By:
September 28, 2020

In today’s never-ending news cycle, it’s easy to fall victim to hyperbole and call the latest news story a “blockbuster.” Cable news networks post “BREAKING NEWS” banners across their screens for stories that really are not all that breaking or newsy.

But on Sunday, we really did see a blockbuster report — one of the biggest since Donald Trump became president.

The New York Times got Trump’s tax returns.

For more than four years, one of the biggest stories surrounding Trump was the pursuit of his tax returns. The only president in recent times to refuse to release his tax returns has called this pursuit a “witch-hunt.”

But the Times got them. And they are a bombshell. Reporters Russ Buettner, Susanne Craig and Mike McIntire wrote, “The New York Times has obtained tax-return data extending over more than two decades for Mr. Trump and the hundreds of companies that make up his business organization, including detailed information from his first two years in office. It does not include his personal returns for 2018 or 2019. This article offers an overview of The Times’s findings; additional articles will be published in the coming weeks.”

This paragraph paints the broader picture: “The tax returns that Mr. Trump has long fought to keep private tell a story fundamentally different from the one he has sold to the American public.”

The report was stunning.

Some of the details include:

  • Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidency and another $750 in his first year in office.
  • The Times wrote, “He paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years — largely because he reported losing much more money than he made.”
  • He reduced his tax bill with “questionable measures, including a $72.9 million tax refund that is the subject of an audit by the Internal Revenue Service.”

It’s a complicated and comprehensive story, as you can imagine, so I can’t go over every detail here. The Times published this piece, too: “18 Revelations From a Trove of Trump Tax Records.”

But, for our purposes here — a media newsletter — the big question is: How did the Times get this story?

In a note to readers, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet wrote, “We are not making the records themselves public because we do not want to jeopardize our sources, who have taken enormous personal risks to help inform the public.”

One can assume then that the records were leaked to the Times. Baquet wrote, “The reporters who examined these records have been covering the president’s finances and taxes for almost four years.”

The other question that Baquet addressed was whether it was appropriate to publish the president’s personal tax information. Baquet said the Times published the report “because we believe citizens should understand as much as possible about their leaders and representatives — their priorities, their experiences and also their finances.” Baquet also wrote, “… the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the First Amendment allows the press to publish newsworthy information that was legally obtained by reporters even when those in power fight to keep it hidden. That powerful principle of the First Amendment applies here.”

This is an important story, and of course the Times should publish such information. This is the president of the United States. His business dealings and personal finances are absolutely a story. Is this even a debate?

Worth a mention

I found this quote from CNN’s Brian Stelter to be especially insightful in the wake of the Times’ story on Trump and his taxes.

“I worked at The New York Times many years ago,” Stelter said on air. “A story of this magnitude does not get published without weeks and months of reporting, editing, and — here’s the important part — legal scrutiny.”

Trump reacts

During a Sunday press conference that was held just as the Times story was blowing up, Trump called the story “fake news” and “totally made up” and criticized the Times, saying, “They only do negative stories.” When asked how much in federal taxes he has paid, Trump did not answer, and continued to criticize the media.

On CNN, anchor Ana Cabrera said, “The president, of course, could solve all this by releasing his tax returns, making them public.”

The role of the moderator

Fox News’ Chris Wallace, seen here moderating the 2016 presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. (Joe Raedle/Pool via AP, File)

The big media event of the week — well, as far as we know as of now — is Tuesday night’s presidential debate. Fox News’ Chris Wallace will moderate the first of three scheduled presidential debates. (There also will be one vice presidential debate.)

So what is the role of a moderator? To ask good questions on a variety of topics and to keep the candidates focused on those topics. A good moderator also needs to make sure the candidates answer the questions asked if they try to pivot or duck.

But is it their role to fact-check? No, according to Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chair for the Commission on Presidential Debates. On his CNN “Reliable Sources” show, Brian Stelter asked Fahrenkopf if Wallace would be empowered to fact-check Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

“When we choose moderators, we make very clear that there’s a vast difference between being a moderator in a debate and being a reporter who is interviewing someone,” Fahrenkopf said. “When you’re interviewing someone, if they say something that is in direct opposition to something they said a week ago, your duty is to follow up and say, ‘Wait a minute, you didn’t say that a week ago.’ But that’s not the case in a debate.”

Fahrenkopf said if one of the candidates says something untrue or flip flops on a previous position, it’s the role of the other candidate to call it out. Fahrenkopf said that’s the whole point: to get the candidates to debate one another.

“We don’t expect Chris or our other moderators to be fact-checkers,” Fahrenkopf said. “The minute (the debate is over) there are going to be plenty of fact-checkers at every newspaper and every television station in the world.

The wrong substitute

Getting ready for Tuesday’s debate, Wallace took the week off from moderating “Fox News Sunday.” Filling in was Brit Hume — a rather questionable choice.

Hume’s title is “senior political analyst.” That’s a title that allows him to have strong opinions, and he isn’t afraid to share those right-leaning opinions on both TV and Twitter. That’s fine, of course, but it seemed wrong for Hume to sit in the chair of Wallace, who has done a good job making “Fox News Sunday” a straight news program. Little about Hume suggests objective coverage on anything. Fox News had other, better options: Martha MacCallum or Bret Baier, for instance.

Now, Fox News could argue that Hume did ask Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy about Republicans possibly being hypocritical by refusing to have a hearing for a Supreme Court nominee in Barack Obama’s final year as president, but willing to confirm Trump’s nominee before the election. But Hume really didn’t push Kennedy, who essentially admitted that whoever is in charge — Democrats or Republicans — choose the rules.

Oh yeah, this is big, too

Judge Amy Coney Barrett at the White House on Saturday. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Imagine how busy the news cycle must be that the nomination for a Supreme Court justice is not the biggest story of the weekend. But Trump did announce Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The choice is controversial on several levels, most of all because many think that the nomination should be left up to whichever candidate wins the presidential election.

However, it appears Barrett’s confirmation could come swiftly. The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips has a helpful guide to what could happen next.

Who is Barrett? USA Today’s Richard Wolf and Maureen Groppe have a good profile. Adam Liptak, who covers the Supreme Court for The New York Times, has a look at Barrett’s record.

And there are these opinion pieces too, both from The Washington Post: Kathleen Parker with “What Amy Coney Barrett Has in Common with Ruth Bader Ginsburg” and Robin Givhan with “Notorious ACB? No and No. Trump’s Nominee is No RBG.”

The Los Angeles Times reckoning with racism

In a detailed mea culpa, The Los Angeles Times addressed racism at their news organization on Sunday with “The L.A. Times Reckoning with Racism.” The package includes several pieces, including a letter from owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong and a strong editorial titled, “An Examination of The Times’ Failures on Race, Our Apology and a Path Forward.”

The editorial board wrote, “For at least its first 80 years, the Los Angeles Times was an institution deeply rooted in white supremacy and committed to promoting the interests of the city’s industrialists and landowners.” It then listed examples of racist behavior over the years.

The lengthy editorial closed with, “On behalf of this institution, we apologize for The Times’ history of racism. We owe it to our readers to do better, and we vow to do so.” And the board added, “We make this pledge in recognition of the many journalists who battled over the decades to make The Times a more inclusive workplace and a newspaper that reflected the real Los Angeles in its pages. As we reorient this institution firmly and fully around the multiethnic, interfaith and dazzlingly complex tapestry that is Southern California, we honor their contributions.”

Reds announcer resigns

A month after he used a homophobic slur during a hot mic moment, Cincinnati Reds baseball announcer Thom Brennaman has resigned from Fox Sports Ohio. He had already been replaced by Fox Sports on the NFL.

Thinking he was not on the air, Brennaman used the slur during a Reds game and, when informed he was actually on the air, he apologized and immediately left the booth. That was on Aug. 19.

Evan Millward from WCPO in Cincinnati broke the news that Brennaman was stepping down. In a statement to Millward, Brennaman thanked the Reds, Reds fans and the LBGTQ community and said, “I truly regret what I said and I am very sorry.”

He added that he hopes to return to broadcasting again. He closed with, “I am grateful for the forgiveness so many have extended to me, especially those in the LGBTQ community who I’ve met, spoken with and listened to almost daily over the last few weeks. With their continued guidance, I hope to be a voice for positive change.”

Brennaman, whose father Marty Brennaman was a legendary Reds announcer for more than 40 years, had been calling Reds games since 2006.

Media tidbits

(Courtesy: CBS News)

  • Mail-in voting has never received more attention than this presidential election. CBS News has come up with a unique way to look at the data behind mail-in voting in elections since 1996: a collection of stamps. Now, to be clear, these are not stamps to be used. They are merely a different way to tell a story. It’s actually a pretty cool idea. Here’s an interview with one of the designers of this stamp/infographic.
  • A big change to Axios’ Sunday political newsletter, Sneak Peek. After authoring it for four years, Jonathan Swan is giving up the reins to return to daily reporting. Sneak Peek now will be written by Alayna Treene, a White House and congressional reporter, and Hans Nichols, who left NBC News earlier this year to join Axios.
  • As journalists at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette are on the verge of a strike, word came down Sunday that Post-Gazette reporter Michael Fuoco has resigned as president of the Pittsburgh NewsGuild after allegations of sexual misconduct appeared in a story written last week by Payday Report’s Michael Elk. Elk’s story said Fuoco “used his on-and-off-again position as an adjunct journalism professor at both Pitt and Point Park University to regularly prey on his college students. Guild vice president Ed Blazina takes over as president.
  • ESPN’s top college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit was supposed to be in Miami over the weekend to call the Florida State-Miami game, but instead called the game from his Nashville home after he said he came in contact with someone who had tested positive for the coronavirus.

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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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