Dark on The Inside

Woodward and Bernstein really stuck it to Nixon – dispassionately. Everyone saw the movie – Woodward and Bernstein chased down the facts of the matter. There was something odd about that Watergate burglary. They found out what was odd about it, and one thing led to another, and Richard Nixon resigned – but they weren’t out to get him. They were out to get the facts.

Woodward was a Republican after all – but he decided to ignore that. He just wanted to know what was going on. That was his job, but that seemed heroic. In the movie, he was played by Robert Redford, when Redford was still young and devilishly handsome, and Redford was dashing. He was a hero. Bernstein was played by Dustin Hoffman as an edgy and whip-smart kind of guy, but a guy with no axe to grind. He too was a hero. He just wanted to know what the hell was going on – and neither of them schmoozed with those in power.

That wasn’t their circle. They were outside that circle, where they should be. Their relationship to those in power wasn’t adversarial. There was no relationship, as it should be. Any reporter “on the inside” will get played, or if not, at least lose any sort of objectivity. That brought down Judith Miller – she believed that crap she was being fed by Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and whatnot. She wrote up her stories for the New York Times. The New York Times published them. They soon turned out to be crap. The New York Times fired her. She had been played – and she ended up at Fox News for a bit – but even that didn’t work out. She works for Newsmax now. She found a home on the far, far right. No one has called her a journalist for years – and the new banner at the Washington Post reads “Democracy Dies in Darkness” – harkening back to the heady days of Woodward and Bernstein. It’s dark on the inside. Stay on the outside.

That changed with cable news, which might not be news at all. The “hosts” offer their perspectives on the news. They don’t call themselves journalists at all – at least not often. They offer news-about-the-news. They know things about the news, gathered by the lowly worker-bees, the actual reporters out there. They’ll put that stuff in perspective. Sean Hannity has a perspective. Rachel Maddow has a perspective. Bill O’Reilly used to have a perspective before Fox News asked him to leave because of all those sexual harassment suits. These “hosts” position themselves as insiders who know what’s really going on. Rachel Maddow knows what’s really going on through careful logic, given what others have reported. Sean Hannity knows what’s really going on because he’s tight with Donald Trump – the Fox News model. Fox News feeds candidates to the Republican Party. They really are on the inside.

This has polarized America of course. No one gets the news. Everyone gets the news about the news, from a particular perspective. Everyone finds a perspective that comforts them and that’s that. For almost ten years that was countered by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who acted as press critics. They offered news about the news about the news, laying into guys like Bill O’Reilly for all sorts of his nonsense, but they picked on others too – and now they’ve moved on. That was news at the third remove – but it was useful. It is hard to sort out what’s going on even at the second remove – and the actual news itself is a mess. Few can make sense of any of that.

The heady days of Woodward and Bernstein are long gone. Now it’s news at the second remove for everyone – or “perspectives on the news” if that sounds better. Rachel Maddow does her Sherlock Holmes thing. Others schmooze with the movers and shakers, in spite of what happened with Judith Miller – maybe, if they’re careful, they won’t get played – but sometimes this gets absurd:

Mika Brzezinski is setting the record straight about President Trump’s tweet regarding her alleged face-lift – which wasn’t a face-lift at all.

In a candid new interview with Vanity Fair published on Friday, the Morning Joe co-host reveals that she got a procedure to tighten the skin under her neck – and explains why the president knew about it.

Brzezinski says she started laughing when her coworker Willie Geist first showed her Trump’s widely derided tweets, in which he claimed she was “bleeding badly from a face-lift” when she and her fiancé and co-host Joe Scarborough visited the Trumps at Mar-a-Lago around New Year’s Eve.

“I said … ‘Shit. I kind of wanted to keep that to myself,'” she said of the procedure.

“I had a turkey neck. My mom told me to get it done,” she explained. “I was FaceTiming all my friends, telling them to get it done, that it wasn’t so bad.”

And that led to this:

Brzezinski said that she told Melania Trump about the procedure when the TV hosts stopped by Mar-a-Lago on New Year’s Eve. But it was the then-president-elect who was impressed.

“The irony of it all is that Donald kept saying, ‘That’s incredible. You can’t even tell. Who did it? Who did it?’ He kept asking for the name of the doctor,” Brzezinski recalls. “He literally asked ten times. ‘Is he down here? Who is he?'”

A White House spokesman declined to comment on the subject.

That White House spokesman declined to comment because that ruined the whole narrative. These folks are really all buddies? That seems to be the case, but the day did not start out that way:

The hosts of “Morning Joe” on Friday morning responded to insults from President Donald Trump the previous day, framing them as genuine causes for national concern about Trump’s emotional and mental well-being.

“I’m fine,” Mika Brzezinski said on air. “My family brought me up really tough. This is absolutely nothing – for me, personally. But I am very concerned as to what this once again reveals about the President of the United States. It’s strange.”

“I was like, this has to be a joke,” Joe Scarborough added. “The President of the United States, as bad as he’s been in the past, he really hasn’t gone over the cliff. And then, unfortunately, we learned what we’ve always learned; and that is that he, for some reason, takes things so much more personally with women. He’s so much more vicious with women.”

They delayed a long-planned vacation to set things straight:

The hosts responded to Trump in an op-ed in the Washington Post Friday morning. They were even more candid on-air.

Scarborough, for example, related a story he heard from “a well-known congressman,” who told him that, during a pitch to several lawmakers about the health care bill, the President went on a rant about “Morning Joe.”

“‘I’ve never made a call like this, I’ve been in politics my whole life,'” Scarborough recalled the congressman telling him. “‘He scared me, because he was vicious when he turned from you to Mika. His face was red. He started talking about blood coming out of her ears, out of her eyes.'”

“For some reason, he always goes after Mika, and it’s always personal with Mika.” Scarborough said. “He attacks women because he fears women.”

No more schmoozing in Florida for these two:

For her part, Brzezinski said Trump’s behavior had sparked a deep worry about the future of the country, but that she personally could handle the attack.

“My father just passed away,” she said. “My mother had two heart attacks. My daughter just lost a friend. Those are the things I’m really worried about. Those are the things that really deeply impact me, and leave me thinking about at night, and hurting and worrying and thinking about the future.”

“The President’s tweets? Whether they’re personally aimed at me or aimed at me in some way, that doesn’t bother me one bit,” she continued. “It does worry me about the country.”

“The guy that’s in the White House now is not the guy we knew two years ago,” Scarborough added later. “Not even close. The Donald Trump we knew, for the better part of 10 or 12 years, was always in on the joke.”

Woodward and Bernstein could have warned them. Stay on the outside. It’s dark on the inside. Gabriel Sherman reports on that darkness:

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump used his close alliance with the National Enquirer to attack his enemies. Now that he’s President, he’s continuing to benefit from the tabloid’s support.

This morning in a Washington Post op-ed, Morning Joe co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski disclosed that White House officials offered to spike an Enquirer story about their romance if the pair apologized to Trump for the show’s critical coverage.

In recent months, Scarborough and Brzezinski have questioned Trump’s mental state and fitness for office. They elaborated on the op-ed on MSNBC this morning. Morning Joe regular Donny Deutsch said it was “blackmail” for Trump to use a hit-piece in the Enquirer to extract an apology from media critics. Trump then tweeted a quasi-confirmation of the behind-the-scenes conversations, saying that Scarborough called to enlist his help to kill the story. Scarborough called Trump’s version a “lie,” tweeting that he never spoke to the president.

This is really dark:

According to three sources familiar with the private conversations, what happened was this: After the inauguration, Morning Joe’s coverage of Trump turned sharply negative. “This presidency is fake and failed,” Brzezinski said on March 6, for example. Around this time, Scarborough and Brzezinski found out the Enquirer was preparing a story about their affair. While Scarborough and Brzezinski’s relationship had been gossiped about in media circles for some time, it was not yet public, and the tabloid was going to report that they had left their spouses to be together.

In mid-April, Scarborough texted with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner about the pending Enquirer story. Kushner told Scarborough that he would need to personally apologize to Trump in exchange for getting Enquirer owner David Pecker to stop the story. (A spokesperson for Kushner declined to comment). Scarborough says he refused, and the Enquirer published the story in print on June 5, headlined “Morning Joe Sleazy Cheating Scandal!”

The Morning Joe co-hosts decided to talk about the episode a day after Trump inaccurately tweeted that Brzezinski attended a New Year’s Eve party at Mar-a-Lago “bleeding badly from a face-lift.” (A photo from that evening backs up Scarborough and Brzezinski’s denial of this.) While the Enquirer denies that Trump encouraged Pecker to investigate the MSNBC hosts, Trump himself has pushed the story publicly. Last August, he tweeted, “Someday, when things calm down, I’ll tell the real story of @JoeNBC and his very insecure long-time girlfriend, @morningmika. Two clowns!”

Trump just wanted a little apology and some groveling – or he’d sic the National Enquirer on them. Jared, the son-in-law, delivered the threats. Scarborough kept a record of those. He discussed each of them at the time with NBC management. It’s ugly. In fact, Daniel Friedman notes that it’s this ugly:

Whether they realized it or not, Scarborough and Brzezinski were accusing the president and his aides of committing an action that might have been a crime. Several attorneys say the White House officials who called Scarborough to convey the threat – and Trump himself—might have broken a federal extortion law, as well as a blackmail law and a New York state law against extortion or coercion.

There are rules about such things:

New York, where Morning Joe is shot and where Scarborough and Brzezinski live, outlaws multiple kinds of coercion. Second-degree coercion, according to the state’s criminal code, “occurs when a person compels another person to engage or refrain from engaging in lawful conduct by instilling a fear of” several actions, including “exposing a secret about the victim subjecting him or her to ‘hatred, contempt or ridicule.'” This does seem to fit the circumstances Scarborough and Brzezinski described: If they did not do what the White House aides requested, the publication owned by a pal of Trump’s would disclose secret information that would harm their reputations.

“One could certainly argue coercion,” says Matthew Galluzzo, a defense lawyer who previously worked as a prosecutor for the New York County District Attorney’s office. “If you assume those facts to be true, there could be a coercion charge.”

Ted Williams, a criminal defense attorney in Washington, DC, echoes this view. “This case could very well be extortion,” he says. “If these are the facts, you have the president of the United States colluding with a newspaper based in Florida and its owner to make certain things happen with a threat. It is a strong possibility that an extortion case can be made, and also a conspiracy case should be looked at. Here was a threat: You kiss the brass ring or you are exposed. I would hope the FBI would get involved.”

Williams adds that a criminal case could also include wire fraud. “When certain communications are transmitted over phones and other apparatuses for blackmailing two television personalities to help the president of the United States, then that could lead to such a charge,” he says.

And there’s this:

Scott Altman, a University of Southern California Law School professor and expert on blackmail law, says that before the Enquirer article appeared, he was “very skeptical” that the threats the hosts described constituted blackmail under federal law. “Threats to communicate information count as blackmail only if they are threats to reveal secret facts that would subject someone to ridicule if revealed, or to reveal photos of videos of a person engaged in sexual acts or without clothing,” he explains. A general threat to make negative comments about someone or to cause the publication of a derogatory article, he adds, “likely does not meet this requirement.”

But Altman says the appearance of the gossipy Enquirer story bolsters the case that Trump aides, in Scarborough’s telling, did threaten to reveal facts that invite ridicule – and that action could be prosecutable. “If in context the threat could plausibly be read to refer to that information [in the published article], I think a case for blackmail would be much stronger,” he says.

And so on and so forth. It’s all bad, or as Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker report, it’s all good:

This week had it all: Vicious tweets, nasty nicknames, an entrenched foe in the mainstream media and the reprisal by Trump of one of his favorite roles — the victim.

Sure, Trump’s health-care push stalled on Capitol Hill, his “energy week” went largely unnoticed and the president faced almost universal condemnation for an unpresidential attack on MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski.

But to many inside the White House, as well as outside allies, what looked like a public relations debacle amounted to an abundance of “winning” – a Trumpian catchphrase playfully repeated Friday by some West Wing officials, even as they were discomfited by the Brzezinski broadside.

They were discomfited, but they were actually winning:

Trump spent the week at war with what he calls the “fake news media,” attacking some of the news organizations reporting most aggressively on Russian interference in the 2016 election. CNN gave him fresh ammunition with the resignations of three investigative journalists over a retracted story connected to the Russia probe.

For Trump and his legions of loyalists, the media has become a shared enemy.

“They like him, they believe in him, they have not to any large degree been shaken from him, and the more the media attacks him, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy on the side of the Trump supporters who fervently believe the media treat him unfairly,” said Tony Fabrizio, the chief pollster for Trump’s campaign. “It’s like, ‘Beat me with that sword some more!’ ”

Sure, the whole world said Trump’s tweets were disgusting, but consider the target of those tweets:

Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign adviser who is close to the White House, said, “It does energize the base. Certainly a big part of the success the president had last year was this sweeping, counterculture pushback against information being dictated to the American people.”

Joe and Miki were like the rest of the press, the enemy of the people – the anti-sixties anti-Hollywood Real Americans or whatever – so it’s all good, unless it isn’t:

The media can serve as an easy scapegoat, although that tactic is ultimately unlikely to pay long-term dividends, said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief who is now the director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.

“The White House appears to have decided that one of its key talking points is going to be its war with the media, and this is an ongoing campaign that explains the president’s misfortunes, rallies the base and gives some kind of meaning to the narrative of this presidency,” Sesno said. “It may resonate with the base or at least some of the base, but it is utterly misguided. It will prove to be counterproductive, and I think it shows both the shallowness and the fundamental disrespect the White House has for the media and a free press.”

Yeah, but the heady days of Woodward and Bernstein are over. Fundamental disrespect for the media and a free press may continue to be the rage, in certain circles. Trump assumes so.

Josh Marshall addresses that:

Reporters aggressively press for access, normal on-camera press conferences and against raise a clamor at all the petty and sometimes trivial ways the Trump White House tries to put reporters and news organizations in their place. We now see major media outlets – newspapers and TV networks – cataloguing the President’s lies, and calling them ‘lies’. This isn’t remotely like anything we’ve seen before. My point here isn’t to say things are peachy and everything’s perfect. I’m as big a press critic as ever. But much of what one might have feared about a corporate, mainstream media normalizing Trump’s abnormal, un-American behavior actually has not happened.

But as long as the effort is to try to shame Trump and his crew into appearing on camera, holding press conferences, not refusing access, not hiding in bushes there is a big limit to its effectiveness. Fundamentally trying to shame the President or demand he change his behavior amounts to begging, making reporters and news organizations into supplicants, even if aggressive ones. That creates the spectacle of dominance which is precisely what Trump craves and is trying to achieve.

Swatting away press complaints and demands isn’t a cost the White House is willing to incur to restrict press access. Provoking just these kinds of confrontations is most of the reason for restricting access in the first place.

With Trump, know the man:

We know that he sees everything through a prism of the dominating and the dominated. It’s a zero-sum economy of power and humiliation. For those in his orbit, he demands and gets a slavish adoration. Even those who take on his yoke of indignity are fed a steady diet mid-grade humiliations – to drive home their status and satisfy Trump’s need not only for dominance but unending public displays of dominance. He is a dark, damaged person.

Trump’s treatment of the press is really a version of the same game, a set of actions meant to produce the public spectacle of ‘Trump acts; reporters beg.’

That’s what he wanted from Scarborough, but there’s a way to deal with that:

People who don’t cower, who don’t let Trump dictate the terms of their engagement with him tend to unhinge him. Not even ‘tend’. It’s a clear and consistent pattern. We’ve seen it with Khan, Machado, Macron. Trump thrives on people who play parts in his dominance rituals; he derives malign psychic nourishment from it; he comes either unglued or ingratiating when people refuse to play that part… We are collectively not accustomed to dealing with someone like this. Even self-possessed, powerful people are not infrequently discombobulated at first by abusive and sadistic behavior. But the answer is not to think that we can shame someone into changing their behavior when the point of the behavior is to trigger the shaming itself. That makes no sense. A better approach is to identify this behavior as what it is and report it as news, not try to change it.

I do not pretend that Trump’s crackdowns on access are unimportant. But they are not the critical things that journalists require to do their job. The blockbuster stories, the critical revelations don’t come from press briefings or pool access. They come from things that a President, at least for now, has far less ability to curtail. We should focus on those and report the reality before our eyes. That is befitting of the dignity of a free press and will be more effective in any case.

There’s another way to say that. It’s dark on the inside. Stay on the outside. It’s the only safe place now.

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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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