Four years ago the media gave an enormous boost to Donald Trump by making him the star of their multi-candidate Republican presidential debates. Despite his racist demagoguery and his utter lack of qualifications, Trump was moved to center stage and allowed to talk longer than anyone else because of his poll numbers and his salutary effect on TV ratings.
This time, at least, the Democratic candidates getting the center-stage treatment are reasonably plausible future presidents. But during CNN’s two-night extravaganza this week, and at the NBC debates last month, the same flaws were on display: an emphasis on combat over substance, a ridiculous adherence to time limits (at least NBC let Kamala Harris and Joe Biden go at it), and the elevation of fringe candidates who really have no business being there.
The stench of corruption emanating from the White House is so noxious that it can be hard to focus on outrages that truly matter. This matters: As long rumored, but not confirmed until this week, President Trump personally intervened in the merger of media giants AT&T and Time Warner in order to punish CNN, high on the list of “fake news” outlets with which he is perpetually enraged.
The revelation is contained within Jane Mayer’s 11,500-word examination of Fox News, which appears in the current issue of The New Yorker. As Mayer describes it (and as even the most casual viewer will attest), over the past few years Fox has metamorphosed from a right-wing news operation with a shaky grasp of the truth into something much more dangerous: a propaganda outlet for Trump that serves up steaming piles of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories to its angry, fearful audience.
Not coincidentally, Fox News’ founder and guiding light, the international media magnate Rupert Murdoch, has emerged as one of Trump’s closest confidants. And Murdoch did not want to see two of his rivals merge, especially given that he had tried and failed to buy Time Warner himself just a few years earlier. Luckily for him, his business interests dovetailed with Trump’s hatred of CNN, one of Time Warner’s crown jewels.
As Mayer describes it, in the summer of 2017 Trump told his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, that the Justice Department should fight the merger. Citing “a well-informed source,” Mayer reports that Trump demanded action during a meeting with Cohn and his then-new chief of staff, John Kelly. “I’ve been telling Cohn to get this lawsuit filed and nothing’s happened!” she quotes Trump as saying. “I’ve mentioned it 50 times. And nothing’s happened. I want to make sure it’s filed. I want that deal blocked!” As the meeting was coming to a close, Mayer writes, Cohn told Kelly, “Don’t you f—ing dare call the Justice Department. We are not going to do business that way.”
But the Justice Department did indeed fight the merger, all the while denying any political motivations. Trump’s opposition to the merger, though, has long been thought to be driven by his hatred for CNN. Cohn himself believed it, according to Mayer. And as I argued a year and a half ago, blocking the merger could have resulted in Time Warner’s falling into Murdoch’s hands, thus fulfilling Rupe’s ambitions and giving him an opportunity to Foxify CNN. (Not that CNN isn’t in serious need of fixing, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Adding to suspicions that Trump was acting on his wish for retribution rather than by genuine concerns about the social consequences of such massive mergers was that there really didn’t seem to be much of a legal case against it. The AT&T-Time Warner deal is something we all ought to be wary of. But under current theories of antitrust law, there was little reason to block it. In fact, the Justice Department’s efforts to stop it were shot down by the courts at every step along the way, and it recently got the final go-ahead.
As Jordan Crook and Danny Crichton explain at TechCrunch, the two companies are complementary businesses rather than competitors. Time Warner is mainly a content company; AT&T is a distributor. Their combination is regarded by many economists as a “vertical merger” that could actually benefit consumers, Crook and Crichton write, by giving them “access to a more comprehensive set of services, at a lower price, while still generating profits.” Besides, in a world in which the entire media landscape is now dominated by Google and Facebook, it may be that the only way to provide competition is by supercharging other media companies.
Now I’ll grant you that in my perfect media world, I would not only have ruled against the merger of AT&T and Time Warner but I’d break up Google and Facebook as well. But it’s the world of the corporate titans, and we’re just living in it. Given that, there is every reason to oppose governmental intervention motivated by presidential pique rather than by genuine regulatory concerns.
Mayer’s report appears destined to become part of the bill of particulars that the Democratic House is assembling as it investigates Trump’s corruption and possible crimes. U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said that he has “long feared Trump would use the instruments of state power to carry out his vendetta against the press he has attacked as the ‘enemy of the people.’”
Meanwhile, another media company seeking favors from the White House is playing it safe. According to David Fahrenthold and Jonathan O’Connell of The Washington Post, the cell-phone company T-Mobile, which is seeking to merge with its rival Sprint, has spent $195,000 at Trump’s Washington hotel since announcing the proposed deal nearly a year ago — far in excess of what the company had ever spent there previously.
Rachel Maddow was excited. The host of cable news’ top-rated show could barely contain her glee Wednesday night over the news that President Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had proven to be such a cooperative witness that special counsel Robert Mueller was recommending no jail time.
“Another few shoes are going to drop soon,” she told her viewers. She also pondered the mystery of why Trump never says anything critical about Flynn. “Not a peep about Mike Flynn since Flynn plead guilty and became a cooperator more than a year ago,” she said, adding, “There must be something else going on here. And, “The only other person he treats like this is freaking Putin!”
It was a different story on cable news’ second-highest-rated program. Sean Hannity was in full dudgeon over Mueller’s decision to go after Flynn for what Hannity called minor “process” crimes. Hannity instructed his viewers that Mueller had persecuted “a decorated military hero” for the sole purpose of building a phony case to drive Trump out of office.
“This is how desperate and how pathetic Robert Mueller is,” Hannity said, running through the reasons why Flynn might have decided to cooperate: finances ruined, his son facing possible jail time. “Is this,” Hannity asked, “what justice in America is supposed to look like to you?”
Welcome to the 2018 edition of the National Conversation. With the Mueller investigation on the verge of a possible denouement, I thought I’d spend Wednesday night watching “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “Hannity.” Hyper-polarization may be tearing us apart, but at the cable news outlets, it’s good for business. According to Adweek’s TVNewser, Maddow’s program on MSNBC this past Tuesday drew nearly 3.5 million viewers, more than anyone else on cable news in prime time (8 to 11 p.m.). Hannity, on Fox News, gathered just under 2.9 million.
And surely it’s no accident that that MSNBC, which leans left, and Fox, which has embraced the hard right, are dominating prime time while CNN brings up the rear. Though CNN, like MSNBC, is harshly critical of Trump and regularly draws the White House’s ire, the network has attempted to maintain at least some of its former image as a nonpartisan purveyor of actual news. MSNBC and Fox, bound by no such scruples, are free to toss bleeding chunks of raw meat to their aging viewers.
It should be noted that all three cable outlets employ actual journalists who do good work. It’s just that they are rarely seen during prime time, especially on MSNBC and Fox. Instead, the three networks offer a full line-up of talk shows, nine hours a night. And the queen and king of those talk shows are Maddow and Hannity, whose 9 p.m. programs have become appointment viewing for political partisans of the left and right.
Lest I be accused of false equivalence, let me make it clear that Maddow, for all her opinionating and speculating, helms a show that is grounded in facts. She’s smart, and you often learn something. Over at Fox, though, the Trump presidency has pushed Hannity and other hosts into an alternative universe of dark conspiracy-mongering in which the Mueller investigation is nothing but a corrupt attempt by the “deep state” to destroy a great president because of his willingness to stand up to the establishment.
Thus did Wednesday’s edition feature a conversation between Hannity and John Solomon, an investigative columnist with The Hill, who this week reported on an “email chain”purportedly showing that former FBI director James Comey and other officials had obtained a FISA warrant under false pretenses so that they could surveil Trump associate Carter Page. Inconveniently, Solomon admitted to Hannity that he hadn’t actually seen the emails, although they have been “described” to him. All right, then.
Hannity was apoplectic, calling Solomon’s story proof of a “conscious fraud upon the court” and saying it showed that Comey was trying to tilt the election toward Hillary Clinton — never mind Comey’s late hit on Clinton, when he reopened the investigation into her emails and found nothing, a move that may well have cost her the election.
The rest of Hannity’s hour was taken up with a visit from Newt Gingrich, who called the Mueller investigation “an anti-constitutional effort by the organized left” and who congratulated Fox News for being the only media outlet willing to tell the truth; an immigration “debate” with fellow Fox host Geraldo Rivera (Hannity and Rivera both support Trump’s wall, but Rivera, unlike Hannity, would do something for the Dreamers); and, believe it or not, an update on the war on Christmas, perhaps Fox News’ most enduring creation.
Maddow’s program was considerably less toxic than Hannity’s but not necessarily any more nutritious. Other than Flynn, her main interest was the fate of Maria Butina, an accused Russian operative who, we learned, stood up at a Trump event in 2015 and apparently became the first person ever to ask the then-candidate whether he would lift sanctions against Russia. (Trump responded that he’d strongly consider it.) Butina, Maddow observed, may be the link uniting Russian money, the Trump campaign, and the National Rifle Association.
Maddow was also visited briefly by the ubiquitous Democratic congressman Adam Schiff of California, who will soon become chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Alex Isenstadt of Politico, who broke the news earlier this week that a foreign government had hacked the email accounts of several top Republican campaign officials.
Significantly, neither Maddow nor Hannity spent much time on the funeral of George H.W. Bush, which has brought a sense of unity to much of the country even if praise for the one-term president has been somewhat overwrought. Maddow, at least, provided a respectful overview of the day’s events. Hannity’s main interest was to bring on New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin and former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer so they could whine that Democratic praise for the late president was just another way of trashing Trump.
Cable news has long been a wasted opportunity. So much airtime. So little news. Imagine how it might be different. How about at least one hour of prime time combining news and analysis without any partisan overlay? I’m thinking of something like Anderson Cooper’s CNN program, only with more actual journalism. Or the “PBS NewsHour” with a zippier pace and better production values.
But no. Instead we have ideological talk-show hosts exploiting the passions of their audience for ratings and profits. It’s a sorry state of affairs — but one that perfectly reflects our deep and seemingly unbridgeable divisions.
Thanks to the U.S. Department of Justice, AT&T’s monopolistic dreams may not come true after all. According to media reports, the government may block AT&T’s proposed $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner. Even if the deal is approved, AT&T may be required to sell off CNN, one of Time Warner’s crown jewels.
Under normal circumstances, such action would be welcome news for those who have long opposed media concentration and its accompanying ills: fewer choices, higher prices, and more power for corporate executives to control what we watch, listen to, and read. But nothing is normal in the Age of Trump. And in this case, it appears that opposition to the deal may be driven less by antitrust law and more by the president’s ongoing fury at CNN.
Who, after all, can forget Trump’s outburst after CNN revealed the existence (though not the contents) of the infamous dossier of raw Russian intelligence, which claimed the president-elect had engaged in financial shenanigans and embarrassing personal behavior? “Your organization is terrible,” Trump told CNN’s Jim Acosta at a news conference last January, adding: “You are fake news.” The relationship has not improved since then.
Thus anti-monopolists find themselves in the awkward position of supporting Trump’s Justice Department on the AT&T-Time Warner merger while feeling obliged to point out that federal regulators may well be doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons. Timothy Karr of Free Press, a prominent media-reform organization that opposes the merger, nevertheless writes that “Trump would be dead wrong, however, to pull the levers of government to force more favorable coverage from CNN.” Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, who also argues that the merger should be rejected, worries that Trump’s loose lips and tawdry tweets may end up working to AT&T’s advantage: “Trump’s rhetoric about the deal, which dates back to his presidential campaign, has muddled the issues — and may even have increased the chances that the deal will go through with all its negative aspects intact.”
I’ve been writing about the threats posed by media concentration since the 1990s. Given the circumstances, though, I think the AT&T-Time Warner deal ought to be approved — and not because (or not just because) it would infuriate Trump. Much as I agree with Karr and Hiltzik in the abstract, I can think of three very good reasons why we might be better off if AT&T winds up as CNN’s corporate overlord.
• Rupert Murdoch — yes, that Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Fox News Channel and friend of Trump — has reportedly indicated an eagerness to add CNN to his empire should it become available. According to Jessica Toonkel of Reuters, Murdoch called AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson twice during the past six months to discuss a possible deal should AT&T be forced to sell off CNN.
• A deal that would allow Sinclair Broadcast Group to acquire Tribune Media’s television stations appears to be on track, giving the company control of more than 200 stations around the country. And Sinclair is notorious for using its power in local markets to advance a right-wing, pro-Trump agenda. Over the weekend, for instance, David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun detailed how a Sinclair-owned station in Alabama ran a deceptive report in its local newscast to try to discredit The Washington Post’s coverage of women who say they were sexually assaulted by Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.
• Bigger is not better — far from it. But given the enormous power over content and distribution amassed by the platform giants Facebook and Google, it may be that traditional concerns about media concentration are obsolete. Perhaps the best way to fight the new media giants is by empowering the old. As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo notes, AT&T’s Stephenson made exactly that point recently. “Essentially,” Marshall wrote, “he argued that only by combining a company with a dominant position in distribution (AT&T) with a content company (Time Warner) could anyone hope to compete with the platform monopolies Google and Facebook in the advertising business.”
Earlier this week, Bloomberg’s David McLaughlin, Scott Moritz, and Sara Forden reported that AT&T will ask a judge to provide the company with communications between the White House and the Justice Department if the government sues to stop the merger. That could make for some very interesting reading.
Murdoch lurking in the wings. A super-empowered Sinclair wreaking havoc in television markets around the country. Traditional media being hamstrung by old laws while Facebook and Google continue to reign unchecked. Those would be reasons enough to approve the AT&T-Time Warner merger. But the specter that President Trump is attempting to orchestrate this as a way to punish a journalistic enemy looms over all of this.
The first results were coming in from Georgia’s special congressional election. And Tucker Carlson of the Fox News Channel had a theory to explain why Jon Ossoff, the Democrat, wasn’t heading toward a huge victory over his Republican opponent, Karen Handel: Ossoff was (gasp) a liberal elitist.
“Ossoff ought to be running away with it, but he’s not,” Carlson said. He sneered at Ossoff’s prodigious fundraising, saying that “all that money has come from angry liberals who live out of state.” As for whether Ossoff was capable of relating to voters in Georgia’s Sixth District, Carlson smirked, “He’s super-fit and way smarter than you are.”
As someone who has not been personally affected by a terrorist attack, I would not presume to give advice to the people of Manchester on this terrible day after.
But as a resident of the Boston area — and one among the thousands who rallied to the side of our city in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings — I have some thoughts about how a community can come together after a tragedy like this.
Thus it was that even on the night of President Barack Obama’s farewell address, the big story was CNN’s report — co-bylined by Watergate legend Carl Bernstein, no less — about compromising (and unverified) personal and financial information gathered by the Russians that could be used to blackmail the president-elect.
On our screens, a popular, largely successful, and thoroughly reassuring president was preparing to leave the White House. Behind the scenes, all was trouble and turmoil.
I don’t care that Corey Lewandowski is a partisan hack. And though it bothers me that he was Donald Trump’s thuggish enforcer, I don’t think it disqualifies him from sitting in front of a TV camera and extolling Trump’s alleged virtues.
But it does bother me—a lot—that CNN would give a platform to Lewandowski even though he may not be legally free to voice his honest opinion. That’s the least the network should get for the $500,000 it is reportedly paying him.
To recap briefly: Trump fired Lewandowski as his campaign manager a week ago Monday. Just two days later Lewandowski signed on with CNN to provide pro-Trump commentary. The hiring has been greeted with a considerable amount of outrage because of Lewandowski’s role in herding reporters into pens, banning certain journalists as well as entire news organizations from Trump events, and grabbing the arm of a female reporter hard enough that he was charged with assault. (The charge was later dropped.)
The real mind-bender, though, is that Lewandowski—who remains a true believer in Trump despite the firing—signed a non-disclosure agreement when he left the campaign. Even worse, he may also have signed a non-disparagement agreement. On the face of it, that would seem to mean there exists a legal document somewhere that says Lewandowski cannot criticize Trump. Now, maybe Lewandowski wouldn’t anyway. But there is an enormous difference between won’tand can’t. (We talked about the Lewandowski matter last week on WGBH-TV’s Beat the Press.)
Several of CNN’s on-air journalists have come up huge in holding their network to account. Last week Erin Burnett asked Lewandowski directly whether he had signed a non-disparagement agreement. Lewandowski did not answer the question. “Let me tell you who I am,” he said. “I am a guy who calls balls and strikes, I am going to tell it like it is.”
CNN media reporter Brian Stelter wrote about the situation last week and devoted a nine-minute-plus segment to it Sunday on Reliable Sources. Stelter, like Burnett, deserves credit for focusing on what exactly Lewandowski may have signed when he left the Trump campaign.
Should CNN run a disclosure every time Lewandowski opens his mouth? Yes, replied one of Stelter’s guests, Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawick. But Zurawick added that CNN and other outlets should stay away from partisan commentators altogether. If they want to learn what’s going on inside the Trump campaign, he said, “let’s find out the old-fashioned way by reporting it, not paying weasels to tell you about it.”
Before Lewandowski’s hiring, CNN already had a pro-Trump commentator in its stable—Jeffrey Lord. And he told Stelter that he saw no difference between Lewandowski signing on with CNN, former George W. Bush consigliore Karl Rove going to work for Fox News, or former Bill Clinton apologist George Stephanopoulos being hired by ABC News.
Lord is right—or at least he would be right if it weren’t for the matter of what Lewandowski is legally free to say about his former boss. And you can roll any number of other hired guns into Lord’s critique. What do Democratic operatives Donna Brazile and Paul Begala add to our understanding when they appear on CNN? But such is the nature of political commentary on cable news, whose main imperative is to fill hour after hour as cheaply as possible. Yes, talking heads are cheap, even when they’re well-paid.
The sorry truth may be that CNN doesn’t want Lewandowski to criticize Trump even if he’s so inclined. During the 1990s Jeff Cohen, a left-wing media critic, got a tryout to fill the liberal seat on the late, unlamented Crossfire. Cohen didn’t get the job—and one of the reasons, he wrote in his 2006 book Cable News Confidential, was that he was unwilling to go along with a requirement that he defend Clinton come hell or high water.
No doubt Lewandowski will settle into his role without all that much additional controversy. Paul Fahri reported in the Washington Post on Monday that rumors of a revolt among CNN staffers had been greatly exaggerated. But something important has been lost, because CNN has gone beyond commentary, beyond partisanship, beyond the mindless recitation of talking points. With Lewandowski, we have no way of knowing whether he’s telling us what he really thinks or if he’s protecting the settlement he signed on his way out of Trump Tower.
That may not seem like much in a media environment in which we seem to hit a new low every week. But it’s one more reason why public distrust of the media is so widespread—and why it deserves to be.
If CNN wants to hire Donald Trump’s thuggish ex-goon, Corey Lewandowski, as a commentator, well, let’s just say that I would expect nothing less. But I’m genuinely appalled that CNN would bring him aboard knowing that Lewandowski is legally bound not to say what he’s really thinking.
CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, who’s doing a great job covering his employer’s ethical lapse, writes:
There are also swirling questions about whether Lewandowski is still bound to Trump somehow.
Like other Trump employees, he signed a non-disclosure agreement that ensures he will not share confidential information.
The agreement likely included a “non-disparagement clause,” impeding his ability to criticize Trump publicly.
I could almost live with the non-disclosure agreement. That’s not much different from a reporter’s protecting a confidential source. But a “non-disparagement clause”? Seriously? If Stelter has that right, then it means Lewandowski can’t offer his honest opinion on anything to do with Trump. When the next Trump outrage takes place and Lewandowski says it’s just peachy, we won’t have any idea whether he means it or not.
CNN should walk away from this colossal blunder, but of course it won’t.
My view of the winners and losers in Tuesday night’s Democratic debate is pretty much the same as what I’ve seen from other observers. Hillary Clinton won with a strong, polished performance (and was likable enough). Bernie Sanders was uneven but had his moments. And Martin O’Malley emerged as the only real alternative to the two front-runners, as Jim Webb fizzled and Lincoln Chafee popped.
So let me turn instead to the biggest loser of the debate: CNN, which for whatever reason just can’t seem to get its act together. Moderator Anderson Cooper is a smart, authoritative presence, but during the debate he was both too authoritative and too present. He interrupted constantly. Every candidate’s answer, it seemed, played out against a backdrop of Cooper trying to get him or her to stop. Sometimes a strong hand is needed. But politics ain’t beanbag, as Mr. Dooley instructed us. Let them mix it up.
Far worse was CNN’s weirdly tone-deaf wallowing in racial and gender stereotypes. It was well into the debate before we heard from a black journalist, Don Lemon. So naturally he drew the assignment of asking about the Black Lives Matter movement. As “Beat the Press” contributor Justin Ellis of the Nieman Journalism Lab tweeted:
"I want to talk about race in America. And here's Don Lemon." Annnnnnnd I'm out
Later on, the first question about immigration came from — yes — Juan Carlos Lopez of CNN en Español. After that, someone on Twitter wondered sardonically if Dana Bash had been designated to ask about abortion rights. Not quite. But Bash did ask Clinton about family leave, which prompted an exchange on the challenges faced by working mothers. Hey, CNN: minority and female journalists are capable of asking about gun control and campaign-finance reform, too.
It was not a great night for new media, whether you’re talking about new new media (Snapchat), old new media (Twitter) or ancient new media (Facebook). Facebook actually co-sponsored the debate, but I couldn’t find anything especially compelling. I did run across one amusing video on CNN’s Facebook page (flagged by local social-media guy Steve Garfield) on a behind-the-scenes look at debate preparations. As it ended, the host, Chris Moody, turned toward the camera and said, “It’s been real. Thanks, Snapchat.” Realizing his mistake, he turned to others and repeated his mistake. “I said Snapchat.” A pause. “Bye, Facebook. Sorry, Facebook.” To quote a famous debate moment: “Oops.”
Twitter is still the go-to place for real-time conversation during a news event. But I kept checking a running story on the debate that was posted in Twitter’s brand-new Moments section, and what I found was pretty weak. It was too mainstream; tweets were posted in chronological rather than reverse chronological order; and there was little of the sense of unexpected discovery that draws me to Twitter. As described by Mathew Ingram of Fortune, Moments is supposed to be a curated news experience aimed at users who find “real” Twitter too confusing and time-consuming. Maybe it will catch on, but I just didn’t see much value in it.
As for Snapchat, well, better luck next time? At a recent appearance at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Snapchat’s chief journalist, Peter Hamby, waxed enthusiastic about the Live Stories the mobile-only service posted after the two Republican debates. Maybe we’ll have to wait until Wednesday, but as I write this — around midnight on Tuesday — there’s nothing. And CNN’s Snapchat channel is still devoted entirely to a preview of the debate.
Again, we’ll have to wait for Wednesday. But I could sneak back downstairs and watch post-debate reaction on my old-fashioned TV. Isn’t online media supposed to offer a sense of immediacy that legacy platforms lack?