Discover more from Sanity Clause
Chicken Noodle News
Where Is Trump's Daddy?
Has anyone had anything interesting to say about CNN’s town meeting with Donald Trump? It’s been several days now. There’s been nothing of note, so far as I can tell. Which is important because this dynamic—Trump and his fervent peanut gallery v. the media attempting to stand up for Sanity (but never laying a glove on him)—is the nightmare we’ve been living since 2016. It has done incalculable damage to us as a country. The question is, how do we get past it? The answer lies on the media side of the equation.
First, something obvious: The left-censorship advocates who believe the town hall never should have happened are wrong. CNN President
Steve Chris Licht and Anderson Cooper are right on the most basic point: The event was newsworthy. As Licht said, overstating a bit:
I absolutely, unequivocally believe America was served very well by what we did last night…People woke up, and they know what the stakes are in this election in a way that they didn’t the day before. And if someone was going to ask tough questions and have that messy conversation, it damn well should be on CNN.”
“We all know covering Donald Trump is messy and tricky, and it will continue to be messy and tricky, but it’s our job,”
But Licht was also wrong. He said Kaitlan Collins’ performance as hyena-tamer was “masterful.” It wasn’t. It was dogged. It was well-informed. It was disciplined. It was professional. Even former Fox Executive Bill Sammon had nice things to say in the New York Times:
Under enormous pressure, Ms. Collins kept her composure and, crucially, never made it about herself. Furthermore, she elicited responses from the candidate that made news on topics from abortion to Ukraine.
True enough. Collins is an actual journalist, a tough White House correspondent; this wasn’t her fault. But Licht’s “masterful” praise implies something more: a sense of authority and control. CNN has people who have done that in the past—Jake Tapper, Chris Wallace, Anderson Cooper, Audie Cornish (when she was on NPR)—but it chose not to deploy them. As is often the case, CNN overthought. It chose to use the Trump town hall as an opportunity to market Collins, who may at some point have the ballast to be a prime-time staple, but doesn’t quite yet. This has been a persistent theme at CNN, since it stopped being Ted Turner’s staid and reliable creation. It’s sort of like Kendall Roy in Succession—it tries to seem authoritative, but lacks confidence and comes off wobbly. Its call itself the “most trusted name in news,” and much of its reporting—especially the overseas stuff—is excellent, but its studio product isn’t quite trustworthy. It is scattered, haphazard, unduly superficial and melodramatic. This is particularly true when it comes to its coverage of American politics.
Years ago, when I worked for Time, which shared common ownership with CNN, a Time-Warner executive asked me what I thought of the network. I responded with a question: “You’re dealing with demographic slivers here—a million, two million people most nights. Why not go small…and elite? Why not build a reputation as the smart network?”
I had BBC in mind. I had just come home from several weeks in England, covering the third Tony Blair campaign for prime minister. It was a nothingburger of an election; Blair was going to win…but he faced one major obstacle: an interview with the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman. He couldn’t avoid it. The Paxman Interview had become requisite in British elections, sort of like the presidential debates here. Paxman was both brilliant and clever; he did not suffer fools, he could be brutal. He might say, in response to a candidate’s attempt to peddle sheep-dip, “You can’t really believe that, can you?” Amazing what magisterial derision can do to a politician; amazing, the candor panic can elicit. (Blair survived the interview; his survival was the news of the next few days.)
We have had media figures approaching Paxman in the past—Tim Russert, for sure; his lawyerly interviews were news events. The late Gwen Ifill was a formidable presence. There were others, but far fewer since the fierce competition for audiences changed news into the hyper-dramatic, bread-and-circus journalism that became a hunt for the lowest common denominator when Fox and MSNBC challenged CNN in the 1990s, and the broadcast networks receded in importance. It is interesting to speculate what might happen to Trump if he were interviewed by one of the old-fashioned magisterial anchors…or by his father. Fred Trump was a paternal authoritarian; Donald Trump remains, at the age of 76, a petulant child. He needs to be treated like one. He needs to face the occasional question tinged with mockery, with disdain. You can’t really believe that, can you? Go to your room!
The news executive who best understood how to stage major political events was Roger Ailes, who practically invented the form. He created the first televised town meetings for Richard Nixon in 1968. The audiences were manicured, but not too much. Ailes insisted on negative questions from the folks—Nixon wanted them, too—a place CNN avoided with Trump. (The audience was the least impressive performer in the New Hampshire town hall.) Fox News, despite its obvious deficiencies, has done political events like debates with far more gravitas than CNN; its anchors are well-prepared; their questions barbed in unexpected ways—remember Chris Wallace and Megyn Kelly taking big chunks out of Trump in that early 2016 debate? Fox also has done election nights better, with two analysts—Karl Rove and Joe Trippi—who actually knew what they were talking about, as opposed to CNN’s vast banquettes of demographically appropriate “experts” (some of whom are very good, to be sure, but their power is sapped by the simmering stew of conventional blather surrounding them).
It’s time for CNN to rethink how it does politics. It doesn’t have to be boring. Election nights on BBC are a hoot. But the bells and whistles should be muted, the bum-bum-bah-BUM musical interludes, the breathlessness. John King should be less manic at the big board—Steve Kornacki has the cable-TV corner on manic, which he does with innocent aplomb (and the innocence somehow makes it work). We are talking about the future of the country, not the Kentucky Derby. The CNN banquettes should be culled: Van Jones and Alyssah Farah Griffin express their points of view with intelligence and passion. David Axelrod and David Urban have lots of political experience; they know how campaigns work. There are others who are good; others who are amateurish. I’m not going to name, or shame, them all.
Most important, there needs to be a prevailing air of sobriety and authority—and, dare I say, also sanity and balance—real insight and analysis rather than the constant parroting of inane conventionality. This starts with management. People like Jeff Zucker, whose heavy hand still stains CNN’s on-air product, are showbiz barkers; they have no idea what should be serious and what is nonsense. “Breaking News” should be banned as a term of art; all news is, by definition, breaking. “Crucial” developments should be game-changing, not just the latest poll. Politically correct gabble—"undocumented” rather than “illegal” immigrants at the border, for example; "gender-affirming” rather than “gender-changing” treatments—needs to be hosed. Race, crime, education, sexuality need to be covered from a more centrist, less woke perspective, no matter what the junior staff thinks. Left- and right-wing noisemakers can be granted their sound bites, but those should be put in perspective by more reasonable voices. A real economist, one who speaks English, might be hired to cover budget battles. Not every talking head needs to be pretty or young. (Barbara Starr is not a starlet, but she’s a damn fine pentagon reporter, as was Wolf Blitzer before he was Peter-Principled into the upper reaches.)
America is in a jittery state; the media have been making it worse—Fox with intent, CNN with inanity. There is a real need for a steady hand right now; there is a need for more carefully considered events than the Trump town hall. There has to be a niche for smart.
I met Fred about 40 years ago when we were on a local PBS television program together. Fred was asked a question. He looked down, put his left hand to his forehead—almost a parody of an intellectual—but he was thinking, not performing. He was thinking on TV. I loved him from the jump.
We lost Fred a few days ago. He was one of our smartest, most fearless thinkers about urban issues. It was appropriate that the Times had Sam Roberts—talk about serious and authoritative—do the obituary. He included some classic Fred quotes:
Mr. Siegel said in an interview with City Journal in 2020 that John V. Lindsay, who was mayor from 1966 to 1973, “was a classic liberal in that intentions counted for more than outcomes, and the trade-offs that we always have to make in order to make policy work, were alien to him.”
In the same magazine in 1991, Mr. Siegel argued: “Middle-class citizens, rightly or wrongly, have become convinced that modern liberal urban government is mostly about letting the poor misbehave at the expense of the middle class, and paying public employees very well to deliver services very poorly.”
Fred’s frustration with the liberal silliness of New York’s bureaucracy eventually led him off the deep end. He loved Rudy Giuliani as mayor, which was fine. But Michael Bloomberg wasn't tough enough for him; and Fred never appreciated the work that Joel Klein did in the schools (work that Giuliani didn’t even attempt). Eventually, Fred drifted over into Trump-land, never quite whole hog—half-hog, which was way too porcine for my taste. He did it in anger, not in sadness.
I remember spending long evenings with Fred and our friend, the actor Ron Silver, when Ron was dying of cancer. One night we talked about nightmares. Ron and I had plenty; nightmares are so very Jewish. Fred said he didn’t have any. Ron asked, “Then what do you dream about?”
“Sports,” Fred replied. “Handball, tennis. I’m playing, the competition is tough.”
“And?” Ron asked.
“I always win,” Fred said. He seemed shocked when we almost fell over, laughing. For that memory, and for so many other great conversation—even when we disagreed—I will miss him very much.