Why does the media shrug over claims that former Trump aide Corey Lewandowski bragged about killing two men?

Corey Lewandowski grabs a female reporter at a 2016 Trump rally. Photo via police video.

Previously published at GBH News.

Did a member of Donald Trump’s inner circle tell a woman he was trying to pick up that he’d killed two men during his misspent youth? And if he did say that, was he telling the truth — or was he merely boasting?

The answers to those questions could presumably be obtained through a vigorous probe by law enforcement officials as well as some dogged investigative reporting. But the story slipped beneath the surface almost as soon as it broke three weeks ago.

That lassitude stands in contrast to the endless updates we’ve been subjected to on what is rattling around inside Sens. Joe Manchin’s and Kyrsten Sinema’s heads at any given moment. Then again, “Dems in Disarray” is a narrative the media never tire of. Who cares if someone who may yet play a prominent role in Trump’s comeback is a killer, or likes to play one when he’s trying to impress women?

Our story begins on Sept. 29, when Alex Isenstadt of Politico reported that a well-connected Republican donor named Trashelle Odom was claiming that Corey Lewandowski — one of Trump’s 2016 campaign managers and still someone who has the former president’s ear — had made “unwanted sexual advances toward her at a Las Vegas charity event over the weekend.”

Isenstadt’s article included a number of disturbing allegations Odom had made about Lewandowski — that he had crudely bragged about the size of his endowment, that he had stalked and touched her and that “she grew fearful for her personal safety as Lewandowski described incidents of violence that took place earlier in his life.”

Isenstadt followed up on Oct. 1 with a report that Odom had filed a statement with police. Details, though, were lacking.

And here we come to the most problematic part of this saga. Because the following day the full text of Odom’s statement was made public — not by a reputable news organization, but by the Daily Mail, a sleazy tabloid based in the U.K. The statement contained all the salacious details, including Lewandowski’s alleged claim that he had killed two men by stabbing them in the back of the head, once when he was just a wee lad of 10, and again at some unspecified time when he was older.

Was the statement for real?

The quality media, understandably, have approached the document with rubber gloves and tweezers, alluding to Odom’s claims in general terms (remember, Politico had already reported on them) while staying away from the details contained in the alleged police statement. Neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post has reported Odom’s supposed claim about Lewandowski’s homicidal boasting.

Among those that have taken the plunge by citing the Daily Mail’s story are The Daily Beast, Salon, Mediaite and The Bulwark, an anti-Trump conservative website that ran a piece by Tim Miller mocking Lewandowki. But Miller also asked a serious question, and it’s one we all ought to ponder:

“Maybe the whole thing will turn out to be a hilarious mixup, the kind of sitcom setup that everyone laughs about later. Ross said to Rachel, ‘I stabbed five guys!’ And Chandler says, ‘Ix-nay on the abby-stay!’

“But also: Maybe not?”

Indeed. Maybe not. Assuming the police report is genuine and that Odom was telling the truth, it seems more likely than not that Lewandowski was lying, just as he was lying about running 400 miles a week and staying in “the Elvis suite.” But Lewandowski has a thuggish reputation as well as a history of women filing assault claims against him. So who knows?

Almost as soon as the Politico story was published, Lewandowski was removed from the Trump-aligned Super PAC he had been running. “He will no longer be associated with Trump World,” a Trump spokesman was quoted as saying. But as Maggie Haberman wrote in The New York Times, “Whether Mr. Lewandowski remains permanently banished from Mr. Trump’s orbit remains to be seen.”

The next day, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem announced that Lewandowki was being cut off from his role as an unpaid adviser to her campaign. Noem’s statement cited Odom’s allegations as the reason. Michael Scherer of The Washington Post noted, though, that Noem has also been hit with allegations that she and Lewandowski had an extramarital affair — rumors that she called “total garbage and a disgusting lie.”

After that, the story all but vanished.

Any day now, it seems, Trump will announce he’s running for president in 2024. Will Lewandowski be at his side once again?

Maybe Trump’s supporters, who don’t care that he was impeached twice and now praises the Jan. 6 insurrection he helped incite, also won’t care if one of his advisers may have boasted that he had fatally knifed two men. Maybe they won’t even care if it’s actually true.

But journalists ought to care. This isn’t a matter of political commentators gaming out how murder plays with undecided voters in swing states. This is as serious as it gets. I hope that teams of investigative reporters are looking into it right now.

I fear that they’ve moved on.

In Georgia, a partisan news site replaces local journalism with false election claims

Here’s what happens when you don’t have a reliable source of local news in your community: partisan websites that look like local news pop up in order to push a political point of view. Most of them are right-wing, although there are also a few that lean left.

Last week NPR’s Stephen Fowler had a terrific piece about The Georgia Star News, a Trump-oriented project that is aligned with Steve Bannon, although it doesn’t sound like Bannon has an official role. “It’s very populist, it’s very nationalist, it’s very MAGA, it’s very American First,” Bannon reportedly said.

The lead story right now: “Merrick Garland’s Case Against Georgia Is a Loser, According to Legal Scholars and Journalists,” aggregated from The Federalist and opinion pieces in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

What the Star News and sites like it do is work the media food chain. The website’s publisher, John Fredericks, has a radio talk show whose guests have included Bannon and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Fredericks’ talk show and website haved pushed false information about absentee ballots. (According to Fredericks’ website, his show was recently booted off YouTube. Gee, I wonder why?)

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who stood up for the integrity of Georgia’s elections when it really mattered, nevertheless called for an investigation based on the Star News’ story. From there the story was injected into the mainstream, since legitimate media outlets are in the habit of quoting Raffensperger. And, before you know it, Trump himself was praising the Star News for “the incredible reporting you have done.”

Fredericks claims his operation is profitable thanks to an injection of ads from Republican politicians.

As these “pink slime” operations go, Fredericks’ is rather modest — eight sites, compared to the 1,300 documented last fall by The New York Times. And Fredericks’ sites are statewide — they’re not promising the sort of hyperlocal news that, say, a right-wing site like the Macon (Georgia) Times does.

Still, the Star News points to the dangers of what can happen when we lose reliable local and regional news.

A shocking breach of the First Amendment

Photo (cc) 2016 by Paul O'Brien.
Photo (cc) 2016 by Paul O’Brien.

The detention of a Canadian photojournalist at the US border is a shocking breach of the First Amendment. Ed Ou says he was stopped on October 1 as he was trying to fly to Bismarck, North Dakota, to cover the Standing Rock protests. According to the New York Times, his phones were confiscated so that authorities could look at his photos, possibly endangering the subjects of those photos.

The Obama years have not been good ones for freedom of the press, as I’ve written in the past. They’re going to get a whole lot worse under Donald Trump, with his call for upending the libel laws and with his thuggish manservant Corey Lewandowski demanding that Times executive editor Dean Baquet be locked up for publishing Trump’s partial tax returns.

The United States currently ranks 41st in press freedom, according to Reporters WIthout Borders. We could be considerably lower than that the next time the ratings are readjusted.

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Why CNN shouldn’t have hired Corey Lewandowski

Corey Lewandowski. Photo via CNN.
Corey Lewandowski. Photo via CNN.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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.

Lewandowski can’t tell CNN viewers what he really thinks

Corey Lewandowski says hello to reporter Michelle Fields earlier this year.
Corey Lewandowski gives an affectionate shove to reporter Michelle Fields earlier this year.

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.