrats! Fox WAS Great!”

(Note: Those tweets are cut-and-pasted, so if there are any misspellings — like “Niel” — that’s on the president.)

Hahn, Goodstein and Brazile all have ties to the Democratic party, and Trump has been in a public beef with Cavuto over the president’s claims that he had been taking hydroxychloroquine.

Still, it just goes to show that Trump believes Fox News should be helping him win, a troubling attitude for the president of the United States to have. No president should expect any network to help a reelection effort. That’s not their purpose. But, considering the support he gets from Fox News’ primetime pundits, Trump’s expectations are not surprising.

As I said, this isn’t the first time Trump has criticized Fox News in recent weeks. In late April, Trump complained that Fox News “just doesn’t get what’s happening” and “No respect for the people running Fox News.”

On Monday of this week, he tweeted, “Fox News is no longer the same” and longed for the days of the late and former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes.

Fox News can spin it to say, “See, if the president is complaining, we must be doing a fair job.” But what it really says is Trump has grown used to favorable coverage from the network and pushes back when anyone criticizes him.

You might even say it’s a bad look for Fox News. And it’s definitely a bad look for Trump.

More bad news

The news was as shocking as it was grim. The Atlantic — which has been getting rave reviews for its coronavirus coverage and recently touted a major jump in subscribers — underwent significant layoffs on Thursday. It laid off 68 employees, which accounted for 17% of its staff.

The reason is a familiar one, one being heard all over the country.

In a statement, The Atlantic pointed to “abrupt and dramatic losses in our advertising and live events businesses.”

The Atlantic statement added, “The staff reduction most deeply affects our live events division, given the uncertainty about when in-person events will return. We are also making a number of reductions in our sales and marketing team; are closing our video department; and are losing a small number of newsroom positions.”

The layoffs come on the heels of The Atlantic’s announcement that it had gained 90,000 new subscribers since March. In a memo to staff, David Bradley, chairman and owner of Atlantic Media, said it was “the hardest writing in my 22 years with The Atlantic.”

He also wrote, “I had thought that I would spend some substantial part of this memo explaining the reasoning behind our decision.  But, I think it may speak for itself. The particular timing is clear — a global pandemic that has shuttered the economy generally, advertising acutely, and in-person events altogether.”

He praised the staff, saying, “There is no fault on the part of people leaving the firm.”

What’s stunning is, from all outside appearances, The Atlantic seemed to be in good shape. In addition to the huge leap in subscriptions of late, The Atlantic has actually added staff over the past couple of years. Several times through the pandemic, I have lauded The Atlantic’s coverage as among the best in the business. Bradley’s memo said The Atlantic reached 132 million readers in March and April, and in the past 90 days, 57 stories reached more than a million readers and 35 stories reached more than 1.5 million readers.

In his memo, Bradley wrote, “It is true that The Atlantic is accelerating its move to a consumer strategy.  Like The New York Times and The Washington Post, The Atlantic’s long-term intention is that a majority of revenues comes from its readership. But, in the absence of a pandemic and global crisis, we would have found some kind of kinder contraction.  Surely, we would have paused over furloughs instead of severance if we believed the positions were coming back.”

Billionaire philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, founder of Emerson Collective, has owned a majority stake in The Atlantic since 2017.

In addition to the layoffs, there will be a freeze on salaries and pay cuts for executives.

While it’s depressing to see another major media company struggle in the midst of excellent work, it’s especially dispiriting to see it happen at a place that seemed to be thriving.

And even more bad news

Ugh. This headline and story from Poynter’s Kristen Hare: “The coronavirus has closed more than 30 local newsrooms across America. And counting.”

Agree to disagree

Journalist Dan Abrams. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

I appeared on Dan Abrams’ SiriusXM radio show Thursday to talk about Mediaite’s decision to run a column by Matt Lauer defending himself against a rape allegation and the reporting of that allegation in Ronan Farrow’s 2019 book “Catch and Kill.” Abrams owns Mediaite and said during our hour on the air together that he approved and stands by the decision to run Lauer’s column.

I disagree, writing a short piece earlier this week that said I would be willing to interview Lauer, but would not give him free rein to write whatever he wanted without challenge. Abrams saw the Lauer piece as an op-ed, and pointed out that Mediaite did independently fact-check the accounts of four witnesses/subjects that Lauer spoke with for his column.

Abrams revealed a couple of interesting things on the air that I didn’t know. One, he said Lauer offered to write his piece for at least one other outlet — Abrams didn’t reveal which one — but was turned down. Abrams also said Mediaite had requested an interview with Lauer in the past, but Lauer refused.

Lauer has not given an extensive on-the-record interview since being fired by NBC in November 2017. The refusal to be interviewed brings Lauer’s credibility into question, another reason I would hesitate to give him free rein to write whatever he wanted.

Just a footnote: If you’re going to go on a radio show and debate a really smart lawyer, you better be on your toes! But, I will also say that while Abrams is a sharp debater, he is a respectful and talented host.

Dewey defeats Truman

Let this be a warning to all newsrooms as we get ready for the 2020 election. On Thursday, The Oregonian wrote this:

Sen. Shemia Fagan of Portland clinched the Democratic nomination for secretary of state Wednesday, setting her up to run for the state’s second-highest office against a fellow senator in the fall general election.

The Oregonian/OregonLive, in a rare and serious error in its elections modeling, mistakenly called the race after 10 p.m. Tuesday for Sen. Mark Hass, who in fact came in second by about half of a percentage point after more results came in Wednesday.

This is a news outlet’s nightmare: calling a race and having that call be wrong.

The Oregonian wrote, “The newsroom’s usually reliable modeling did not sufficiently account for slower results due to the coronavirus pandemic, said Therese Bottomly, editor, who made the final call. ‘We got it wrong,’ Bottomly said. ‘I unreservedly apologize to Sen. Fagan, Sen. Hass, their supporters and our readers.’”

We have no idea what conditions will be like come November — whether polls will be open in some states or communities, if more mail-in ballots than ever will be used, how long everything will take to be counted. But, it could be an election like we’ve never seen before, and news outlets (especially newspapers working on tight deadlines) will need to be more careful than ever.

A milestone

The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune announced Thursday that it has now reached 100,000 digital subscribers. Publisher and CEO Mike Klingensmith said in a statement, “We’re very proud to hit this milestone of 100,000 digital subscribers. We continue to foresee a strong future for both digital news and printed newspapers. We envision many more years where digital and print subscriptions, single-copy sales, and strong advertising support combine to enable the Star Tribune to play an important role in the Twin Cities and across the state.”

Interesting to note that a time when news outlets are pushing the digital product, Klingensmith made a point of continuing to show commitment to the print product.

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Facing the president

Earlier this week, I interviewed CBS “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan and the show’s executive producer for a feature on how the Sunday morning program has adjusted and thrived during the time of the coronavirus.

Now, Jeremy Barr of The Hollywood Reporter has a Q&A with Brennan. One of the more interesting questions was when Barr asked Brennan about President Trump verbally attacking her CBS colleagues Norah O’Donnell, Paula Reid and Weijia Jiang.

“I’ve been on the receiving end of it,” Brennan said. “The president has called us Deface the Nation, and done that more than once. Look, I think it’s a distraction. … I made a conscious choice of viewing it as a distraction and viewing it as a deflection, and not engaging, because it’s not about me. … It has the consequence, intended or otherwise, of elevating the work that they are doing. … I think it’s about the work. It’s not something worth responding to.”

The next ‘Last Dance’

NFL great Tom Brady. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Ever since last weekend’s conclusion of ESPN’s wildly-successful “The Last Dance” 10-part documentary about Michael Jordan, we’ve wondered who the NEXT subject will be for a long documentary.

Well, we already have an answer. It’s NFL legendary quarterback Tom Brady. ESPN is planning a nine-parter for 2021 called “Man in the Arena.” Brady even tweeted out an early trailer.

Jordan helped produce “The Last Dance,” and while it didn’t always portray him in a positive light, nothing aired that didn’t have Jordan’s approval. It appears Brady will have the same influence on “Man in the Arena.” His new production company, 199 Productions, will co-produce this documentary. So it surely will have a Brady spin. (By the way, the name 199 Productions comes from where Brady was drafted in the 2000 draft — 199th overall.)

Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr. wrote, “The series will be Brady’s first-hand account of the most iconic moments of his NFL career, including each of his nine Super Bowl appearances as quarterback of the New England Patriots.”

It’s hard to imagine it topping “The Last Dance” because I’m not sure Brady is as interesting or complicated as Jordan. But I’m sure I’ll tune in anyway.

Getting real with sports and the coronavirus

Kansas City offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who will be featured on the next HBO “Real Sports.” (Courtesy: HBO)

The next episode of HBO’s “Real Sports,” which debuts next Tuesday at 10 p.m. Eastern and re-airs for several weeks, will go heavy on coronavirus coverage.

David Scott will look at sports leagues shutting down. Jon Frankel will look at the South Korean baseball league, which is playing again, and what it could mean for Major League Baseball. Andrea Kremer will talk to Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who is using this time to volunteer at a long-term health care facility in his native Quebec.

In addition, host Bryant Gumbel will lead a virtual roundtable discussion with players’ association chiefs DeMaurice Smith (NFL), Michele Roberts (NBA) and Tony Clark (MLB) to talk about the impact of the coronavirus and thoughts on reopening pro sports in America.

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

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