President Trump’s Tulsa weekend was big news, but not for the reasons we thought it would be

Your Monday Poynter Report

June 22, 2020

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Heading into this past weekend, the big media story was expected to be the Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There were fears that a massive number of President Donald Trump’s supporters would clash with a massive number of Trump protesters, and that the weekend could result in divisiveness, violence and maybe even tragedy.

As the weekend came to a close, the Trump rally was, indeed, the big media story of the weekend. But it was for very different reasons than expected. It was the lack of a crowd that headlined the event. Despite claims that more than a million people requested tickets for Trump’s first rally since the coronavirus, it’s estimated that fewer than 7,000 actually showed. Protesters, too, stayed away and the whole weekend reportedly turned out to be a major disappointment for the president.

The weekend turned out to be eventful for being uneventful.

What happened?

There were reports that anti-Trumpers — mostly young adults — punked the Trump campaign by requesting tickets they never had any intention of using.

Without proof, the Trump campaign claimed protesters prevented many from attending the rally. It bears repeating that there is absolutely no evidence that happened.

Could some have stayed away out of fears that there would be clashes with protesters or the crowd would be too big? Possibly. It’s also very possible that people stayed away because of the coronavirus and fears of being indoors with thousands of people.

And, there’s also the possibility — though this is only speculation — that with the coronavirus, protests and the economy, there just wasn’t an appetite for an everything-is-great Trump rally at this point in time.

Whatever the reason, it was another example that the only thing we know about the Trump campaign: that we don’t know what’s going to happen next. Media predictions of a potentially violent and horrible weekend, thankfully, did not come to fruition. But how to categorize the weekend remains difficult.

Here’s how the national media played it:

Don’t mess with Chris Wallace

Fox News’ Chris Wallace. (Joe Raedle/Pool via AP)

Chris Wallace wasn’t having it. When Trump campaign adviser Mercedes Schlapp tried to spin her way through questions about the well-below-expectations crowd at Saturday night’s Trump rally in Tulsa, Wallace called her out — even at one point saying the Trump campaign looked “silly.”

During “Fox News Sunday,” Wallace grilled Schlapp, pointing out that Trump and his people often inflate crowd size, like he did after his 2017 inauguration. Saturday’s crowd was expected to be so far over the 19,000 arena capacity that an outdoor platform was set up. As it turned out, the arena was half empty. Wallace pointed that out and shot down one Schlapp theory that protesters stopped supporters from attending the rally.

“He didn’t fill an arena last night,” Wallace told Schlapp. “And you guys were so far off that you had planned an outdoor rally and there wasn’t an overflow crowd and watching the coverage and talking to (Fox News correspondent) Mark Meredith on the ground today, protesters did not stop people from coming to that rally.”

Schapp insisted that protesters were to blame, and that’s when Wallace jumped in with, “Mercedes, please don’t filibuster. Please don’t filibuster. We’re showing pictures here and it shows big empty areas. Frankly, it makes you guys look silly when you deny the reality of what happened.”

Schlapp said she wasn’t denying anything and that she didn’t know what Wallace was talking about. Wallace continued to point out how the arena wasn’t nearly full, saying, “You can’t deny it.”

Later, when Schlapp tried to pivot, Wallace called her out by saying, “Mercedes, you’re shifting to a campaign speech, which has nothing to do with the attendance of the rally.”

It was a strong moment from Wallace, something other Fox News on-air personalities should take notice of.

On the other hand

Before getting carried away and thinking Chris Wallace’s tough interview with Mercedes Schlapp is a sign that Fox News is now a beacon for fair and impartial journalism, Fox News media specialist Howard Kurtz took a shot at what he sees as liberal media outlets and a new way of journalism that is threatening its very soul.

During his opening monologue on Sunday’s “Media Buzz” on Fox News, Kurtz said, “I understand the anger and the frustration of Black journalists sparked by the brutal killing of George Floyd and decades of police brutality. But there’s a growing pattern of imbalance and intolerance at some of our top news organizations. And for many younger journalists, that’s just fine, they don’t want contrary opinions published. Fox News takes its share of knocks, there are a number of prominent conservative hosts here, but you get many points of view on this network every day. The new approach is even being touted as a business model. Most readers at the Times or viewers at CNN or MSNBC are liberal, so these outlets make more money by keeping the base happy. There’s a sense of mission as they slam Trump, embrace Black Lives Matter, and now demand apologies and resignations if their bosses allow opposing views any daylight.”

Kurtz goes on to say that he still believes “fairness and balance are our highest values” and that he fears “we are losing to the social justice warriors in what I view as a battle for the soul of journalism.”

First, it did seem odd that Kurtz said that media companies embracing Black Lives Matter is an issue. Is that a flaw, as Kurtz seems to be suggesting?

But, besides that, the problem with Kurtz’s argument is that his monologue on Sunday was largely based on two high-profile editors recently losing their jobs: New York Times editorial editor James Bennet and Philadelphia Inquirer editor Stan Wischnowski. Kurtz assumes Bennet and Wischnowski are out simply over single incidents as opposed to reports that suggest there were issues with their performances well before recent events.

To say that either was run off for publishing “contrary opinions” isn’t necessarily accurate.

One more thought on Fox News

President Trump in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday night. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

According to The Washington Post, Trump spent just over 14 minutes of his one-hour and 43-minute speech Saturday night talking about his West Point commencement speech, including his much-talked-about slow walk down the ramp after it was over. The chyron on Fox News as he talked:

“Trump Debunks West Point Ramp Fake News”

It’s moments like this that hurt Fox News’ credibility when it tries to argue that it is fair and balanced. They can’t defend some of the rhetoric of primetime pundits such as Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, and they rarely try. But they do try to argue that the rest of the network is fair.

When a chyron uses a phrase such as “fake news” to essentially support a Trump story, it’s hard to take Fox News’ credibility seriously.

What in the world?

There it is, on page 7 of the front section of Tennessee’s largest newspaper — The Tennessean. There’s a photo of Donald Trump and Pope Francis. Underneath is a letter signed by “The Ministry of Future for America.” Here’s how the letter starts:

“We are under conviction to not only tell you but provide evidence that on July 18, 2020, Islam is going to detonate a nuclear device in Nashville, Tennessee. Our problem with trying to warn you of this event is that it requires information on a handful of subjects that you may or may not have any inclination to consider.”

The letter then goes on to reference Bible prophecy, a third world war, Trump’s relationship with Russia and a bunch of end-of-world mumbo jumbo.

The Tennessean, which is owned by Gannett, is trying to figure out how the ad got into the paper in the first place and promised to investigate the matter.

“Clearly there was a breakdown in the normal processes, which call for careful scrutiny of our advertising content,” Michael A. Anastasi, vice president and editor of The Tennessean, said in a statement, adding that the advertising department is separate from news. “The ad is horrific and is utterly indefensible in all circumstances. It is wrong, period, and should have never been published. It has hurt members of our community and our own employees and that saddens me beyond belief. It is inconsistent with everything The Tennessean as an institution stands and has stood for.”

Tennessean investigative reporter Adam Tamburin tweeted Sunday, “I’ve loved The @Tennessean since before I could read. Journalists there work to raise marginalized voices and call out injustice. It’s heartbreaking to all of us when decisions beyond our control subvert that mission. We will demand answers.”

Just the facts

Global Fact 7 — the largest worldwide gathering of fact-checkers — kicks off today. The virtual conference will feature more than 150 speakers from 40 countries to discuss the state and future of fact-checking.

I will moderate a panel today at 1:30 p.m. Eastern called “Too Much to Handle? Fact-checking During a Pandemic and a Presidential Election Campaign.” I will be joined by a terrific panel featuring PolitiFact editor-in-chief Angie Drobnic Holan, The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, FactCheck.org director Eugene Kiely and Associated Press deputy editor Karen Mahabir.

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

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