Monday, March 14, 2016

Trump Bags First Journo Trophies: Cokie Roberts & Michelle Fields

Our Overlord-In-Waiting clearly disapproved of Cokie Roberts' impertinent questions / YouTube Screenshot

This discussion between Cokie Roberts and The Donald on MSNBC news-talk program Morning Joe made Donnie plenty mad.  When asked whether he’s concerned that his rhetoric has inspired white kids and youth to engage in hate speech in at least a handful of widely-reported incidents, he ducked the question.  Instead, he angrily dismissed her question as “nasty.”

Sometime after this incident, a syndicated op-ed column Cokie and her husband had published about a week earlier, urging the GOP to do what they can to stop Trump – now, “was brought to NPR’s attention.”

So NPR inexplicably did this:

Which caused yours truly to do this

WTH, NPR?!? Taking positions on matters of public import is what Commentators DO.  It's THEIR JOB.  It was once my job (albeit at my college newspaper’s lofty wage of $0.75 per column inch.)  Why on Earth should a COMMENTATOR have to justify her commentary?

These BS maneuvers by NPR reek of "#Trump threatened to sue the HELL out of us so we're scrambling to limit liability [even though he has NO EFFING CASE]." Why the hell are they going to such lengths to, well, kinda humiliate Cokie-freaking-Roberts over no apparent wrong-doing on her part?  Don’t they realize that caving only encourages a bully?!?

But then I settled down some and decided to tackle the issue with a calmer, more well-reasoned approach.  So let’s examine the story’s more troubling elements one at a time.

NPR: "Roberts' column was published Feb. 26, and she did not flag its contents to NPR executives."

Why would a part-time Commentator who is not a straight news reporter need to flag to NPR that she expressed an opinion in one of her regular Op-Ed columns?  Did something change in the 20 years since my college Op-Ed columnist gig ended?  Isn’t the provision of the writer’s opinion still part and parcel of the Op-Ed (short for Opinion-Editorial) genre of writing?  

NPR: "It [the column] came to their attention after Roberts sharply questioned Trump during a March 9 appearance on MSNBC."

Gee, any guesses as to who "brought it to their attention"? But more to the point, why the heck would an op-ed column from a part-time Commentator need to be "brought to NPR's attention" in the first place?

NPR: "NPR's senior vice president for news and editorial director, Michael Oreskes, said the opinion column indicates Roberts has not been sufficiently identified to listeners as a commentator."

How does Cokie Roberts' own op-ed indicate that listeners aren't sufficiently clear on that she is a Commentator? Perhaps some Trumpkin backlash in the dark recesses of the Comments section – or predictable, Trumpian threats of frivolous lawsuits that hit the NPR head office – indicate that some people don't understand the difference.  But I suspect that *most* of those people *aren't* actually NPR listeners.

I'm more of a conservative talk radio gal myself (gotta keep up on the opposition!), but every single NPR listener I can think of definitely knows the difference between a political commentator and a reporter.  They also more likely than not know full well that Cokie Roberts is the former, not the latter (see below.)

NPR: “Roberts remains closely identified with NPR and presents commentary most Mondays on Morning Edition.”

She provides weekly commentary on NPR?  So couldn’t we reasonably surmise that most actual NPR listeners know quite well that she is a Commentator?

NPR: “Oreskes directed Roberts to explain her reasoning behind her column — both the substantive case and Roberts' conviction she had a right and need to articulate it — in a conversation with Morning Edition host David Greene broadcast early Monday.”

Yikes.  This sounds an awful lot like she’s being directed to explain herself to her parents or the Principal, which is an incredibly offensive way to treat a professional of her stature who did nothing wrong.  It also sounds exceedingly and inappropriately defensive, and a terrible precedent to set. 

Cokie Roberts shouldn’t need to defend her “right and need” to proffer a given opinion.  Her right to do so is part of the job description, and her “need” to do so shouldn’t even come into the equation.

NPR: In the Morning Edition interview for broadcast Monday, Greene asked Roberts: "Objectivity is so fundamental to what we do. Can you blame people like me for being a little disappointed to hear you come out and take a personal position on something like this in a campaign?"

This tut-tutting from David Greene is truly one of the more baffling aspects of this episode.  As he and any other self-designated, high-minded practitioners of the journalistic arts ponder their “disappointment,” they might pause a moment.  Pause to recall that respected newspaper’s Editorial Boards have routinely weighed in on political campaigns and party affairs, including through the mechanism of formal candidate endorsements, for centuries

Do these protectors of the craft find the New York Times or any other board unethical or “unseemly” for issuing pronouncements on which candidates are most deserving of the public’s support?  Does it bother them if such pronouncements come from David Brooks, or Paul Krugman, or Charles Krauthammer?  If not, why not?  And if not, why was it remotely necessary for Roberts to be – essentially – scolded on-air for doing her job?

NPR: "Additionally, [Oreskes] wrote in a memo to staffers that news executives would work with [Roberts] to refine the contours of her job."

Why? What needs to be "refined"?  Cokie Roberts has been a Commentator for much of my entire adult life, and I'm technically middle-aged.  Her NPR bio identifies her as such.  And even if that NPR bio was edited in the wake of this nonsense (I don’t know that it was, but lack means to confirm that it wasn’t), her ABC News bio says the same thing – Cokie Roberts is a Political Commentator. 

So where does the confusion lie?  Why does Cokie need to be sent to some sort of Political Commentator Reeducation Camp where the “contours of her job” might be “refine[d]”?

The only plausible answer I can come up for any bit of this whole episode is: it's an incredibly bizarre case of CYA.

Donald Trump is a petty, vindictive man who uses any tools at his disposal to punish those who do anything other than praise him and burnish his public image.  Examples are so incredibly numerous that it’s impossible to select just a few to link here.  Besides, most readers possessed of good faith and a modicum of objectivity on the matter are undoubtedly already quite familiar with many such incidents.

Threatening to sue or actually doing so is one of Trump’s favorite image-control strategies, and one should reasonably wonder if such a threat was a factor in this episode.  The Trump campaign routinely punishes media outlets that ask difficult questions or publish stories critical of their candidate, refusing press credentials to any reporter affiliated with the outlet.  This blacklist includes Huffington PostBuzzfeedThe Des Moines RegisterThe National Review, and newest apparent addition, Politico 
It is not unreasonable to strongly suspect that all of this mess has been instigated by the man himself as payback for those “sharp questions” Cokie asked him a week ago.  Trump’s seething hatred for the press and compulsion to retaliate is so utterly predictable that restraint – not retribution – would have been the surprising outcome.

So what of NPR’s ethical duty in this situation?  Is it too much to expect NPR to vigorously defend their commentator’s right to express her opinions?  Absolutely not.

One would hope that a flagship journalistic enterprise like NPR would not cave in the face of a would-be authoritarian’s bullying.  And if anything, large, established media outlets would seem to have a particular duty to push back against a political candidate’s extortionate efforts to silence his critics.

Voltaire’s maxim – generally expressed as, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – is supposed to be a paramount value within the profession.  If the press outlets best equipped to do so do not take a leadership role in this defense, who will?  After all, unlike many others, they actually have the resources (and/or extensive liability coverage) to effectively defend the First Amendment.

What about the CYA angle?  If I put on my no-longer-practicing lawyer hat, it seems that defending Roberts (rather than imposing this degrading kabuki theater routine on her) bore no downside risk for NPR.  The content that the third party might (theoretically) be threatening litigation over wasn’t carried, printed, or in any way distributed by NPR.  Best I can tell, NPR would have no plausible exposure to liability for any of it – there is no causal link whatsoever between NPR and the supposed “wrong.”  No link to the column, and no link to the Morning Joe appearance. 

And even if NPR had distributed the content in question, the First Amendment would shield them.  Political speech is the core of First Amendment protected speech.  So while it is very difficult for any public figure to prevail on a libel or slander claim, such cases are virtually impossible for political figures to win in the United States.

Because of this, dispensing of such a lawsuit through a motion for summary judgment would be rather quick and inexpensive, at least as far as litigation between deep-pocketed entities goes.  Protections against abuse of the litigation process would likely also force a candidate complainant and/or his lawyers to pay lawyers’ fees and costs incurred in defending any suit that was facially without basis in the law.

NPR, if my suspicions here are true, I’m immensely disappointed in you.

I’m disappointed that you’d wave the white flag of surrender in the face of censorious threats.  I’m saddened that you would kowtow in the face of bullying that only further illustrates the unique danger this man presents to American ideals and small-d democracy.  And I’m angry that you are not vigorously defending the free speech rights of both your staff and your company, which absolutely must be vigorously defended for you, the rest of the press, and concerned citizen bloggers to be free to do our jobs properly.

And I’m also highly, highly annoyed.  Because if you-know-who is behind this whole thing, you know very well that his ego – which is already large enough to consume the Gulf States, if not all of the country east of the Rockies – has just received another massive, dangerous boost.  He’ll be emboldened to continue right down this path again the next time a journalist or commentator says something he finds less than sufficiently laudatory.  Which, given his incredibly thin-skinned nature and ubiquitous media presence, probably occurs at least a few thousand times in any given hour.

Sigh.  NPR, because of your failure to defend Cokie Roberts and the journalistic enterprise, the new regime of censorship under our Supreme Leader In-Waiting has already commenced.  And he didn’t even have to “open up” libel laws.

So bring on the Reeducation Camps.  Perhaps they’ll be tremendous, luxurious and ultra-classy, and we’ll at least get to enjoy Trump Steaks, Trump Wine, and gold-plated bathroom fixtures during our stays.

PS: if you missed Cokie’s “sharp questions” to Trump on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, the video is worth watching. 

PPS:  Conservative reporter Michelle Fields is also among the first casualties of Our Overlord-In-Waiting’s fundamental hostility to free speech.  One might even include the three Breitbart News colleagues who resigned in solidarity with her earlier today.  It’s such a photo finish that I’m happy calling it a five-way tie. 

Trump and his campaign’s treatment of that young woman – and whatever pressure they leveraged to persuade Breitbart editors to suppress reporters’ speech about it – was appalling.  If you’re not already troubled enough about the future of the First Amendment under a President Trump, read this.

**This piece was edited on March 19 to include links to stories regarding Trump's affection for firing off cease-and-desist letters and threats of litigation.

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