McGarretts and Magnums

CBS-TV’s Facebook page posted this yesterday:

In case you ever wondered if there was any imagination left in Hollywood, this should give you an answer.

CBS is repeating what it did nearly 40 years ago when as the original Hawaii Five-O was running out …

… CBS came up with a series to set in Hawaii:

And now that the rebooted “Hawaii Five-0” is nearing its end …

As with “Hawaii Five-0,” which replaced “Hawaii Five-O,” contemporization takes place. The original McGarrett was a Navy commander, but we never found out how he ended up in Hawaii. The new McGarrett was a Navy SEAL who went to Hawaii to investigate the murder of his father and is asked by the governor to set up a statewide task force to get the bad guys. McGarrett and Danno have what apparently is called a “bromance,” Chin Ho becomes a disgraced former Honolulu police lieutenant, and Kono, formerly a fat and funny Polynesian, becomes a woman.

Apparently in “Magnum P.I.” 2.0, Magnum is no longer the son of a Korean War aviator killed in action. He still has military buddies Rick (actual first name Orville) and T.C. But Higgins, the World War II-veteran (as his never-completed autobiography told viewers) major domo of the Robin Masters estate, has become a woman too, and apparently is not the antagonist the original Higgins was.

And there is a glaring omission, as reported by the Hollywood Reporter:

When CBS released its first-look pic Monday of series star Jay Hernandez in the coming reboot of Magnum, P.I., it was no wonder that fans of the original took to Twitter to howl their dismay.

Though Hernandez is shown sitting in the same red Ferrari 308 GTS Quattrovalvole convertible that Tom Selleck drove in the original ’80s series, something definitely was missing. As one wag put it, the original series had two stars — Selleck, of course, and his luxuriant mustache.

Both personally and professionally, Selleck has been defined by his copious ‘stache, even going back to his USC student modeling days when he posed for an iconic 1977 Salem cigarette ad “to pay the rent” as he later said.

But it was Magnum P.I. (1980-1988) that cemented his iconic status as the hirsute himbo, winning him a Golden Globe and an Emmy for the series in 1985, when it was at its peak.

… Getting back to the Magnum P.I. series revival with Hernandez, it appears to be set in today’s times and not the more flamboyant and freewheeling ’80s. The detective’s signature Aloha floral shirt is also nowhere in evidence, even though a print shirt would certainly be on-trend, given menswear’s current love of the style seen everywhere from the Tommy Hilfiger to Louis Vuitton runways for spring. The new Magnum is rather disappointingly clad in just a generic blue button-up.

Hernandez is also missing the Detroit Tigers ballcap that Selleck wore to keep his raven curls in place. And it’s doubtful that we’ll see the character clad in the boxer-style short-shorts that the original Magnum wore running around in his Hawaiian paradise.

With its network home on CBS, the Magnum P.I. series revival could be going for mass-market appeal. (It’s possible that today, a mustache would read as too ironic, too Brooklyn hipster.) Though Hernandez does sport a hint of stubble, it may not have worked for him to rock a full bristly ‘stache, even though they have been seen on red carpets on edgy young actors such as Stranger Things‘ Dacre Montgomery and on late-night talkers like Chris Hemsworth appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live recently. Not to mention other tragedy-tinged TV dramas focusing on mustachioed characters of the period like Milo Ventimiligia’s Jack Pearson on This Is Us and James Franco’s dark turn as brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino on The Deuce.

But will a Magnum sans his mustache really have what it takes? Much like Samson, who lost his godly abilities when shorn of his lengthy locks, will the new iteration of the TV folk hero still have the power to keep the people tuned in without his bro-mo? We’ll have to wait until this fall to find out. For now, we can only hope some kind of hairline storyline makes the cut.

What makes a TV series, of course, is its characters and their interrelationship, which can make up for stories of dubious credulity. The original Magnum, Rick and T.C. all had Vietnam in common, and in some cases aftereffects thereof. (That and picking on Higgins.) Magnum was described as leaving the Navy because he found out one day that he was 33 and, because of his Navy experiences, he had never been 23. Then he found out he had a daughter from the wife he thought had died in Vietnam (actually more of a heartbreaking plot turn than I can describe here). At the end of the series Magnum goes back into the Navy and he and his daughter go off to live wherever the Navy sends him.

About her: Would you believe this, from 2016:

Eighties crime series Magnum P.I. is eyeing a comeback with ABC developing a female-centric sequel which will centre on Magnum’s grown daughter.

The reboot is described as a “fun, high-action” rebirth of the cult show that featured Tom Selleck as Thomas Magnum, a private investigator living Oahu, Hawaii. It ran from 1980 to 1988.

According to Deadline, the sequel will follow Magnum’s daughter, Lily, as she returns to Hawaii to take up the mantle of her father’s PI firm.

Along with her friends, Lily mixes Hawaii’s tropical beaches with the underbelly of international crime syndicates and tries to unravel the mystery of a spy operation that ended her career in naval intelligence.

The project comes from Desperate Housewives actress Eva Longoria and her producing partner Ben Spector.

Working with Universal, which owns the rights to the series, Longoria’s UnbeliEVAble Entertainment production company identified Magnum PI as both viable and relevant.

Lily Magnum starred in just four episodes of the original series after being raised by her mother, not Magnum. The show ended with Magnum being reunited with his daughter and promising to give her a stable home after his former wife is killed. …

It is unclear whether actress Troian Bellisario, who played Lily Magnum in the original series, will reprise her role. Bellisario currently stars in teen drama Pretty Little Liars.

Apparently Magnum’s Daughter P.I. went nowhere. Interestingly, the original was first pitched to ABC, which passed.

I have my doubts about this. This seems to be following the Star Trek/Hawaii Five-0 reboot formula of characters of the same name who aren’t the same character, throw in some references to the original series, maybe some stunt casting or characters (the remake had a Wo Fat, but he was in organized crime, unlike the original Chinese agent Wo Fat, and Al Harrington, who played Ben Kokua on the original, appeared in an episode of the remake). If you want mindless action for your TV series, using a director from “The Fast and the Furious” franchise is an obvious choice.

As far as characters go, the difference between Five-O and Five-0 is that the latter did have character development over the series, though rather implausibly. (How likely is it that four police officers could sneak into North Korea? Or that one just happened to be held hostage the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 across the river in New Jersey? Or that McGarrett’s mother came back from the dead to be revealed as a secret agent?) The original McGarrett had a few things happen to him (niece died, girlfriend died, and he was shot and blown up), Kono was replaced by Kokua, and Chin Ho was killed, but for the most part the 13th-season McGarrett was an older version of the first-season McGarrett.

The number of Hollywood reboots of TV shows from the ’60s through the ’80s, either on film (“The Wild Wild West,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “SWAT,” “Shaft,” “Charlie’s Angels”) or TV (“Adam-12,” “Dragnet” [which actually had five iterations — radio, black-and-white TV, late ’60s including a movie, late ’80s in syndication without Joe Friday, then in the early 2000s with Ed O’Neil as Friday], “Kojak,” “Ironside,” “Knight Rider”) is too long and too depressing to list here. Remaking the original as a farce never works. (It is unclear what prompted a remake of “The Wild Wild West” with Will Smith.)

Some blame the fact the studios are owned by publicly traded companies concerned only with the next quarter’s P&Ls and therefore will approve only financially sure things. That’s how you get repeated James Bond, Mission: Impossible, Star Wars, comic superheroes and Fast & Furious movies. There has been a new Rockford Files in development, with Vince Vaughn playing James Garner’s original role, for several years.

One of the few defenders of Magnum 2.0 claimed that Hernandez (whom I had never heard of before now) is a great actor and noted the dearth of good roles for non-whites. The key would seem, however, to create good original characters for non-whites, instead of casting a Latino Magnum, or black Kojak or Ironside. (Samuel L. Jackson didn’t really work as Shaft 2.0 anyway.)

However Hernandez and his costars do, they will not be the originals. Selleck had never had a starring role in a TV series before “Magnum,” though he had done some movie acting and had been a memorable recurring character, Lance White the perfect detective, in “The Rockford Files.” Larry Manetti, who played Rick, had had a few supporting roles during that period, and Roger E. Mosley, who played T.C., had been in a few movies. All are best known for their “Magnum” roles, even though Selleck is now in “Blue Bloods” and starred in a few movies. John Hillerman, who played Higgins (though Hillerman was from Texas), had more of a movie career, but other than “The Last Picture Show” and “Blazing Saddles” was probably best known for “Magnum” too.

The biggest difficulty with remakes beyond trying to reinvent the lead characters is pushing them from the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s into the 21st century and the culture of today. TV series that took place three to five decades ago necessarily translate well into this politically correct, oversensitive, humorless era we live in. No one has come up with the idea of the retro-setting, to remake a series but set it in, or close to, the era the original series was in, apparently because (1) that would require work (for instance, getting vehicles and music of the era) and (2) out of concern viewers wouldn’t relate to an era where, for instance, the good guy would sleep with the girl in an episode who then would vanish from sight thereafter. (This is despite the fact that TV series through the early ’80s were filmed under the strictures of the Television Code, which, according to the always-accurate Wikipedia, “prohibited the use of profanity, the negative portrayal of family life, irreverence for God and religion, illicit sex, drunkenness and addiction, presentation of cruelty, detailed techniques of crime, the use of horror for its own sake, and the negative portrayal of law enforcement officials, among others.” Ironically removing boundaries has made writers in mass media less creative.)

At this point fans of the originals who decry this trend often call for reunions of the originals. Unfortunately nearly every cast member of the original Five-O is dead, as is John Hillerman, the original Higgins, along with a few lesser characters. (Joe Santos played a detective on both “The Rockford Files” and the original Magnum.) The original Magnum was in his 30s in the ’80s; now he’s in his 60s and the New York City police chief … oops, wrong series. It’s hard to imagine what Magnum, Rick and T.C. would be doing in their 60s.

Preference for originals over remakes tends as well to paper over the faults of the originals. James MacArthur, the original Danno, noted that the original Hawaii Five-O probably solved every crime that had taken place in Hawaii halfway through its 13-season run. The original Starsky and Hutch started as a gritty crime drama with an admittedly ludicrous “undercover” car …

… to social workers with badges as the four seasons progressed, complete with “very special episodes.”

It’s not as if Hollywood was a fount of creativity before the suits started running the studios either. Crime fiction is about as old as mass entertainment. The first TV crime dramas date back to 1949, and the first radio crime dramas date back to the 1930s, if not sooner. Magnum was not the first Hawaiian-based private detective; that was the private eyes on “Hawaiian Eye” (which, unlike Magnum, was not shot in Hawaii, but at the Warner Bros. studio, same as Miami Beach-based “Surfside 6.”)

One wonders if Magnum’s creators, Glen A. Larson and Donald Bellisario, thought up Magnum after seeing …

… Las Vegas-based PI Dan Tanna (also a Vietnam veteran) in the late 1970s. But if CBS copied ABC, ABC returned the favor with …

… Texas-to-L.A. PI/rich guy Matt Houston.

NBC’s response may have been to double viewers’ fun with two leads for “Riptide” …

… unless “Riptide” was an answer to CBS’ “Simon & Simon,” which followed Magnum on Thursday nights. (Featuring two brothers who could have only looked less alike had one or both been adopted.)

Selleck wanted Magnum to be more responsible than he appeared. (Despite the body count of 50 dead guys over eight seasons.) So he got speeding tickets and generally didn’t get the girl. Well, where’s the fun of that? Fans of the original Star Trek often defend its third season, which includes some of the worst episodes and ideas (alien women take Spock’s brain, Kirk and an ex-girlfriend exchange souls) in the history of entertainment.

At least viewers who prefer the originals have online streaming services and YouTube, and then join in online efforts to spot the flaws in their favorite shows.

 

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The alleged “blue wave”

CNN has bad news for Democrats:

The generic congressional ballot has continued to tighten, according to a new CNN poll conducted by SSRS, with the Democrats’ edge over Republicans within the poll’s margin of sampling error for the first time this cycle.

About six months out from Election Day, 47% of registered voters say they back the Democratic candidate in their district, 44% back the Republican. Voters also are divided almost evenly over whether the country would be better off with the Democrats in control of Congress (31%) or with the GOP in charge (30%). A sizable 34% — including nearly half of independent voters (48%) — say it doesn’t matter which party controls Congress.

The Democrats’ advantage in the generic ballot dipped from 16 points in February to six points in March to just three points now. The party’s advantage has waned among enthusiastic voters as Republican enthusiasm has grown (in March, 36% of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters said they were very enthusiastic about voting; that’s up to 44% in the new poll), but the Democrats still have a double-digit lead among those most excited to vote this fall (53% of those who are very enthusiastic about voting say they’d back the Democrat in their district vs. 41% who say they favor the GOP candidate). Those enthusiastic voters also say by a 10-point margin that the nation would be better off with Democrats in control of Congress than Republicans.

By 48% to 43%, registered voters say they would rather back a candidate who opposes Donald Trump than one who supports the President. That margin has narrowed from the 52% who opposed Trump to the 41% who supported him in January. …

The results come from the same poll this week that found nearly six in 10 saying that things in the country are going well amid improving approval ratings for the President’s handling of major issues, including the economy, immigration and foreign trade. Trump’s overall approval rating, however, held steady at 41%. …

On more traditional issue priorities, voters are now more apt to say the nation’s economy will be an important factor in their vote than they were in February (84% call it extremely or very important now, up from 79% in February), with immigration (from 72% important to 76% now) and taxes (from 67% important to 73% now) are also on the rise. At the same time, health care has dipped somewhat as a priority (from 83% important to 80%, with the most meaningful shift coming in the share who call it “extremely important,” which dipped from 53% in February to 46% now), along with sexual harassment (from 64% to 58%) and the Russia investigation (from 45% important in February to 40% now).

The latter is the one prediction I will make — voters’ evaluation of the economy as of November will determine which party’s candidates they vote for Nov. 6.

M. Joseph Sheppard adds:

The latest YouGov/Economist poll (May 6-8), one of a few that comprehensively breaks down support by ethnicity, has some frightening news for the Democratic Party.

While President Trump’s approval holds steady among registered voters at 41 percent, his support among blacks in this poll is striking. If it holds for 2020, it could be devastating for Democrats. Among African-Americans, 16 percent approve of Trump, 10 percent are not sure, and 75 percent disapprove.

While that sounds highly negative, these are high positives for a Republican politician among black Americans. Approval of 16 percent is 8 points higher than the 8 percent of black voter support Trump received on election day 2016, and 9 points higher than the black vote Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney received in 2012. The “Not Sure” at 10 percent is staggering, and the 75 percent “disapprove” rating is consistent with the low 70 percent aggregate found in any YouGov poll among this demographic.

The same poll, with their rounding, reported in January that Trump approval was at 10 percent among black Americans, 15 percent were not sure, and 74 percent disapproved, so the numbers are not only steady but improving in Trump’s favor.

This result may actually be underreporting Trump’s black support, as this records “all voters,” which consistently has lower figures for Trump in all categories, as opposed to registered voters. YouGov/Economist gives Trump a 40 percent “All voters” approval rating four points lower than their registered voters findings (RealClearPolitics favors the registered voters results across the polling companies it reports).

Of course, one polling company’s report could be a fluke. Some firms use different methodology, and some don’t break down approval ratings by ethnicity, but the bigger picture is clear.

Marist’s March 19-21 approval for Trump among black Americans was 6 percent; 17 percent were unsure, and 77 percent disapproved. The Quinnipiac poll, which is consistently negative to Trump, on March 21 found black approval at 11 percent, “Don’t Know” at 4 percent, and disapproval at 84 percent. Taken in the aggregate, the three polls have Trump’s approval at 11 percent, at 12 percent for not sure or don’t know, and disapproval at 77 percent. Again, while the negatives are high, the positives are higher than is typical for Republicans, and if black Americans vote in accord with these approval ratings it would be easily enough to tip a tight election.

The threat to the Democratic Party is obvious based on these results and their upward trend for Trump. If Trump could win Pennsylvania despite a turnout for Hillary in Philadelphia that was only three points less than President Obama received in 2012 and “The best turnout without Obama on the ballot I’ve ever seen,” then any further bleeding of black support in that state could ensure Trump’s re-election, even if he lost Florida but kept his rust belt wins. If the current support level holds and turns into actual support (or anywhere near it), then Democrats are in profound trouble—possibly even for the midterms.

In Michigan and Wisconsin, Hillary underperformed Obama with blacks. Trump’s margin in Ohio was so high that any further slippage among blacks would lead to landslide territory. …

Given the 2016 results, that might be enough to ensure good numbers for Trump among African-Americans in his next bout at the polls, but there may be much worse news for Democrats. There are three key dates from the official black unemployment figures: in February 2010, the height of the financial crisis, black unemployment was 16.8 percent; in February 2016, it was 8.7 percent; and in February 2018 it was 6.9 percent. The last figure is the lowest since records were kept.

Certainly the lower trend began under the Obama administration, but the economy is far enough along in the Trump administration to ascribe the remarkable level of employment to Trump’s policies. This indisputable fact has led to this spin: “Yes, black unemployment is low, but blacks value more than just work opportunities.”

Due to economic considerations in 2016, and in the absence of overt racism from Trump’s administration, a chunk of black voters seems to have hesitatingly moved to Trump and his promise of jobs. Their “try it and see” or, as Trump put it, “What have you got to lose,” has been well rewarded so far.

If black support for Trump gets into double figures, the Democratic Party will have to look for different themes than Russia or Stormy Daniels and other such nonsense. Their failure to present an economic focus in 2016 contributed greatly to Hillary’s loss. To do so again, especially with black voters, could end in utter disaster.

The three cool Steves (not including myself)

Regular readers recall my references to the movie “The Tao of Steve” and its three cool Steves:

Two of them are fictional — astronaut-turned-cyborg Steve Austin …

… and Hawaii Five-O …

… or Hawaii Five-0 chief Steve McGarrett:

The third is, or was, a real person — actor Steve McQueen.

Which brings to mind an eternal question: What is cool?

There are probably three elements of coolness. One is apparent effortlessness — the ability to do what you’re supposed to be doing, preferably well, without breaking a sweat. (Think James Bond.)

Another is the ability to come up with the correct line for every occasion, such as …

McQueen in “The Magnificient Seven”: “We deal in lead, friend.”

McQueen in “The Cincinnati Kid”: “I don’t need marked cards to beat you, pal.”

McGarrett I: “You know, it’s a funny thing. I’m used to Intelligence playing it cool. Really cool. But you seem more interested in a quiet funeral than in finding out who killed your man.”

Austin: “Well, thanks for the ride, Oscar. I’ll try and forget the conversation.”

McQueen in “The Towering Inferno”: “When there’s a fire, I outrank everybody here. Now, one thing we don’t want is a panic. Now, I could tell them, but you ought to do it. Just make a nice cool announcement to all your guests and tell them the party’s being moved down below the fire floor. Right now.”

McQueen: “When I believe in something, I fight like hell for it.”

McGarrett 2.0: “Guess the rest of us who don’t have a seat on an aircraft carrier will just have to get out our snorkels.”

Having a scriptwriter is useful to achieve verbal coolness.

The third is distance, including emotional distance, which is probably where the term came from. One never really gets close to a cool person. It helps as well to not know embarrassing details about that person. You probably would not think that, to use a random and (as far as I know) fictitious example, McQueen was cool if you knew that he ate paste in grade school.

The thing, of course, is that coolness cannot be acquired. Either you are cool, or you are not, and no efforts to make yourself cool will actually make you cool.

 

On Star Wars (“May the Fourth be With You”) Day

I will be on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Ideas Network’s The Morning Show Week in Review Friday at 8 a.m.

The Morning Show and all the other Ideas Network programming (including my favorite, Old Time Radio Drama Saturdays and Sundays from 8 to 11 p.m.) can be heard on WHA (970 AM) and W300BM (107.9 FM) in Madison, W215AQ (90.9 FM) in Middleton, WLBL (930 AM) in Auburndale, WHID (88.1 FM) in Green Bay, WHWC (88.3 FM) in Menomonie, WRFW (88.7 FM) in River Falls, WEPS (88.9 FM) in Elgin, Ill., WHAA (89.1 FM) in Adams, WHBM (90.3 FM) in Park Falls, WHLA (90.3 FM) in La Crosse, WRST (90.3 FM) in Oshkosh, WHAD (90.7 FM) in Delafield, W215AQ (90.9 FM) in Middleton, KUWS (91.3 FM) in Superior, WHHI (91.3 FM) in Highland, WSHS (91.7 FM) in Sheboygan, WHDI (91.9 FM) in Sister Bay, WLBL (91.9 FM) in Wausau, W275AF (102.9 FM) in Ashland, and of course online at www.wpr.org.

You are reading this one day before my appearance, which gives The Donald one day to do something for us to talk about.

In addition to Star Wars Day, Friday is National Password Day. Saturday is, paradoxically, Cinco de Mayo and National Hoagie Day. Sunday is National Nurses Day, National Tourist Appreciation Day (for those who live in tourism areas all year and thus deal with tourism traffic, I guess), and National No Diet Day. (That’s every day for me.)

Friday is one day after the anniversary of National Public Radio in 1971 and our oldest son’s 18th birthday, which means that as of today (or, more precisely, 7:02 p.m.) there are now three adults in the house, though one is an adult/teenager, or teenadult, or something.

 

Shorter version: Stop trying to be cool

J.J. McCullough:

Watching the Sean Hannity show the other day, I heard four giddy words I can’t say I expected: “Up next, Piers Morgan!” Only a few days prior, after all, Morgan had been involved in one of his trademark Twitter spats — with Hannity mainstay Sebastian Gorka, no less — and it had ended with Morgan declaring America’s contribution to World War II overrated and unhelpful.

“Where would Britain be without you & your massive GUNS?!” Morgan had snippily tweeted at an American. “Speaking German,” replied Ben Shapiro, retweeted by Gorka. Morgan’s comeback? “It was really good of America to join WW2 two years later, after millions had died. Many thanks.”

That tasteful comment did not come up during the Hannity interview, which was instead a chummy exchange of shared disgust at the Mueller investigation, James Comey, and the latest dumb thing Joy Behar had said.

Morgan would have made a curious guest for a conservative talk show even without his recent foray into historical revisionism. To the extent he’s made any political brand for himself in America, it’s been as a hectoring anti-gun fanatic and generally condescending anti-American scold. Yet because Morgan has had some mildly sympathetic things to say about Donald Trump as of late (or at least hates some of the same people as the president) all is forgiven, and he’s now understood as “one of us” to some corners of the conservative base.

It was the same phenomenon that saw Kanye West’s remarkable rebranding last week. A tweet or two in the president’s favor and the man previously best known for calling George W. Bush a racist sociopath on live television and contributing such immortal lines to the canon of American music as “eatin’ Asian p***y / all I need was sweet and sour sauce” was reborn as a conservative folk hero. Perhaps West was taking his cue from Roseanne Barr, whom many on the right have given a similar mulligan for decades of far-left lunacy on the grounds she kinda likes Trump.

Conservatives are at their worst when they obsessively internalize leftist critiques, and no criticism has proven a greater font of conservative insecurity than liberal teasing that the Right is crotchety, backwards, and unhip. Much anxious effort has been exerted to prove these critics wrong, yet desperation rarely produces flattering results. The hurried search for conservatives with some progressive cachet — black, gay, famous, young, etc. — often manifests as low standards and embarrassing self-delusion, as the intellectual talents of various B-rate minds are inflated to heroic status the moment their public rhetoric drifts even the teensiest bit rightward.

It’s even worse than usual these days, given the very definition of “rightward” has become hazier than ever amid the rise of a fairly unideological Republican president and an increasingly visible fanatic far Left.

Since Trump plays his partisan role awkwardly, and is on the receiving end of a hysteria that often has little to do with politics, the president can come off a sympathetic figure, even if — perhaps especially if — one’s understanding of politics is fairly shallow. People who imagine themselves to be outspoken or uncouth outsiders with stylistic similarities to Trump can easily empathize with him, regardless of their policy opinions. This makes Trump a celebrity president who is often judged on celebrity terms, where arguments like “I just can’t stand him!” or “Show those haters!” are considered sufficiently full opinions.

Meanwhile, the cultural crusades of the far Left have become more conspicuous than ever through endless media coverage of language and thought policing at college campuses, newsrooms, and elsewhere. Again, regardless of the politics involved, this sort of thing is quite easy to engage with at a cultural level alone. Americans don’t like being told what to do or what to say, and there will always be a great deal of contempt leveled at anyone who affects the personality of a scold or busybody — and support for those who resist.

Conservatives can claim some degree of common cause with anyone who feels that Trump is being given a hard time and thinks the colleges are going nuts, but this isn’t much. Identifying political allies exclusively on such thin criteria will invariably require turning a blind eye to all sorts of other deranged opinions, and redefining conservatism into a temperament of shallow irritation with some characteristics of American political culture circa 2018, as opposed to anything resembling a timeless or coherent philosophy.

An obsession with building up superficially cool but intellectually preposterous right-wing celebrities has already led to disasters such as Milo Yiannopoulos, and one can’t help but feel a grim sense of déjà vu as an ever-growing parade of semi-coherent supposed conservatives from Hollywood, pop music, and YouTube are hyped by conservative media outlets desperate for validation by young, hip audiences.

That said, critics do run the risk of snobbery. Conservatives have to be open to newcomers, and ideological newbies — particularly those who were on the left until five minutes ago — will inevitably spout opinions that are one-dimensional, badly articulated, or half-formed.

The key is sizing up the motive animating the alleged new right-wing personality. Does the rhetoric of the nouveau-conservative appear to be coming from a place of genuine political interest? Do his opinions reflect a desire to engage in arguments beyond the present moment? Or has he simply discovered a new way to get in front of the cameras and exploit the wishful thinking of a uniquely desperate audience?

One of the few benefits of growing older is the realization that you longer need to follow pop culture, or often care what other people think. I can express that with a sentence, or two words.

 

Trump sticks it to the print media

The Washington Post:

The latest lesson in the costs and benefits of tariffs comes from our very own industry: the print media. Specifically, the Commerce Department has imposed substantial new tariffs on newsprint from Canada, driving up newspaper production costs across the country. For papers already struggling to keep up in the Internet age, the impact can be devastating. To cite one example, the Tampa Bay Times of St. Petersburg, Fla., announced April 18 that it must lay off around 50 employees, responding to what it says is a potential $3 million annual cost increase.

These tariffs are not part of the Trump administration’s more highly publicized bids to play hardball with China or rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement. Rather, they stem from a complaint, pursuant to long-standing U.S. law, by a single Washington state-based paper mill that claims it is a victim of “dumping” by Canadian paper producers, which allegedly benefit from unfair government support. A far more likely explanation for the American newsprint industry’s woes is the historic decline of print media, but never mind. We’re focused on the fact that 50 people at the Tampa Bay Times are losing their jobs, at least temporarily, so that 300 people at the Washington paper mill can keep theirs.

And their woes are illustrative. Similar anomalies are on the way in other sectors when, or if, President Trump’s proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum go into effect. Jobs protected in those industries will be offset by jobs lost in industries that consume steel and aluminum, or in export industries against which China and others retaliate, such as pork and soybeans. These are just the facts of life under protectionism. The beauty of free trade is that it lets the market, not government, allocate resources, according to neutral economic criteria, not subjective political ones, such as which paper mill has the ear of the Commerce Department. That is why the better answer to China’s mercantilism was to surround it with a unified free market, through the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Mr. Trump thought otherwise, and here we are.

The tariff on Canadian newsprint is not yet permanent; if the underlying dispute between the two countries gets resolved by approximately Labor Day, it may be eliminated. In this very narrow sense, it may be defensible: Threatening, or even applying, tariffs may be necessary as a bargaining tactic when everything else has failed, though we’re not sure all else failed in this case. What has never been clear about the Trump administration, though, is whether it views tariffs as bargaining chips, or as a permanent, strategic element of national economic policy. Right now, the United States’ trading partners from Beijing to Berlin are exploring the possibilities of compromise and trying to discover what concessions from them Mr. Trump might accept. There is still a chance to avoid more costly trade conflicts, and more collateral damage at places such as the Tampa Bay Times, but only if Mr. Trump can take “yes” for an answer when other countries offer it.

“Collateral damage” is undoubtedly not accidental in this case. And the growing numbers of non-fans of the news media are unlikely to care, even if they should.

 

I’m (not) sorry, so, so (sort of) sorry …

The Washington Times tries to follow the dots in the blowback from Saturday night:

The journalism biz had ink on its face after comedian Michelle Wolf’s hard-to-watch attack on Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but there was no apology forthcoming from the organizer.

Margaret Talev, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, refused Sunday to second-guess her speaker selection after Ms. Wolf reamed the White House press secretary for “lies” and took veiled shots at her appearance.

“What I told you is what I have already told Sarah Sanders, that I speak for myself and the association, and that my interest is in the spirit of unity and in the spirit of serious journalism,” said Ms. Talev on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”

Did Ms. Wolf’s anti-Sanders screed promote unity? Maybe not, acknowledged Ms. Talev.

“My interest overwhelmingly was in unifying the country, and I understand that we may have fallen a little bit short on that goal,” said Ms. Talev, Bloomberg’s senior White House reporter. “I hope everyone will allow us to continue to work toward that goal.”

On Sunday evening, Ms. Talev issued a statement that again stopped short of an apology, saying that the program was intended to “offer a unifying message” and not “to divide people.”

“Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission,” she said.

Ms. Talev added that she and the next WHCA president, Olivier Knox, were “committed to hearing from members on your views on the format of the dinner going forward.”

Her comments appeared jarringly out of touch with the reaction to Ms. Wolf’s routine from conservatives, administration officials and even leading journalists, who spent Sunday evaluating the damage done to the industry at Saturday’s televised dinner.

Howard Kurtz, host of Fox’s “Media Buzz,” said Sunday he had “never seen a performance like that,” adding that “she was not only nasty but she was dropping f-bombs on live television.”

The comedian herself, a contributor to “The Daily Show,” was unrepentant, insisting her Sanders jokes were “about her despicable behavior,” not her looks.

“The question now is whether comedian Michelle Wolf went too far and maybe damaged the journalism profession,” said CNN host Brian Stelter.

A number of prominent media figures — including Ed Henry of Fox News, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell and Mika Brzezinski, and the [U.K.] Guardian’s David Martosko — called for the WHCA to apologize.

“I think it’s long past time, hours later, for the association to put out a simple, one-sentence statement saying, ‘We do not agree with this,’ these personal, vile attacks on Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is a good person,” said Mr. Henry on “Media Buzz.”

The former WHCA president added, “We invited her to the dinner, we should have treated her with respect.”

The Associated Press’s Meg Kinnard tweeted that the dinner “made the chasm between journalists and those who don’t trust us, even wider.”

Margaret Sullivan, columnist for The Washington Post, upped the ante by calling on journalists to cancel the dinner entirely in a Sunday op-ed headlined, “For the sake of journalism, stop the annual schmoozefest.”

She argued that the dinner “plays right into the hands of President Trump’s press-bashing,” a sentiment echoed by Jonah Goldberg, who said the event has become “an East Coast version of the Oscars.”

“As someone who has dinged President Trump often for his narcissism, the institutional narcissism that was on display last night from the correspondents’ dinner I think was a gift to President Trump,” said Mr. Goldberg on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “The crudeness toward Sarah Huckabee Sanders was a gift to the White House.”

The president seconded the sentiment personally on Sunday night, tweeting the event was “an embarrassment to everyone associated with it. The filthy “comedian” totally bombed.”

“Put Dinner to rest, or start over!” Mr. Trump concluded.

The outrage over Ms. Wolf’s routine comes with the public’s trust in the press at what may be an all-time low amid Mr. Trump’s ongoing feud with the media.

A Quinnipiac University poll released last month found that 22 percent of those surveyed agreed that the press was the “enemy of the people,” as Mr. Trump has said, a figure that jumped to 51 percent among Republicans.

“We’ve had awkward dinners before, no question, but this is a different time,” said USA Today’s Susan Page on “Face the Nation.”

A composed but unsmiling Mrs. Sanders watched from the dais a few feet away as Ms. Wolf let loose on her and a number of other administration officials, although her anti-Sanders jabs came across as the most offensive.

“I’m never really sure what to call Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Is it Sarah Sanders? Is it Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Is it cousin Huckabee? Is it anti-Huckabee Sanders?” asked Ms. Wolf. “What’s ‘Uncle Tom’ but for white women who disappoint other white women? Oh, I know, Aunt [Ann] Coulter.”

At one point she told Mrs. Sanders that “I love you as aunt Lydia in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ ” referring to the frumpy, scowling older woman who indoctrinates the handmaids in the Hulu series.

“I actually really like Sarah, I think she’s really resourceful. Like she burns facts and then uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye,” said Ms. Wolf. “Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies.”

The episode may well have set back press relations with the White House. While Mr. Trump pointedly was not there, headlining a rally instead in Michigan, several administration officials did attend, breaking last year’s boycott.

Not everyone in the press corps was on the same page. A number of White House reporters defended Ms. Wolf’s routine, saying critics were making too much of it.

“I think the White House Correspondents’ Association is taking sort of undue blame for this,” said Politico correspondent Eliana Johnson on “Reliable Sources.” “The country is polarized, and the dinner I think showcases that.”

Comedian Don Imus drew outrage over his skewering of President Bill Clinton at the 1996 dinner. Ten years later, Stephen Colbert delivered a searing roasting of President George W. Bush.

Jamelle Bouie, chief political correspondent for Slate magazine, was among those who called the outrage ironic, given Mr. Trump’s putdowns and vulgarities, adding that “the press’s problems of legitimacy with the public goes back decades.”

“To think something like this dinner encapsulates or represents the problem, I don’t think it’s quite true,” said Mr. Bouie on “Face the Nation.” “I agree with Jonah’s criticisms of the spectacle of it all, but this problem of press legitimacy goes back a long time.”

The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips takes a sort-of different stance:

Was she a bully or speaking truth to power? Did the Trump administration and journalists on the receiving end of her caustic jokes get what they deserve, or did she take it too far?

Everyone agrees on one thing: Inviting comedian Michelle Wolf to address journalists and politicians in Washington, D.C., on Saturday at the annual White House correspondents’ dinner did not go as planned.

The controversy around the most hyped annual event in Washington isn’t just a Washington problem: It touches on the role of the media in covering politicians, how much people like you trust the media and whether the Trump administration deserves stronger-than-usual criticism.

Here are three arguments and counterpoints about Wolf’s performance that touch on all that:

1. She gave Washington what it deserves: Americans have low opinions of Congress, of the media and of the president. It’s why “drain the swamp” was one of President’s Trump’s more memorable campaign lines. So when the creatures of Washington got dressed up, had some drinks and invited a comedian to entertain them, why were they surprised when that person opened her mouth and spit fire at everyone?

“Trump is racist, though.”

“Mike Pence is what happens when Anderson Cooper isn’t gay.”

“He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him.”

But is journalism really a laughing matter right now? Journalists are under attack. The president has called journalists “the enemy of the American people,” frequently derides Pulitzer Prize-winning news organizations as fake, and has even tweeted cartoons of him tackling CNN. Outside the United States, at least nine journalists were killed on Monday in Afghanistan, targeted for doing their jobs. Politicians, love them or hate them, face dangers too.

2. She gave Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway what they deserve: If you’re one of the 70 percent of Democrats who would vote for a candidate who wants to impeach Trump, you probably thought Wolf’s jokes about pinning senior White House adviser Conway under a tree (“I’m not suggesting she gets hurt; just stuck”) or White House press secretary Huckabee Sanders being “Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women” (i.e. a sellout for women’s rights) were spot on.

But  she gave Washington journalists the unhelpful perception that they are out to get Trump: The vast majority of the journalists who attend this dinner are committed to doing their jobs: attempting to hold power accountable. And yet there we were (yes, I was at the dinner) being entertained by a comedian who flat-out insulted power in some very cheap-shot ways. Meanwhile, Trump was in Michigan addressing “real” America. It was a huge PR win for the president when it comes to his war on the media and on Washington.

3. She proved why this dinner is a mess: The cocktails. The schmoozing. The coziness. Fairly or not, the White House correspondents’ dinner has the reputation of epitomizing all that’s wrong with Washington. Maybe journalists needed Wolf’s controversial performance to finally get them to realize that.

But … Actually I don’t have a good counterpoint for the dinner being a mess: The dinner’s purpose is to protect and celebrate the First Amendment and to invite politicians and celebrities to join in on that cause. That’s worthy. But journalists are kidding ourselves if we think hosting comedians to make fun of an increasingly serious state of affairs accomplishes that.

Here’s a guide to how to think about this: What if this had happened in reverse when Obama was president? Would you have been OK with that?

The Post’s Callum Borchers has an ironic observation:

Stephen Colbert insulted George W. Bush’s intelligence in 2006. Joel McHale mocked Nancy Pelosis face in 2014. Conan O’Brien called Pat Buchanan racist in 1995. Cecily Strong suggested Joe Biden is a groper in 2015.

Jokes at the annual White House correspondents’ dinner have often been edgy, cutting and personal, but Michelle Wolf’s comedy routine on Saturday has triggered uncommon regret among journalists. Margaret Talev, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, went so far as to tell fellow reporters that she and incoming president Olivier Knox “are committed to hearing from members on your views on the format of the dinner going forward” — an indication that the traditional roast of Washington political figures could be scrapped in the future.

Humor is subjective, so it is impossible to say definitively whether Wolf was harsher than her predecessors. What’s clear, however, is that the current occupant of the White House is more inclined than his predecessors to weaponize any remarks that might effectively cast the media as hostile and biased. …

Other recent presidents never missed the event and never lashed out in such fashion, however sharp the barbs. …

In a strange way, Trump, who has coarsened political rhetoric, has actually raised the bar of civility for the media. Journalists now have to consider that the kinds of comedic burns that previous administrations simply absorbed, albeit grudgingly, will be used to discredit the work of the press.

In short, the White House correspondents’ dinner can’t get away with what it once did.

Colbert’s act 12 years ago, for example, was a prolonged, sarcastic takedown of Bush.

“It’s my privilege to celebrate this president,” Colbert said. “We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista.”

Bush did not appear to be amused, and neither were many journalists. In The Washington Post, columnist Richard Cohen wrote that “Colbert was not just a failure as a comedian but rude.”

Rudeness is one accusation leveled against Wolf. Some reporters have objected to her skewering of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, whom Wolf unflatteringly compared to the character Aunt Lydia in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Sanders “burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye,” Wolf also quipped.

But reporters have expressed an additional worry, based not on principle but on possible fallout — that Wolf’s wisecracks reinforced Trump’s characterization of the media as his “opposition party.”

Meg Kinnard, an Associated Press reporter based in South Carolina, tweeted that the event “made the chasm between journalists and those who don’t trust us even wider.” She added that “those of us based in the red states who work hard every day to prove our objectivity will have to deal with it.” …

Kinnard’s concern is well-founded. All presidents complain about the media, to some degree, but Trump has made whipping up his base’s suspicion of the press a pillar of his career in politics.

Starker than any difference between Wolf and other comedians who performed at the White House correspondents’ dinner is the difference between previous presidents’ stoicism and Trump’s strategic decision to use the dinner as an anti-media talking point.

The fact is that this is an event that should not be taking place, regardless of who the president is. Media schmoozing up to people in power, described by the Post’s Eugene Scott thusly …

… the dinner is one part of a weekend filled with elaborate galas, parties and brunches, where journalists laugh and drink with the lawmakers and others that the public expects them to cover objectively. When partisans who regularly appear on cable news shows voraciously attacking the integrity of their political opponents are then seen socializing with the journalists who cover them, some Americans lose trust in the mainstream media.

… is precisely why people’s trust in the media is dropping and should be dropping, whether “power” has an R or D or no partisan label. As I wrote last week, if people in the media want a friend, they should get a dog.

As for as Trump’s being anti-media, read this space tomorrow.

The travails and indignities of being in the big time

Thirty years ago as a soon-to-be UW–Madison graduate, I thought I was embarking on a career that would take me into the national media, either with a byline in a big newspaper or on TV most nights.

Variety covers what I apparently missed:

On a chilly and gray Monday in D.C. a few weeks ago, President Trump was sitting on the South Lawn among a group of children during the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, when CNN’s chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, shouted a question at him.

“Mr. President, what about the DACA kids? Should they worry about what is going to happen to them, sir?”

Trump answered, blaming the situation on the Democrats, but Acosta persisted in a follow-up: “Didn’t you kill DACA, sir? Didn’t you kill DACA?”

Trump didn’t respond, but plenty of others did. Conservative sites were indignant, accusing Acosta of behaving “rudely.” Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, called him a “carnival barker,” and Brad Parscale, who is managing Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, tweeted, “Pull his credentials for each incident.”

A few days later, in an interview with Variety, Acosta says, “Yeah, I had the audacity to ask the president a question about policy at the Easter Egg Roll. As a matter of fact, I’d done that last year and nobody took issue with that. It’s part of the environment we’re in right now where every action is going to be put through the conservative meat grinder.”

Just about any correspondent covering the White House today will tell you that the kind of tension and animus that exists between the press corps and the Trump administration is something new and different. Most reporters share a sense that covering Trump is a challenge like no other, at a time when political journalists and the First Amendment are under siege. If it isn’t the president’s frequent outbursts on Twitter, railing against one particular story, news outlet or reporter, it is the unrelenting pace of the breaking-news cycle, much of it due to Trump’s erratic, unconventional behavior and the public interest in his every move.

“There is that natural tension that exists between the press and the people we were covering, but it was never like this,” Acosta says. “We were never called ‘fake news.’ We were never called ‘the enemy of the people,’ and that just created a totally different climate and environment that we are all trying to make sense of and trying to figure out: How do we cover the news in that kind of toxic environment?”

The natural answer is, just the way they have always done it — which is to say, report the news. But that isn’t quite enough with this White House, as reporters are subjected to much greater scrutiny and demands. The stakes are higher and the criticisms more extreme, the attacks often personal.

With the easy accessibility of social media, some political reporters find themselves getting death threats. Acosta says he got “a threat of violence” following the Easter Egg Roll incident. “I probably receive more death threats than I can count. I get them basically once a week.”

April Ryan, a longtime reporter for American Urban Radio Networks and, as a CNN contributor, a recognizable figure in the daily White House briefings, says her experience has been similar. “I actively get death threats just for asking a question,” she says. “I have law enforcement on speed dial.” She recently received a threat after asking White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders whether the president had considered resigning. Sanders dismissed Ryan’s query as “an absolutely ridiculous question.” Ryan has found her contentious exchanges with the administration at times going viral.

“For the last four presidents that I have covered, there’s a thread. There’s always retaliation, but never on this scale,” says Ryan, who is writing a book — April Ryan Under Fire: On the Frontlines — on reporting in the Trump era. “If you write on something or report on something they don’t like, of course they are going to give you a call or call your bosses or come to you literally and talk to you and say, ‘It wasn’t that way. You have gotten it wrong.’ This administration, you will get a [Fake News Award], or they will call you out. They will try to disparage your name. It has gone into personal attacks.”

Among those Trump has recently targeted is Chuck Todd, the host of “Meet the Press” and a former White House correspondent.

Todd thinks the president’s insults have had an effect, because “the last time I checked, the press corps is made up of human beings. You are going to defend your work and defend your integrity.”

“There is a danger of getting caught up in it,” Todd says, warning of over-covering a story that strikes a chord within the news business. “I am as concerned about press norms being violated as anyone in the industry, but we have to be careful that we are not ignoring the impact in the rest of the country [of what’s going on in Washington] .”

» Lately, Trump has been tweeting about the “Amazon Washington Post,” flippantly saying that the paper ought to register as a lobbyist for the online retail giant. Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, also owns the Post.

“I joined the Post last year, and I didn’t even get an Amazon Prime subscription,” quips Ashley Parker, White House correspondent for the Post. “There is no connection.”

“You want to be fair. You want to be accurate. You want to add context,” Parker says. “The one thing about this ‘fake news’ environment: I think one of the ways you protect yourself is by doing your job and being extra bulletproof. So if under Obama or under George W. Bush you would triple-check your work, now maybe you quadruple-check it because you don’t want to give them any excuse to call you ‘fake news.’”

Thanks to the intrepid reporting of Parker and the staff of The Washington Post, the paper won two Pulitzer Prizes on April 16 — for their investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and for coverage of the 2017 Senate race in Alabama.

Jonathan Karl, chief White House correspondent for ABC News, suggests that there’s nothing new about a president targeting the press. John Adams championed the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, under which reporters were jailed for coverage he didn’t like.

Trump, though, is like no other recent predecessor in his willingness to put his obsessive media consumption and criticism on full display. Last summer, as he was holding a joint press conference with the Romanian president, Trump called on Karl and ribbed him, saying, “Remember how nice you used to be before I ran?”

“My approach was to say, ‘Always fair, Mr. President,’ and to dive right into my question, because you cannot be distracted,” Karl says. The result was Trump responding to Karl that he would be “100%” willing to testify under oath to Special Counsel Robert Mueller to refute fired FBI director James Comey’s claims, a remark that is all the more relevant today given the latest news developments.

White House press officials did not respond to requests for comment. But Sanders, in a recent forum hosted by the White House Correspondents’ Assn., pushed back on the idea that the administration had “declared war on the press.” She said it was “a little bit far-fetched” to “lay the blame” on the president for lack of respect for the media.

“We could not be … bigger advocates of the First Amendment, but I think there is a level of responsibility that comes with being a journalist,” Sanders said. “The majority of the people that show up every day come for the purpose of good reporting, to do their job, but there are a handful of people that I don’t feel are as responsible with that information and can be very inaccurate at times and put out misleading information. I do think that is problematic.”

Trump’s relationship with the media is a bit confounding — different in public than in private. He bashes “fake news” and individual outlets and reporters but has at times called journalists from The New York Times, out of the blue, to clarify a point. He has held only one formal press conference, in February 2017, but takes questions during pool sprays, on Air Force One and on the White House lawn more than previous presidents did.

Parker says that in a “weird way,” there’s a little more transparency in that Trump’s tweets are “direct windows into what the president of the United States is thinking in that moment.” And while she call the press conference “the gold standard” of press access, she adds that Trump is more likely than his predecessors to interact with reporters.

Major Garrett, CBS News’ chief White House correspondent, says Trump cares deeply about the coverage he gets: “As was said by one of his top advisers, ‘Trump hates negative publicity unless he generates it.’”

About six weeks ago, on a Saturday, Trump railed against the mainstream media on Twitter, writing that it had gone “CRAZY.” But that evening, he appeared at the annual Gridiron Club dinner, a white-tie media tradition that dates to the 19th century, where he said to the journalists gathered, “I want to thank the press for all that you do to support and sustain democracy. I mean that.”

The event was not televised, giving it much less of a profile than the April 28 White House Correspondents’ Assn. dinner, with its mix of celebrity, biting comedy and First Amendment focus. Trump once again is breaking tradition by not attending, though Sanders will sit at the head table.

Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for Axios, says that he takes Trump’s uses of the term “fake news,” often to dismiss stories he doesn’t like, “with a large grain of salt.”

“I know that he loves the media, in the sense that he needs it. He feeds it. He understands the game,” Swan says, adding, “I’m not going to give him a huge amount of credit for accessibility. He hasn’t committed to a press conference,” with its extended period of questioning, “for a long time. He should.”

Karl says that there’s a “fundamental contradiction when it comes to President Trump and his relationship with the news media. He has had relentless attacks on the one hand, and on the other hand has had very positive relationships with reporters covering him.” During the presidential campaign, he says, Trump was “one of the most accessible, media-friendly candidates we had seen,” often holding press availabilities and one-on-one interviews.

That has stopped: The president does “far fewer interviews, and by and large, they are with friendly news outlets,” Karl says.

Trump has made little secret of his affinity for the coverage of Fox News. The administration has hired a handful of the channel’s personalities, including John Bolton, the former United Nations ambassador who is now national security adviser. Another intertwined relationship was recently revealed: Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, advised Fox News host Sean Hannity as a client.

There also are differences in the dynamics of the White House daily briefing. Perhaps no other moment routinely displays the tension between the White House press corps and ⇧he administration than the Q&As with the press secretary, held in a startlingly small space in the West Wing, built atop an indoor pool.

“The press briefings serve a useful purpose,” says Acosta. “We have to ask the leader of the free world, or the representatives of the free world, what the hell is going on. … I want all of that on TV … their evasions, their lies, their falsehoods.”

The briefings are a long-standing tradition, but televising them dates only to the Clinton administration. Then-White House press secretary Mike McCurry allowed the sessions to be televised in the name of opening them up to a wider audience. “It was not an act. It was not entertainment at that time,” Ryan says. “It was about transparency and allowing the American public to see what is going on.”

The briefings took on a life of their own in the early months of the Trump administration, and with Spicer’s confrontations with reporters already the stuff of “Saturday Night Live” skits, they seemed to become part of the infotainment mix of daytime television. Things have settled down somewhat since then and are slightly less dramatic.

Sanders, Parker notes, gets less flustered than her predecessor. Still, she has complained that many cable and broadcast outlets ignore the administration’s policy messaging, such as when a cabinet secretary is brought in to take questions, while focusing on “palace intrigue.”

That isn’t so different from the complaints of previous administrations, but Sanders has suggested that it is a matter of degree. “Ninety percent of the coverage is negative — when you have that much positive news to talk about and only 10% of the time it is being covered, it is hard to argue that there shouldn’t be a level of frustration,” she said at the recent WHCA event.

Among journalists, the complaints center on what they see as evasion of questions. Sanders, who sometimes tinges her answers with sarcasm and her own attacks on the press, has been better at keeping briefings to a daily schedule, but reporters have noted the briefings have become briefer. What used to be an hour of Q&A is often on the order of 20 minutes.

“The info the White House wants [to circulate] gets dismissed in favor of whatever headline of the day there might be,” McCurry says. “However, there is something indispensable about having a senior White House official standing there every day to take questions and be held accountable for producing real answers. The only thing I would change is to take it off live TV and make it more of a working session, with less posturing on both sides of the podium.”

What most concerns many newsrooms, academics and First Amendment advocates isn’t the mechanics of the briefings or the daily accessibility of the president, but the larger picture.

Lynn Sweet, bureau chief and White House correspondent for the Chicago Sun-Times, says that “one of the most frustrating things I have ever faced as a journalist is people question things that are facts. … The unrelenting attacks on the media that happen in almost every speech do have a potentially dangerous and corrosive impact,” she says. “It is something that is a worry. The mission of journalists has not changed, and that is to just do their jobs. We have to be more mindful than ever.”

John Roberts, chief White House correspondent for Fox News, says he doesn’t think the president’s attacks have had an impact on coverage, and may have helped garner additional public attention for those who cover him. “I think to some degree his campaign to discredit the media has backfired, and he has actually sparked more interest in news,” Roberts says.

But Swan points out that “when [Trump] calls everything ‘fake news,’ it is corrosive, but it is corrosive to [the administration] too.” The reporter says it’s particularly a problem when the White House needs to identify something that’s actually wrong and needs to show that the term is not just a catchphrase.

Others note the potential negative impact in other countries, where the United States is looked on as a guidepost for free expression. Some journalists fear that Trump’s attacks at rallies or other events, while perhaps part of his shtick, will be taken much more seriously than intended by someone in the whipped-up crowd. “Fake news, by the president saying this, is not just a cute little statement for some,” says Ryan. “This has tentacles; it is reaching overseas. I am hearing from European leaders who are saying it can really destabilize democracies. They are very concerned.”

The WHCA over the past year created a committee focused on reporter security; it’s designed to be used as a means for members to connect to law enforcement resources. Margaret Talev, president of the association and senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg, says that she doesn’t want to overstate the problem — reporting at the White House is not like covering Mexican drug cartels or the government of the Philippines.

“For the most part it has been just an exacerbation of really inappropriate and occasionally violent wishes on social media,” she says. “But for a few members, there actually have been interactions that I would say are unquestionably threats, where they need to get authorities involved. That is very worrisome and troubling.

“I don’t think it is the administration’s intention to harm reporters physically,” she adds. “Particularly in a crowd setting, the risk of inciting a crowd and things getting out of control is very real. And the United States has really never been a dangerous place to be an American political reporter, and I think that is a threshold I really don’t want us to cross.”

She says that for most reporters, the job is the same — “to cover the policies, the people, the personalities; to cover the moment, the arc of the moment. All of that stuff is the same.”

The intensity is not. Earlier in the Trump administration, Karl recalls taking a day off with his daughter to visit the University of Virginia when news broke that the Obamacare repeal bill was dead in Congress. ABC News sent a live truck to the campus so Karl could do “reports while walking around the campus on a college tour.” He’s learned, no matter where he is going, to bring a jacket for the camera.

Lately, it’s gotten more intense — a recent Friday was indicative: Comey book excerpts in the morning, Michael Cohen revelations in the afternoon, Syrian air strikes in the evening.

“It is intensive, it is exhausting, it is all-consuming, it is certainly stressful,” Karl says. “But this is a great time to be a reporter. We will be looking back at this time years from now and trading stories.”

Pardon my lack of sympathy for these reporters who are paid big, big, big bucks for their work. Threats? I’ve gotten them for covering school boards for school districts with barely 1,000 students in them. At the time, I was making as much in a year as these babies make for a couple weeks’ work. I’ve been threatened by criminals. I’ve been verbally ripped apart by politicians and government types who make a multiple of my salary. I even got a Catholic bishop mad at me in a room full of people wanting to hear him speak. I’ve never whined about all of that, in print or anywhere else.

I didn’t go into this line of work to be liked, popular with power or cool. (Variety covers Hollywood. What does that say about Variety’s choice to cover this “story”?) If they did, they should find another line of work. Maybe the big national media should find reporters whose feelings don’t bruise so easily to cover the White House and other big political beats. As Harry S. Truman once said about Washington, if you want a friend, get a dog.

 

Media bites; target bites back

State Rep. Todd Novak (R–Dodgeville) has a few things to say to The C(r)apital Times:

The editorial that the Capital Times recently wrote about my bid for re-election for the 51st Assembly District has been characterized as “ridiculous,” a “sophomoric piece” and containing “no statistics or facts, just vague statements.” I couldn’t agree more. The constituent of mine who spoke up in my defense in a letter to the editor is an independent voter and represents a voice that this paper and other Madison liberals refuse to acknowledge exists. The Cap Times is dead set on promoting its own liberal agenda. Fortunately for the readers of this paper, I get to set the record straight and show all that I’ve done to prove that I’m an independent voice for a beautiful, rural area southwest of Madison.

Prior to my election to the Assembly in 2014, I was a newspaper editor for 25 years. I wrote many critical editorials, but always made sure I could back everything up with facts, something that obviously the Cap Times does not do. The Cap Times editors wrote that they could give me high marks if I could figure out how to get something done in the Legislature. But then, when I recently announced my re-election, they stated I was disingenuous in touting my accomplishments.

Do the editors of this paper consider it disingenuous that every bill I authored this session passed the Assembly unanimously or with bipartisan votes? I had several of my requests put in the state budget, including funding for 24 Alzheimer’s and dementia specialists, two new buildings at UW-Platteville and a grant for the Monroe Arts Center so it could expand and continue to be a great asset to the city of Monroe. I also was the lead author on the $100 million safety grant for school districts to upgrade their buildings. I was appointed to the speaker’s bipartisan Task Force on Foster Care, which produced several laws. This is just a partial list, but it’s hardly disingenuous to tout this record of bipartisan accomplishments, despite the opinion of this paper.

The editors also claim that I vote lockstep with Gov. Scott Walker. This is laughable considering I voted against Foxconn because I listened to so many who had concerns. I fought against the proposed changes to the open records law and public notices, and also several environmental proposals. The list could go on. Thankfully, unlike this paper, my constituents know my record.

I’m proud to be Republican but I’m also proud to stand up and fight for what I believe in. I fight for what my constituents want, even if it goes against my party. When the Wisconsin State Journal endorsed me in the last election, they wrote, “He’s one of the most independent members of either political party.” However, the Cap Times’ editorial implies the only reason I was elected is because of the money spent on my race, but at least they admit money was also spent on my opponent’s behalf.

Another fact this paper chooses to ignore: In 2016, I was the only Republican to win in the 51st Assembly District at the state and federal level. I think this is because I make it a priority to always be engaged and accessible to my constituents, regardless if they voted for me or not. In fact, several laws I authored this session came directly from constituents.

The people of southwest Wisconsin deserve a representative who is not hyper partisan and looks out for them, regardless of party. Unfortunately, the Cap Times and Madison elitists can’t accept that, believing that what the 51st Assembly District really needs is Democratic representation. But I don’t fit the stereotype that the editors want so desperately to portray. The Cap Times has an obvious agenda and this paper should at least be honest about it.

This frankly is something Republicans should do more of. It is also a reason Donald Trump’s attacks on the media increase his popularity with his supporters, even though his attacks tend to lack specificity and therefore substance.

Republicans too often duck from taking on the media, either because they’re afraid to look bad in print or on the air or because with Fox News, conservative talk radio and conservative media they can ignore the mainstream media. The First Amendment does not immunize the news media from criticism.

Too many people in my line of work act as though the First Amendment applies only to themselves. Too many people, including apparently everyone who gets a C(r)apital Times paycheck, refuse to get the non-liberal side of any political or cultural story beyond attacking, because that might legitimize conservatives as actual people with points of view that deserve respect.

The irony here is that Novak is about as diverse a Republican as can be found. Read this story, and note the source. Of course, liberals support every kind of diversity except intellectual diversity. Novak is not my state representative (I’d have to move a few miles east), but I would certainly vote for him were he in my Assembly district. (And, by the way, Dane County is not in the 51st Assembly District. That makes The C(r)apital Times’ opinion just an opinion, and you know what opinions are like.