Mark Leibovich | Media Matters for America

Mark Leibovich

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  • The Problem With The Media’s ‘Trump Is Pivoting’ Narrative

    Blog ››› ››› TYLER CHERRY

    Media figures have repeatedly claimed that presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is “pivoting” to the general election every time he does something that they think makes him look or sound “presidential.” Media’s constant search for Trump’s “pivot” effectively whitewashes all of the racist, sexist, slanderous, and conspiratorial attacks Trump has doled out, and mainstreams the idea that Trump’s past diatribes can be forgiven so long as he assumes a veneer of conventional, tempered behavior.

    Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump and the media have engaged in a cycle wherein Trump launches offensive broadsides and character attacks; He gets bad press; Republican leaders clamor for Trump to tone down his rhetoric; Trump obliges, often using a teleprompter to restrain himself; Media figures claim Trump has “pivoted” and is “becoming more presidential”; and repeat.

    As MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace said, Trump constantly shatters the “pivot” narrative “by trotting out conspiracy theories” -- or, as others have noted, outrageous insults -- within hours of being lauded as “presidential.” 

    In following this pattern, the media are both applauding Trump for having simply mastered “campaign 101,” as CNN’s David Gregory noted, and excusing his past remarks as political maneuvering and electoral showmanship.

    In early June, after Trump launched a multiday racist crusade against Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over Trump University lawsuits, Republican leaders beseeched Trump to “get on message” and “quit attacking … various minority groups in the country.” That very night, Trump delivered a speech -- devoid of any attacks and with the aid of a teleprompter -- that “sought to calm fretful Republicans bolting from his side over his latest controversy,” CNN reported.

    Media figures immediately claimed that Trump’s restraint showed he was “pivoting.” NBC News reporter Ali Vitali wrote that Trump “acted presidential” in the speech, which “finalized his pivot to the general election.” CNN host Don Lemon said the “new, more presidential Donald Trump” is what “people in Washington wanted to see.” Unsurprisingly, Trump also received praise from right-wing media for sounding “more presidential than ever.”

    CNN political commentator Marc Lamont Hill explained the phenomenon:

    “It's kind of a good outcome for Trump, because we're not talking about a Mexican judge anymore. We're not talking about something controversial. We're talking about Trump changing the direction of his campaign. That can only be good news for him, based on what the last three weeks have been.”

    GOP leaders condemned Trump’s repeated “offensive” suggestions that President Obama had sympathies for terrorists, but changed their tune once Trump delivered his next teleprompter-guided speech following the mass shooting in Orlando, FL. Some media figures said Trump sounded “more presidential” and was “behaving like general election nominees behave,” and Trump’s slanderous accusations against the president quickly fell out of the news cycle.

    The “pivot” claim, which has repeatedly surfaced since at least February, has also helped wash away many of Trump’s past actions and comments: his doubling down on his proposed Muslim ban, his accusations that Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) father was involved in the John F. Kennedy assassination, and his questioning of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s faith.

    Some media figures have noted the journalistic malpractice associated with the constant fallback on the “pivot” narrative. New York Times Magazine correspondent Mark Leibovich, calling the narrative “absurd,” wrote:

    But really, how do you pivot away from saying that Mexicans are rapists? (Will he negotiate “great deals” with more moderate Mexican rapists?) If your campaign is a cult of personality, how can you modulate that personality and still have the cult? In Trump’s case, a “pivot” would constitute a complete overhaul of his very essence.

    Similarly, Washington Post opinion writer Kathleen Parker lambasted media’s “softening of criticism” of Trump and warned “the commentariat,” “Nothing makes Trump more acceptable today than yesterday or last week — or six months ago.”

    The "pivot" narrative has become a reset button, allowing media to excuse or forget all of Trump’s past rhetorical assaults. Media figures are essentially condoning all of his racism, sexism, and conspiracies, so long as he sounds and acts subdued and presidential.

    Image by Dayanita Ramesh and Sarah Wasko. 

  • Trapped By "Joyless" Campaign, Journalists Should Go Back To Basics

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    As the presidential campaign heads into the frantic final months, more and more Beltway reporters and pundits appear united in their complaint that the Obama vs. Romney contest has been a "joyless" affair. It's been so joyless -- so lacking in entertainment value -- that journalists can't wait for the campaign to be over. In the meantime, they hate their jobs.

    Even for the political press corps, which tends to complain ever four years that covering campaigns is an awful, dreary task, the volume of woeful laments this year is noteworthy. ("How am I ever going to get through it?")

    The complaints are also a bit baffling, though.

    The idea that presidential referendums, which decide the political direction of the country every four years, are supposed to entertain journalists seems like a misguided take on the democratic process. And the fact that reporters and pundits openly complain that a White House race isn't interesting enough for them seems to highlight the outsized importance they place on their role in the electoral process. (What happened to just reporting the news?)

    Note that a key complaint that runs through the media laments has been that the press, aside from being unable to detect any "joy" from the candidates, can't find any substance to cover; that they're forced to focus on the trivial pursuits of allegedly shallow, nasty campaigns. After Paul Ryan was selected as the Republican vice presidential pick, the press insisted it was desperate to cover substance and that Ryan was the vehicle to finally elevate the campaign. (He did not.)

    Weeks later, pundits are still complaining about the lack of substance and insisting there's nothing they can do about it.

    In fact, there is.

  • The Politico-ization of the New York Times

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    The New York Times Magazine's Mark Leibovich profiles Politico's Mike Allen, touting his -- and Politico's -- success in driving the daily conversation among the political and journalism elite. Leibovich paints a rich portrait of Allen's thoughtful gestures toward friends and sources and his hyperkinetic workaholic tendencies. But in more than 8,000 words, he devotes little more than passing attention to questions about the quality of Politico's journalism. Tellingly, Leibovich doesn't quote or refer to a single media critic or journalism professor -- his entire portrait of Politco appears to be based on his own observations and conversations with political operatives and reporters. It is a piece about the author of Politico's "Playbook," written by a self-described member of the Playbook "community," and reliant entirely upon interviews with other members of that "community."

    An astonishing 6,585 words into the profile, Leibovich finally raises a key question:

    Harris and VandeHei have clearly succeeded in driving the conversation, although the more complicated question is exactly where they are driving it.

    But Leibovich doesn't linger long on that question -- and hardly applies it to Allen, the subject of the profile, at all. If Leibovich is right about how influential Mike Allen and his Playbook are in setting the agenda in the nation's capital (and I'm not prepared to argue against that premise), Leibovich's decision not to explore this question is a glaring omission. Leibovich writes that the Playbook is "the cheat sheet of record for a time-starved city," but pays no attention the question of whether it should be -- whether, for example, Allen compiles and writes his Playbook in a way that points its Very Important Readers toward thoughtful analysis of important policy questions and ground-breaking investigative pieces, or toward horse-race journalism, dime-store political analysis, and gossip.

  • Discussing Obama's response to press questions about Blagojevich, MSNBC's Shuster, NY Times' Leibovich ignored Fitzgerald's reported request for delay


    On MSNBC Live, David Shuster said that President-elect Barack Obama and his staff decided "repeatedly" to "release virtually no information about the Blagojevich scandal," while Mark Leibovich said that Obama's responses to questions about the scandal "hearken to a kind of echo of what other White Houses in the past have said when they don't want to answer questions immediately." However, neither noted that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald reportedly requested that Obama "delay the release of a report" about an internal review of the contacts between his aides and Blagojevich's office.

  • NY Times reported Lieberman "has not ruled out switching parties" without noting his promise to caucus with Dems


    The New York Times' Mark Leibovich reported that Sen. Joe Lieberman "has not ruled out switching parties but has stopped short of saying he has moved so far from the Democratic Party -- or, in his view, the other way around -- that he is at a point of no return" but failed to note that if Lieberman did so, he would be breaking his 2006 promise to caucus with the Democrats if re-elected to the Senate.

  • Assessing "conventional wisdom," NY Times' Leibovich ignored Times reporting on McCain's immigration reversal


    The New York Times' Mark Leibovich asserted that the "conventional wisdom" that Sen. John McCain would be "done in by immigration in the Republican primaries" in 2008 "Proved to Be False." But Leibovich did not mention that McCain may have avoided being "done in" by the immigration issue by reversing his position to align himself with the Republican base.