Trumping the Press

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg – everyone shortens his name – caused no end of trouble. Before the fifteenth century was even halfway over he invented movable type and the printing press – and a way to mass-produce moveable type and use oil-based ink – for printing books. Scribes went out of business. There’d be books for anyone who could read, lots of them, and literacy suddenly became important. Everyone wanted to know everything, without being told what was what, like little children – and now they could – but when everyone can read their own handy copy of the Bible, they get ideas. Gutenberg made the Reformation inevitable – perhaps the Catholic Church had gotten a few things wrong. You could now look it up, and soon enough there were competing translations of the Bible popping up too. In January 1604, James I convened the Hampton Court Conference where a new English version was commissioned in response to problems in earlier translations – there were things the Puritans, at the time a faction within the Church of England, didn’t like at all – and the King James Bible was completed in 1611 – the definitive Bible still, at least for Protestant Christians. Gutenberg made that possible. Everything was unlocked – so the Enlightenment was inevitable too. Ideas of all sorts could be printed and widely distributed. Hey, think about this! Argue back if you’d like – print your own thoughts in a book, or a tract, or something or other – and we can figure out how the world works, in public. Let’s reason! All of modern science followed too, inevitably – a process of publishing careful observations and pointing out their implications. Others critiqued those, in print, until everyone agreed on the implications, more or less.

Mankind was on a roll and by the late eighteenth century the political implications of all this had become obvious. In 1651, when Charles II was in exile in France, Thomas Hobbes published The Leviathan – life is mean, nasty, brutish and short, and that means we need a strong central government run by a king with near-absolute power, to keep us from killing each other. When Charles II returned to the throne in 1660 he could point to this well-argued book and say see, told ya so, folks – you really shouldn’t have beheaded the old man, Charles I, eighteen years earlier – but by the late eighteenth century, John Locke and so many others were writing, and publishing, something entirely different. Kings might not be necessary. Reasonable men could work things out amongst themselves and a run a fine government on their own – they could reason and they also had “certain inalienable rights” that were their own, not the King’s. Locke said so. Our Founding Fathers said so. Thomas Paine wrote dozens of fiery tracts that said so. And all this was said in print. The American Revolution was driven by Gutenberg’s movable type.

That’s why freedom of the press is guaranteed in the First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Everyone gets to think for themselves, and print what they want – with the exception of defamation and incitement to riot and other mayhem – you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. The state can also keep secrets – you can’t publish those – national security does take precedence – but there things get tricky. Edward Snowden is still in exile, but Richard Nixon couldn’t stop the publication of the Pentagon Papers. The injunction failed. There was a compelling public interest involved, and Nixon’s attempt to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg fell apart – breaking into his psychiatrist’s office to find something to smear him was a bit too much. The Supreme Court tossed out the case against Ellsberg. There are limits on what you can do when you hate that someone published this or that.

Nixon had a problem with that. What the Washington Post had been publishing about Watergate – all true and verified through multiple sources – infuriated Nixon. He banned Washington Post reporters and photographers from the White House – they couldn’t even cover the annual Christmas party – but Nixon couldn’t shut down the Washington Post. One of the first rules we set up was freedom of the press – we would not have had a country without that – and sometimes the press will be a pain in the ass. They criticize those in power. They sometimes suggest that they’re devious, or lying. They bring up stuff that those in power never wanted anyone to bring up. Sure, it doesn’t seem fair, but that’s what they’re supposed to do. Tom Paine was supposed to piss off King George. That king’s feelings didn’t matter – and Nixon knew he couldn’t send a CIA team to assassinate Bernstein and Woodward. We don’t do that sort of thing.

We leave that to others:

President Vladimir Putin probably approved a 2006 Russian intelligence operation to murder ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium-210 in London, a British inquiry concluded on Thursday, prompting a row with Moscow.

Russia, which had declined to cooperate in the inquiry, cautioned pointedly that it could “poison” relations. Britain accused the Kremlin of uncivilized behavior but did not immediately signal it would take any stronger action.

Litvinenko, 43, an outspoken critic of Putin who fled Russia for Britain six years to the day before he was poisoned, died after drinking green tea laced with the rare and very potent radioactive isotope at London’s Millennium Hotel.

That’s one way to deal with pesky critics, but then there was this:

During a Friday-morning interview with Donald Trump, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough was baffled by the Republican front-runner’s embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Sure, when people call you ‘brilliant’ it’s always good. Especially when the person heads up Russia,” Trump told cohost Mika Brzezinski when asked about Putin praising him as “very talented” the day before.

Scarborough pointed to Putin’s status as a notorious strongman.

“Well, I mean, it’s also a person who kills journalists, political opponents, and invades countries. Obviously that would be a concern, would it not?” Scarborough asked.

That might be going too far, but Trump didn’t see it:

“He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader,” Trump replied. “Unlike what we have in this country.”

“But again: He kills journalists that don’t agree with him,” Scarborough said.

The Republican presidential front-runner said there was “a lot of killing going on” around the world and then suggested that Scarborough had asked him a different question.

“I think our country does plenty of killing, also, Joe, so, you know,” Trump replied. “There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, Joe. A lot of killing going on. A lot of stupidity. And that’s the way it is.”

Trump would later joke at rallies that journalists are awful people – liars, every one of them – so it was tempting – but no – just kidding, folks – he wouldn’t have them killed – but it was tempting. It became a standard part of his routine that always got roaring approval, and now there’s this:

Real-estate mogul Donald Trump said in a new interview that it would be hasty to judge Vladimir Putin in the face of a British public inquiry’s allegation that the Russian president “probably approved” of a 2006 killing on British soil.

“Have they found him guilty? I don’t think they’ve found him guilty,” Trump said in a Tuesday interview with Fox Business Network anchor Maria Bartiromo. “They say a lot of things about me that are untrue, too.”

Trump still likes the guy. Maybe you shouldn’t assassinate your critics, but strong leaders don’t take crap from anyone, and that led to this:

Donald J. Trump and Fox News, the candidate who has reordered the Republican presidential race and the cable network of choice for many of the party’s voters, stared each other down on Tuesday over his demand that the news anchor Megyn Kelly be dumped from moderating Thursday’s debate, the last before Monday’s caucuses.

The network did not blink. So Mr. Trump walked.

Mr. Trump’s announcement here that he would “probably,” or would “most likely,” or was “pretty close to” irrevocably planning to skip the debate – an aide put it more directly – created a gaping uncertainty at the center of the Republican nominating contest just as it was formally about to begin in Iowa.

That’s what Trump is counting on, but that has its limits:

“Let’s see how much money Fox is going to make on the debate without me,” he said at a news conference here.

Fox News said Mr. Trump’s refusal to debate his rivals was “near unprecedented.”

“This is rooted in one thing – Megyn Kelly, whom he has viciously attacked since August and has now spent four days demanding be removed from the debate stage,” the network said in a statement.

On her program Tuesday night, Ms. Kelly observed that “what’s interesting here is Trump is not used to not controlling things, as the chief executive of a large organization.”

“But the truth is, he doesn’t get to control the media,” she added.

Even Richard Nixon knew that, and this is far more petty than any of the Nixon stuff:

Mr. Trump’s animus toward Ms. Kelly dates to August, in the first presidential primary debate, when she questioned him about his past comments denigrating women. Afterward, he suggested that Ms. Kelly had been angry at him, so much so that she had blood pouring out of her “wherever” – a remark many saw as a reference to menstruation.

In the months since, Mr. Trump has repeatedly criticized Ms. Kelly as a “third-rate” reporter. And as Thursday’s debate approached, Mr. Trump began disparaging Ms. Kelly as if he were a prizefighter promoting a rematch. He called her dishonest, accused her of bias and a conflict of interest, and said flat-out that he did not like her.

On Monday, Fox News responded to Mr. Trump, tauntingly saying it was “surprised he’s willing to show that much fear” about being questioned by Ms. Kelly. And on Tuesday, after the network’s president, Roger Ailes, declared that Ms. Kelly would “absolutely be on the debate stage,” the network issued yet another taunting statement, this one mocking two of Mr. Trump’s go-to rhetorical crutches.

“We learned from a secret back channel,” the statement said, “that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president – a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.”

Yes, Trump put out a Twitter questionnaire. Should he walk away from the debate if Fox News stands by Megyn Kelly? But Trump had had enough of Fox News, no matter how the questionnaire turned out, and sent this:

“With me, they’re dealing with somebody that’s a little bit different,” he said of Fox. “They can’t toy with me like they toy with everybody else. So let them have their debate, and let’s see how they do with the ratings.”

He won’t take crap from anyone, not even Fox News, and the Republican Party was caught flatfooted:

“Obviously we would love all of the candidates to participate,” said Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, “but each campaign ultimately makes their own decision what’s in their best interest.”

The tepid response was the latest instance in which the party has tried not to antagonize Mr. Trump, even as he engages in behavior that many Republican donors and operatives and some committee members consider destructive.

So what? Trump wants respect, and cash:

It was not the first time that Mr. Trump, who holds a wide lead in national polls and a slender one in Iowa, has threatened to sit out a debate. At one point he demanded that CNN donate $5 million to aid wounded veterans in return for his participation. His logic then was the same as now: The ratings stem from his presence. But CNN officials declined, essentially calling Mr. Trump’s bluff, and he participated.

This time, though, his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, said there would be no backing down Instead of attending the debate, he said, Mr. Trump would hold a fund-raiser in Iowa for wounded war veterans.

Mr. Lewandowski did not respond to a message asking the chances that his boss would change his mind.

And Ted Cruz pounced:

Cruz said on Mark Levin’s radio show: “If Donald is afraid to defend his record, that speaks volumes. If he thinks Megyn Kelly is so scary, what does he think he’ll do with [Russian President] Vladimir Putin?”

Cruz challenged Trump to a one-on-one debate sometime over the next week.

“I’m happy to go an hour and a half mano-a-mano – me and Donald with no moderators, any time before the Iowa caucuses,” he said.

At an event Tuesday night, Cruz said: “Donald is a fragile soul. You know, if she asks him mean questions, I mean his hair might stand on end.” He likened it to skipping a job interview.

This is a bit absurd, but Chris Cillizza has already shared a little secret – “Trump isn’t a great debater. Well, here’s another little secret: He knows it.”

Cillizza knows what he saw last time:

Quick, tell me Donald Trump’s best moment in the first five Republican presidential debates.

Chances are, you can’t. Which is sort of remarkable, right? After all, Trump is the guy in this race who makes news. He says things about policy (we need to temporarily ban Muslims from coming to the U.S.) and about people (Jeb Bush is “low energy”) that always make him the story.

Except at debates.

Here’s how the arc of Debate Donald usually goes. Positioned in the center of the stage — it’s where he’s been in almost every debate — Trump is active, if not overwhelmingly aggressive, in the first 30-45 minutes. When answering question during that time, Trump tends to avoid any policy details and has, on occasion, shown a remarkable lack of knowledge on issues. (He had no clue what the “nuclear triad” was in the fifth debate, for example.)

But then, Trump – and I can’t believe I am writing this – tends to fade into the background. He answers the questions asked of him and hits back when someone attacks him. Beyond that, however, he tends to look somewhere between disinterested and sleepy. He does very little to inject himself into the conversation. He is, rather transparently, just waiting for the whole thing to be over.

And that may be appropriate:

He might be good, he might be bad – he’s much more often the latter in debates – but the people who are for him don’t care. Or Trump is able to convince them – using his megaphone via social media and cable television – that he actually won the debate no matter what the “pundits” say.

Trump has created his own reality for much of this race, never more so than in insisting how “everyone” says he won “every” debate. He hasn’t. But it hasn’t mattered.

So this is no loss for Trump, and Callum Borchers adds this:

With less than a week remaining before the Iowa caucuses, Trump appeared be giving himself cover by crying foul before Thursday’s debate even began. But when Fox News refused to replace his least-favorite referee, Trump took his ball and went home.

But he didn’t have her assassinated. On the other hand, he didn’t get Roger Ailes to fire the woman and then bow his head and ask Donald Trump who else he should fire and who he should keep, and what he should and should not ever say about Donald Trump. Ailes didn’t even remove Kelly from the debate panel. It’s almost as if Fox News believes in freedom of the press. Ailes was Ben Bradlee standing by Bernstein and Woodward. Go figure, or read their statement:

As many of our viewers know, FOX News is hosting a sanctioned debate in Des Moines, Iowa on Thursday night, three days before the first votes of the 2016 election are cast in the Iowa Caucus. Donald Trump is refusing to debate seven of his fellow presidential candidates on stage that night, which is near unprecedented. We’re not sure how Iowans are going to feel about him walking away from them at the last minute, but it should be clear to the American public by now that this is rooted in one thing – Megyn Kelly, whom he has viciously attacked since August and has now spent four days demanding be removed from the debate stage.

Capitulating to politicians’ ultimatums about a debate moderator violates all journalistic standards, as do threats, including the one leveled by Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski toward Megyn Kelly. In a call on Saturday with a Fox News executive, Lewandowski stated that Megyn had a “rough couple of days after that last debate” and he “would hate to have her go through that again.”

Lewandowski was warned not to level any more threats, but he continued to do so. We can’t give in to terrorizations toward any of our employees. Trump is still welcome at Thursday night’s debate and will be treated fairly, just as he has been during his 132 appearances on FOX News and FOX Business, but he can’t dictate the moderators or the questions.

But the Trump campaign released this:

As someone who wrote one of the best-selling business books of all time, The Art of the Deal, who has built an incredible company, including some of the most valuable and iconic assets in the world, and as someone who has a personal net worth of many billions of dollars, Mr. Trump knows a bad deal when he sees one. FOX News is making tens of millions of dollars on debates, and setting ratings records (the highest in history) whereas in previous years they were low-rated afterthoughts.

Unlike the very stupid, highly incompetent people running our country into the ground, Mr. Trump knows when to walk away. Roger Ailes and FOX News think they can toy with him, but Mr. Trump doesn’t play games. There have already been six debates, and according to all online debate polls including Drudge, Slate, Time Magazine, and many others, Mr. Trump has won all of them, in particular the last one. Whereas he has always been a job creator and not a debater, he nevertheless truly enjoys the debating process – and it has been very good for him, both in polls and popularity.

He will not be participating in the FOX News debate and will instead host an event in Iowa to raise money for the Veterans and Wounded Warriors, who have been treated so horribly by our all talk, no action politicians. Like running for office as an extremely successful person, this takes guts and it is the kind of mentality our country needs in order to Make America Great Again.

Did he mention he’s very, very rich? Yes he did. Bow before him, but Erik Wemple adds this:

The ironies here are circular. Over the years, Fox News has boosted its own ratings by frequently airing accusations of media bias. Now its ratings – at least for Thursday night’s debate – stand to suffer over just such an accusation. Everyone tunes in to see just how Trump will bring out the worst in those who surround him. And the National Review got tossed from hosting a February debate because it dared to exercise its prerogative as an opinion journal to editorialize against Trump.

Fox News, of course, will be fine; it has ruled cable news ratings for the last decade and a half and will continue doing so. Trump, of course, will be fine; he has money and insouciance and ignorance. Media criticism, though, may need a round or two of therapy.

Yeah, Roger Ailes is the good guy here – but if Trump were to become president things would get interesting, even if not in a Putin sort of way. Would he shut down certain newspapers? No president can do that, but could he demand that certain reporters never darken his door again? Nixon tried that. It didn’t do him much good – but the man does joke about assassinating reporters. It’s only a joke, folks – just kidding – but the massive crowds love it. Maybe he can reverse what Gutenberg started.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Trumping the Press

  1. Rick says:

    I don’t get it! As far as I can tell, nobody anywhere, in any media, has used what, to me, should be the obvious headline:

    “Donald Ducks Debate”

    (Believe it or not, they used to pay me to write captions like that back when I worked for AP Photos in New York. No, come to think of it, that one they would have thrown back at me.)

    Is this about Megyn Kelly, or this about Trump finding a way to capture headlines just before Iowa? The answer is yes, but I think there’s even something more than that.

    I remember years ago, when Chris Christy first started being talked of as a possible GOP candidate for president, I thought he would be a major contender when the time came, simply because he’s a tough guy and a bully. Forget low taxes and small government and abortion, if you boiled the typical conservative down to his essence, you’d be left with someone who values shows of strength over anything else.

    Christy’s real downfall came in hugging Obama. Bridgegate? Okay, but only because he came off looking like he lost that fight, and the hard-core conservatives who are powering the campaign these days will write you off if you (a) hug Obama and (b) if you come off looking like a loser in a fight.

    [Insert Donald Trump here.]

    Is Trump a conservative or not? Here’s Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic last summer:

    In public statements, he has advocated government healthcare, a woman’s right to an abortion, an assault weapons ban, and paying off the national debt by forcing rich people to forfeit 14.25 percent of their total wealth. When the man married his third wife, he invited Bill and Hillary Clinton to the wedding, and he has given many thousands to their political campaigns and their foundation. He’s donated many thousands more that helped elect Democrats to the Senate and the House. And George W. Bush was “maybe the worst president in the history of this country,” the man said in 2008. “He was so incompetent, so bad, so evil.”

    On paper, this is not someone you’d expect to excel in the 2016 Republican Party primary. But Donald Trump is excelling.

    Why? Because he represents the logical extension of all that is conservative in America. He’s a bully. He likes to push people around. He’s noticed that being tough is the sort of thing that impresses his largely low-education followers. The nastier he gets, the higher his numbers go.

    Remember Hobbes’ Leviathan?

    In 1651, when Charles II was in exile in France, Thomas Hobbes published The Leviathan – life is mean, nasty, brutish and short, and that means we need a strong central government run by a king with near-absolute power…

    Except for “and short”, that’s a good description of Trump — mean, nasty, and brutish.

    Trump wants to show off his strength and bargaining abilities, which, in the case of the upcoming debate, means, first of all, negotiating a better deal with Fox News, either by having them fire Megyn Kelly, or at least have her removed as a moderator. He knows he’s got them over a barrel, since their ratings will soar if he shows up, and will drop if he doesn’t.

    So Fox News’ boss, Roger Ailes, doesn’t back down? Okay, he’ll punish Ailes by, instead, staging some other event Thursday night, to raise money for “veterans and wounded warriors” — which, I guess, is even cleverer than raising money for, say, widows and orphans, or maybe the Kitten and Puppy Rescue Fund. The rubes at his rallies will buy this, the pundits will call it brilliant, but count me among those who scoff at its baldfaced cynicism, just another sign that American politics has come to resemble Buffalo Bill’s Cowboys and Indians Traveling Circus.

    I found myself yesterday, while watching the news, saying to my wife something I hardly ever hear myself saying: “Boy, I hope Fox News doesn’t back down or give in!” But then she reminded me that “there’s no chance that Roger Ailes will back down!”

    And of course, because we both worked for him back in the 1970s — at TVN, a news syndicator owned by conservative brewer Joe Coors, who founded the company about when Nixon resigned because, I’ve always contended, he wanted to get the idea of a Ronald Reagan candidacy into the public consciousness — we knew she was right.

    One of my personal memories of Roger was showing up for work one afternoon, just after some broadcast union had declared a strike on TVN, to see a crowd of employees standing in a circle around him as he was pacing back and forth, shouting obscenities into a phone outside his office.

    Someone told me he was on with President Ford’s press secretary, Ron Nessen, who had been trying to persuade Roger to withdraw his scab camera crew from a Ford event, since none of the other networks would film it with us there. Paraphrasing here, I heard Roger loudly tell Nessen to grow some fucking balls and tell the other fucking networks that if they don’t want to cover the fucking event, that’s their fucking choice, but our crew is there to cover the fucking news, and we’re not leaving.

    Incidentally, Roger won.

    The fact is, Roger Ailes is not only a conservative, he’s of the tough-guy school of conservatism, as is Donald Trump. They both enjoy confrontation, and neither likes to be pushed around. I suppose it’s not that much of a risk Trump is taking in this showdown, although I remain convinced that one of these days, his star will yet fall out of the sky, and just maybe enough Iowans will notice that The Donald Ducked Out of the Debate, and will think less of him for it.

    And as much as I, as a liberal Democrat, have my problems with Roger Ailes and Fox News, I really want him, and them, to win this one.

    I know this is too much to hope for, but wouldn’t it be nice if there were such a thing as a reverse boycott of the debate — that is, people who would otherwise not watch it, instead tune in, just to boost the ratings? And for gods’ sake, do not tune in to whatever the Donald has decided will be more worthwhile for voters to be watching tomorrow night.


  2. Ed says:

    Possible win/lose situation. Fox can only $win$. Bad deal for Trump and he’s not about making bad deals.

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