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Would means wouldn’t, no means yes, and the president “did great” at a press conference that even some of his staunchest allies viewed as a disaster. Those are the messages coming from Donald Trump and his team as the fallout from Monday’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to dominate the news.
Speaking with CBS News anchor Jeff Glor on Wednesday, Trump attempted to reframe his meeting with the Russian leader, stating that he did press Putin on Russian interference in American democracy, that he has confidence in his own intelligence agencies, and that “it was a strong news conference.” The president blamed the media for the negative reaction to his performance, saying, “the press makes up the, look, it’s fake news. And people understand. I think the press largely makes up a lot of the fuss about a lot of things.” Glor, to his credit, pushed back, arguing, “The press covered the substance and the wording of that press conference accurately.” But really, his defense was unnecessary. The evidence was there, on tape, for all to see.
The CBS interview, part of which aired last night, came on the heels of back-to-back reversals necessitated by the president’s own words. On Tuesday, Trump stated that he misspoke at the press conference in Helsinki when he said, “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia who interfered in the 2016 election. He meant, the president claimed, to say “wouldn’t,” thereby implying his true beliefs were the exact opposite of what he said on the world stage. Then on Wednesday, when asked by ABC’s Cecilia Vega if Russia is still targeting the US, Trump responded, “Thank you very much, no.” This contradicted the claims of his own national intelligence director, who said last week that the warning lights regarding a Russian cyber attack “are blinking red again.”
But, you see, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said later in the day, the President again didn’t mean that. Sanders claimed at Wednesday’s press briefing that Trump was simply thanking Vega and then saying “no,” he wouldn’t be taking any more questions, and that the administration was taking steps to ensure that Russia would not meddle in future elections. This explanation was greeted with extreme skepticism given that Trump then went on to answer a follow-up from Vega and more questions from the press.
The Russia issue, thrown into the spotlight by Trump’s decision to meet with Putin and his disastrous performance at Monday’s press conference, isn’t going away. The president’s contradictory explanations and day-after defenses might be enough to satisfy his most ardent supporters, but reporters this week have appeared newly energized to press Trump and his spokespeople on the topic. Russian interference has been a constant national storyline since November 2016, but the events of this week have brought it to the fore. With each confusing and downright unbelievable reversal, Trump and his team add more fuel to a fire that’s flickering where there used to be just smoke.
Below, more on Trump’s contradictions and the continued repercussions of Monday’s summit.
- Still unknown: Trump told Glor that the press is failing to cover his one-on-one conversation with Putin, but the administration has been vague about what, if anything, was agreed to at that meeting.
- Press solidarity: Last week in the UK, when Trump called CNN “fake news” and refused to take a question from the network, no reporters stood up for their colleague in the moment. At yesterday’s press briefing, when Sarah Sanders tried to ignore a follow-up question from NBC’s Hallie Jackson and called on The Hill’s Jordan Fabian, Fabian yielded the floor, saying, “Sorry, Hallie, go ahead if you want to.” The New York Times’s Michael M. Grynbaum said the “unusual show of solidarity between rival journalists seemed to signal a new approach by the White House press corps toward an administration that regularly uses briefings to deride, and divide, the news media.”
- Not going away: Writing on Trump’s second day of reversals, The Washington Post’s John Wagner and Felicia Sonmez note that “despite the White House’s efforts to move past the controversy, the issue showed few signs of dying down.”
Other notable stories
- Mark Zuckerberg sat down with Recode’s Kara Swisher for a wide-ranging interview, which Swisher framed as “a picture of an earnest and canny tech leader who is also grappling with the darker side of his creation.” In one notable exchange, Zuckerberg defended Facebook’s decision to allow conspiracy-peddlers like Infowars to remain on the platform by drawing a tortured analogy to Holocaust deniers. (He later emailed Swisher to clarify those remarks.)
- More than 370 journalists responded to a request from the IRE to to help The Capital Gazette put out its paper, and the organization reports that it now has “more offers than we could possibly use.”
- Wired’s Issie Lapowsky profiles the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Jonathan Albright, “the man who’s been conducting some of the most consequential and prolific research on the tech industry’s multitudinous screwups.” Albright’s work covering misinformation on Facebook, YouTube, and other social media sites has been featured in publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post. “Not quite a journalist, not quite a coder, and certainly not your traditional social scientist, he’s a potent blend of all three,” Lapowsky writes. “A tireless internet sleuth with prestigious academic bona fides who can crack and crunch data and serve it up in scoops to the press.”
- CJR’s Corey Hutchins reports on the Colorado Sun, a Civil-backed startup that’s pitching itself as a local alternative to The Denver Post. The Sun, which plans to launch around Labor Day, is staffed entirely, so far, by 10 former Post employees, including several reporters and editors from the paper’s politics desk.
- BuzzFeed News’s Joe Bernstein has a good piece on a rough topic. He writes about his search for answers after Lane Davis, one of Bernstein sources and a conspiracy theorist and fringe figure in the pro-Trump media sphere, killed his own father. It’s an isolated case, but also a piercing look at the dark corners of the internet that Bernstein has made his beat.
- Chance the Rapper is the new owner of local news site Chicagoist, and he announced the purchase in a new song, reports Gothamist’s Jen Carlson. He bought the site from WNYC, saying, “I look forward to re-launching [Chicagoist] and bringing the people of Chicago an independent media outlet focused on amplifying diverse voices and content.” In the song, he says, “I bought the Chicagoist to run you racist bitches out of business,” in a verse that refers to Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and the Chicago Sun Times.
The investigations and reporting of BuzzFeed News — *not* BuzzFeed — are now at their own BuzzFeedNews.com
If there’s one thing we can count on in these uncertain times, it’s that no matter what happens, many Republican members of Congress will remain convinced that the major social platforms are secretly using their algorithms to down-rank conservative content. The Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives held a hearing in April on this topic—one that spent most of its time trying to decide whether Facebook had somehow censored the right-wing YouTube duo known as Diamond & Silk—and it held a second hearing on Tuesday.
The executives testifying before the committee were Monika Bickert, Head of Global Policy Management at Facebook; Juniper Downs, YouTube’s Global Head of Public Policy and Government Relations; and Nick Pickles, Senior Strategist for Public Policy at Twitter. Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte said the hearing’s purpose was to “look at concerns regarding a lack of transparency and potential bias in the filtering practices of social media companies [and] how they can be better stewards of free speech.” But as with the first hearing, most of the discussion on Tuesday focused on individual claims by members of Congress that one or more of the social platforms was censoring conservative views.
Republican Lamar Smith of Texas asked why Google censored search terms like “Jesus, Chick-Fil-A, and the Catholic religion,” although he didn’t provide any evidence for his claim. Iowa Republican Steve King asked Facebook why right-wing news site Gateway Pundit had seen its traffic drop. Neither question drew much response from the platforms. On a more serious note, Goodlatte and others also raised the question of whether the social platforms should still be protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects them from liability for content posted by their users.
For the most part, the platforms stuck to their argument that they are neutral when it comes to content, and that they don’t deliberately prejudice their algorithms against conservative posts. But it was clear the repeated allegations of bias have hit their mark—the platforms appeared nervous. As The Washington Post reported last month, both Facebook and Twitter had back-room meetings with conservative celebrities and pundits to reassure them they aren’t biased, and at the beginning of Tuesday’s committee hearing, Bickert apologized for what she said was Facebook’s “mishandling” of the Diamond & Silk situation.
Some Democratic members said the platforms weren’t doing enough to remove offensive content, including sites peddling dangerous conspiracy theories such as Infowars. Ted Lieu of California, meanwhile, said the hearing was a waste of time, and that members of the committee should have been investigating the Russian infiltration of the NRA, instead of “how many Facebook likes Diamond & Silk should be entitled to have.” He said the only thing worse than a video from Alex Jones of the conspiracy site Infowars was the idea of the US government holding a hearing about content published on a private platform.
Here’s more on the social platforms and their struggles with Congress:
- Facebook as utility: In addition to criticizing Facebook for allegedly restricting the traffic of Gateway Pundit, Republican Steve King mused during the hearing about whether the social network and other massive tech platforms should be subject to the ultimate penalty. “What about converting the large behemoth organizations that we’re talking about here into public utilities?” he asked.
- No Infowars ban: One theme that Democratic members returned to multiple times during the hearing was why Facebook wouldn’t just ban misinformation providers such as Infowars. “How many strikes does a conspiracy theorist who attacks grieving parents and student survivors of a mass shooting get?” asked Ted Deutch of Florida. Bickert said fake news doesn’t breach the site’s terms of service, but tweaks to the News Feed algorithm are designed to down-rank such sites.
- Appeasement: Just days before the hearing, a group of senior media executives met with Facebook and some criticized the company for bending over backwards to appease conservatives, according to The Wall Street Journal. BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith said the number of conservative news sites at the meeting suggested Facebook had bought into the idea “that mainstream outlets such as the New York Times are liberal and should be counterbalanced by right-leaning opinion outlets.”
- Three strikes: While Juniper Downs of YouTube was fairly straightforward on how many strikes a news outlet had before being blocked for posting offensive content (three), Facebook was not nearly as forthcoming. When asked how many times a site like Infowars could breach the rules before being punished, Bickert would only say that “the threshold varies depending on the severity of the infractions.”
- Lots of QAnon fans: New York Times writer Kevin Roose pointed out on Twitter that the live comments on YouTube’s stream of the Judiciary hearing were filled with conspiracy theorists who appeared to believe the QAnon conspiracy, a series of rumors spread on various online forums about an alleged coup against the “deep state.” Roose called this ironic juxtaposition “honestly kind of perfect.”
Other notable stories:
- Google was fined $5.1 billion by the EU in an antitrust ruling regarding Android’s role in the smartphone market. However, as the Times notes, “the ultimate effect of Wednesday’s ruling may be muted given that Europe has largely acted alone in its regulatory actions against Silicon Valley titans,” though, “there have been recent signs of shifting attitudes and tougher questions from Congress.”
- A man who worked for a Facebook contractor in Dublin moderating content on the social network said in a documentary aired on Britain’s Channel 4 network that the company lets far-right fringe groups get away with posting content that others are banned for, including hate speech. Facebook said these examples were mistakes and that it would retrain its moderators so they wouldn’t happen again.
- Karen Ho and Alexandria Neason write for CJR about the return of former long-time WNYC radio host Leonard Lopate, who has a new show on WBAI, a progressive station based in Brooklyn. Lopate was suspended from WNYC and eventually fired last year, after reports of inappropriate conduct.
- A federal judge lifted a controversial order that would have required the Los Angeles Times to remove information it had published about a former Glendale police detective who was accused of working with the Mexican mafia. The information was supposed to have been sealed by the court, but was posted to a public database by mistake.
- Isaac Lee, the head of content for Univision and architect of the company’s Fusion expansion, is stepping down from his position and plans to start his own TV production company, according to a report in Variety magazine. Univision recently changed CEOs and said it is looking to sell some of its holdings, including Gizmodo Media Group and The Onion, acquisitions spearheaded by Lee.
- Andy Kroll writes for California Sunday magazine about how Congressman Adam Schiff, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has gone from being a mild-mannered politician without much of a public profile to the unlikely hero of the Democratic party for his role in pushing for an investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to the Russian government.
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As CNN’s cameras cut from the closing moments of the Trump–Putin press conference to the network’s set in Helsinki, Anderson Cooper instantly offered the most succinct and forceful analysis of the day. “You have been watching perhaps one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president at a summit in front of a Russian leader, certainly, that I’ve ever seen,” he said. In the minutes and hours after President Trump sided with the word of the Russian president over the conclusions of his own intelligence services, similar thoughts echoed across the media landscape.
Television anchors appeared shocked in the immediate wake of the presser, but the consensus was that Trump had delivered one of the worst presidential showings on the world stage that anyone could remember. In news analyses, The New York Times’s Mark Landler and The Washington Post’s Dan Balz offered scathing assessments of Trump’s words. Landler compared Monday to Trump’s defense of white nationalists in Charlottesville, and wrote that “[Trump’s] statements were so divorced from American policy goals, so at odds with the rest of his administration, so inexplicable on so many levels that they brought to the surface a question that has long shadowed Mr. Trump: Does Russia have something on him?” Balz, meanwhile, wrote, “On a day when the setting called for a show of strength and resolve from an American president, Trump instead offered deference, defensiveness, equivocation and weakness.”
Over at Fox News and Fox Business, the immediate criticisms of Trump’s performance were more restrained, but only slightly. FBN’s Neil Cavuto called the president’s failure to directly challenge Putin over election interference “disgusting.” Fox News’s Abby Huntsman, whose father is Trump’s ambassador to Russia, tweeted “No negotiation is worth throwing your own people and country under the bus.” But some analysts fell back on the equivalence defense, with Fox’s media critic Howard Kurtz acknowledging that Trump’s words were “troubling,” but quickly adding that “liberal commentators” were overreacting. By the time the evening opinion slate took to the air, the Trump defenders were falling into line, with Tucker Carlson inanely arguing that Mexico has done more to interfere in US elections than Russia and Sean Hannity lobbing softball questions to Trump in his first post-summit interview. Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, on the other hand, delivered a strong performance in his sit-down with Putin, repeatedly interrupting the Russian president to challenge his talking points and reading from last Friday’s indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers.
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As for the press conference itself, the two American journalists who were called on to question the world leaders earned high marks. Reuters’s Jeff Mason and the AP’s Jonathan Lemire asked specific, tough questions of both the presidents, with Lemire directly challenging Putin over whether the Russians had compromising material on Trump. Putin, in a roundabout answer, did not explicitly deny that he did.
We may never know exactly what transpired during Trump and Putin’s two-hour meeting, but the press conference that followed was enough to raise serious concerns about the US president’s willingness to defend America against a hostile global power. Writing on the press’s role in the aftermath, The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan offered a clear-eyed appraisal of what must come next. “The American press,” she writes, “will find itself in the uncomfortable position of calling a spade a spade, with none of the usual recourse to false equivalence or ‘both sides with equal weight’ coverage.” In the hours after a surreal and disturbing moment, the media largely rose to that challenge.
Below, more on the summit and one of the most consequential days of Trump’s presidency.
- A moment of truth: The Atlantic’s James Fallows argues that Republicans need to act or be forever stained by their acquiescence to Trump. “Never before have I seen an American president consistently, repeatedly, publicly, and shockingly advance the interests of another country over those of his own government and people,” Fallows writes.
- Playbook preview: CNN’s Oliver Darcy had a sharp insight on what to expect from Trump’s media defenders. “Not seeing any pundits praise that Trump-Putin presser, but it’s easy to see how this is likely going to play out in pro-Trump media,” Darcy wrote Monday afternoon. “When all else fails, they bash the media. I imagine you’ll see RW media seize on criticism directed from journalists, and attack media as biased.”
- “Me first”: The Associated Press’s Matthew Lee and Zeke Miller write that “Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ slogan morphed Monday into ‘Me First’ as the president unloaded on his own intelligence community and Justice Department to portray himself as the victim of a conspiracy to deny him legitimacy.”
- Crossing the Rubicon?: CJR Editor and Publisher Kyle Pope tweets, “New era in Trump-media relationship started today—similar to the dam that broke with the use of the word ‘liar.’ Reporters who had held back on his Russia coziness now openly calling him out as a colluder. Uncharted territory for the coverage of a sitting president.”
- Fox-watching: For The Atlantic, Scott Norver catalogues the varying responses to Trump’s day across Fox News and Fox Business Network.
- “Worst-case scenario”: MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow raised the possibility that President Trump may be compromised by Russia, while New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes, “There is overwhelming evidence that our president, for the first time in our history, is deliberately or through gross negligence or because of his own twisted personality engaged in treasonous behavior.”
Other notable stories
- For CJR, Kristen Chick reports on photojournalism’s sexual harassment problem. “In interviews with more than 50 people, in a CJR investigation spanning more than five months, photojournalists described behavior from editors and colleagues that ranged from assault to unwanted advances to comments on their appearance or bodies when they were trying to work,” Chick writes.
- Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai threw a wrench into the works of Sinclair’s $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media, saying Monday that he has “serious concerns” about the transaction. CNN’s Hadas Gold reports that the hearing Pai has called for “would prolong the time it will take for Tribune and Sinclair to merge, which could spell doom for the deal.”
- The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson reports that Trump’s style has gone national. “In races across the country, other Republican candidates—and some Democrats—also are branding their opponents with unflattering nicknames, tweeting in all caps, refusing to apologize for things that politicians once apologized for, being proudly politically incorrect, circulating false information, calling their hometown newspapers ‘fake news,’ releasing damaging information about their opponents and generating controversy to get headlines, even unflattering ones,” Johnson writes.
- The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis tours the LA Times’s sports desk in the final days of operation at the paper’s 83-year-old headquarters. “Getting romantic about a newspaper sports office is like getting romantic about a laptop. A newspaper office is at best functional and at worst a pain in the ass,” Curtis writes. “Yet the Times leaving its old headquarters felt like the occasion for a tribute to the guys who used to work there.”
- NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt will be awarded the 2018 Poynter Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism.