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Inmate Running the Asylum
In mug shot-induced frenzy, corporate media abandons journalistic ethics to label Trump an "inmate"
August 28, 2023
Dateline: 13 years since I covered Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally in DC, still one of the most remarkable events I’ve ever witnessed
Watching this week…
— Press breaks ethical standards to call Trump “inmate”
— White House revokes press passes to little outrage
— Media: Don’t make heroes out of lawyers
— Elon’s rough first year at Twitter
— Great Moments in Neopronouns Journalism
Zeal to finally get Trump leads to corporate press’ ethically dubious “inmate” label
You could make the argument that the last Saturday Night Live star ever will be Bill Hader, who left the show in 2013. The NBC late night mainstay has lost that cultural cache it once had — in a fractured media environment, it may never get it back. Hader was consistently incredible. Stefon was of course classic, but perhaps because of my love for the actual Dateline show on NBC, my favorite Hader character ever was his portrayal of co-host Keith Morrison.
He perfectly played up Morrison’s ability to theoretically express shock and sadness about the latest murder he was reporting out, while also subtly making it clear he was enjoying the madness. In this sketch, he tells one interviewee, “Oh, that’s terrible,” as he’s told about a dead body, while smirking. “You seem kind of psyched,” said the person he was interviewing. “No, I’m buuuummed,” he said, grinning ear to ear.
I thought of Hader’s portrayal of Morrison while watching CNN and MSNBC’s coverage of Trump’s arrest in Georgia on Thursday night, and the subsequent release of his mug shot. They could barely contain their delight at finally getting the money shot they craved for nearly seven years of doing perceived psychological battle with their antagonist formerly in the White House. But they also, especially on CNN, had to cover their glee with faux austerity. No this was a very serious moment, you see. “It is a stark and sad image,” said Jake Tapper, while the image was wallpapered to the screen for the audience to ingest the sweet #Resistance fumes of through osmosis.
And then Tapper said something else to the CNN audience: “Fulton Count Jail inmate P01135809, otherwise known as the 45th President of the United States.” This was the same tenor of Tapper’s tweet documenting the moment, hashtagging the inmate number for maximum social virality potential (over a million views!).
Now let’s be clear — of course the mug shot would go viral. Trump and his supporters instantly tried to make it into a positive for the candidate. CNN popped the mug shot as the lead on the homepage and promised to provide “what Trump’s mug shot says about him” for anyone who clicked through the tease.
“Inmate No. P01135809 stares out of the booking photo, his face like stone. It’s impossible to know what Trump is feeling. But the image...does not radiate his trademark bravado. His eyes bore into you...” wrote Stephen Collinson, in one of his trademark “news analysis” screeds.
And it wasn’t just Trump’s mug shot. MSNBC made a big show of tweeting out the entire line-up of co-conspirators’ mug shots, Brady Bunch style. The New York Times asked the question literally no one gave a shit about: “Why Are Trump’s Accused Co-Conspirators Smiling for Their Mug Shots?” (The answer they decided on was “defiance.”)
And again — I get the instinct when it comes to the Trump mug shot. It is iconic. But what really struck me as bizarre was the decision to immediately describe Trump as an “inmate” using his given “inmate number.” That felt without precedent when we see how the Acela Media reports out stories where a person is arrested, and booked, and then released on bail awaiting trial. This is a person who is, still, innocent until proven guilty. “Inmate”?
The Marshall Project, a well-respected journalism non-profit devoted to criminal justice — that all of the corporate press normally would follow the lead on — has written extensively about proper use of language around prisons. In 2021 they wrote a very lengthy and compelling piece about why using the term “inmate” is wrong, ethically. “Seventy-four percent of people held in jails have not been convicted of a crime. Technically speaking, these people are ‘inmates’ because of their physical location. But ‘inmate’ is dangerously imprecise because it is widely perceived as an assignment of guilt,” they wrote. “Journalism is a discipline of clarity. If a segment of our audience reads a particular word as a slur or suggestion of guilt, that word becomes an unnecessary distraction from our actual work.”
This, of course, makes total logical sense too. A person who is awaiting trial while out on bail would never be described as an “inmate” by an objective journalist. Even someone who is being held in prison without bail before a trial would unlikely be described as an inmate. Of course, most in the media would not go as far as The Marshall Project to not use the term inmate after a person has been convicted of a crime — we see all the time outlets use the term to describe people who have been found guilty and are in prison.
But calling a person by their inmate number comes across as a total abdication of journalism ethics. And, of course, we know why the exception to the rule was made in this case.
It is this instinct among the Trump-addicted media that they will have to overcome and fight against if they want to restore their credibility — and it will be especially challenging when Trump actually faces trial, whether that’s next year during the 2024 election cycle or after. With every occasion when the standards and practices rulebook is cavalierly thrown out because “who cares, it’s Trump,” the erosion of trust for most of the non-Resistance audience grows deeper. Want to convince the public these crimes Trump is accused of are serious — and criminal? Double down on your ethics. Make the case. Show, don’t tell.
Because Thursday night was a bad start to what will be a very long and embarrassing Trump Trial Season, especially as it is absurdly intertwined with the Presidential Election Season too. The “inmate” is still running the asylum — Trump’s grip on the media is stronger than ever.
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There’s a notable lack of outrage about the Biden White House revoking hundreds of press passes
While I was tuning into post-GOP debate coverage last Wednesday, I checked in on MSNBC as Jen Psaki took over the MidnightET hour. Her first guest for what was labeled “GOP debate analysis” was Ron Klain, who recently was President Biden’s chief of staff. Psaki, of course, was the White House press secretary for Biden before leaving to host a show on MSNBC on the weekends. What sort of hard-hitting analysis of the GOP debate did this duo cook up? Klain literally told a nodding Psaki that Joe Biden, their mutual former boss and the guy who is currently, you know, running for re-election, was the winner of the debate. I tweeted the below picture and the reaction was pretty vast.
What are we doing here, MSNBC? I don’t think anyone would mistakenly think Jen Psaki is an unbiased, objective news anchor. And I’ve always positively contrasted MSNBC with CNN for at least being more honest about its liberal leanings during the Trump Era. But this is something new entirely. This is veering into propaganda — state-run TV.
But the lack of interest in this story dovetails with another story that is generating remarkably little interest from the broader press — the White House enacting new rules that eliminates hundreds of reporters from holding a “hard pass” with access to the White House briefing room. Earlier this month, the White House officially adopted a rule that journalists would have to obtain press credentials from Congress or the Supreme Court in order to have a valid White House pass. More than 400 reporters did not get their passes approved by those entities, and thus were relegated to the process of applying for a day pass instead, and hoping for the best.
The rule helped boot the biggest foe of the administration, Simon Ateba of Today News Africa, who, through this arbitrary and bizarre process, got his pass revoked. Politico reported on this fact with a weirdly celebratory tone.
But most didn’t report on it at all. I could find only a single columnist or journalist, Bloomberg’s Stephen Carter, writing in support of the journalists like Ateba and hundreds of others who were unfairly booted from reporting at the White House.
When the Trump administration revoked the press pass of annoying brats Jim Acosta and Brian Karem, I spoke out in support of them — as did, of course, the rest of the media. That was two journalists. Now it’s more than 400. And yet nearly universal silence from our media.
But I guess when two former Biden employees are on a news channel saying their former boss won the GOP debate, and no one bats an eye, we’ve entered a new era of partisan-first journalism.
I wanted Elon Musk to buy Twitter — but his first year at the helm has been disappointing
Nate Silver’s Substack is fantastic, and I’ll just keep saying that every time I hit publish here on this Substack. He recently went long exploring what he defines as “the Indigo Blob,” and it’s really worth checking out his piece to see how he defines it, and shows the partisan shifts that we’ve seen in politics, media, and on social media. But he uses Elon Musk buying Twitter as the hook of the article. Silver concludes, in part: “The Old Twitter kind of sucked, especially if you ever had the experience of dissenting from the consensus. It reinforced the worst impulses of the Indigo Blob, making it more partisan and rendering its institutions less effective…Unfortunately, we probably aren’t getting the New Twitter — er, the new X — that I would want; Musk’s performance has been haphazard and he has a lot of hang-ups that I don’t share. But to the Old Twitter, good riddance.”
I mostly share his analysis. And it’s disappointing, because I’m far from an Elon Musk hater. In fact, I may be one of the earliest people ever to suggest the genius behind Tesla and SpaceX should purchase Twitter in the first place, in a tweet on January 8, 2021, and in the former iteration of the Fourth Watch newsletter two days later.
But there’s no getting around the fact that the promise of a truly open platform, free of an unfair algorithm, fuzzy and arbitrarily applied rules — these have not panned out in a substantial way. You can tweet “men aren’t women” now. Sure. But it is those of us who cheered for Elon Musk to take the reins of the platform most responsible for the outrageous Hunter Biden laptop suppression in 2020 who must call it out when there are broken promises.
That’s the topic I explore in the latest Rabbit Hole column, which you can preview a large portion of here, and subscribe to read the full version:
Warning to the media — don’t make the mistake of making judges and lawyers heroes again
During the Trump administration, it was Robert Mueller. Or, more embarrassingly, it was Michael Avenatti. Those "legal" figures who were deified — by the left, and by the Acela Media. And it didn't pan out. Are we starting to get a replay of this all over again? Judge Tanya Chutkan, who set herself a trial date of Super Tuesday Eve today. Good luck with that. Of course there’s Fani Willis in Georgia, too.
And certainly, perhaps most embarrassingly so far, there’s Jack Smith. Earlier this month, Glenn Greenwald hilariously spotlighted a CBS News segment about Smith that was “borderline pornographic” — a “sexually charged homage” to the very special prosecutor going after Trump. Norah O’Donnell goes through Smith’s accomplishments, including… his various triathlons?
You really have to watch this segment.
There are many reasons these judges and lawyers shouldn't be made into media heroes — not least of which is that, if recent history is any indication, like with Mueller and Avanetti, the audience, and the press themselves, are going to be monumentally disappointed in the end.
But there’s a journalistic imperative for the press to try to contextualize what’s happening in the legal system, without leaning toward the cheerleading that came during the Trump administration… and certainly appears headed that direction again.
WATCH IT… Remember when we were going to have President The Rock? Whatever happened to that? As we look out at the landscape this cycle, I’m not sure it sounds any crazier than the rest of what’s been going on. In the meantime, he’s posting incredibly moving videos like this one about an emotional surprise for an up-and-coming MMA fighter on his Twitter account.
HEAR IT… Speaking of the GOP field, I enjoyed two of my favorite thinkers getting together to take over Ezra Klein’s podcast, with Jane Coaston interviewing Ben Domenech about the state of the Republicans and conservatives in America. More conversations like this please — and particularly for the New York Times audience.
READ IT… And speaking of the New York Times… and the GOP field… I continue to find David Leonhardt a rare voice of reason not just at the NYT but in the entire media landscape. His breakdown of the two Jack Smith cases against Trump from earlier this month is a dose of medicine for the NYT readership they likely won’t enjoy, but it’s so necessary in our currently fractured media landscape.
My friend Will Cain did incredible work earlier this month reporting from Maui, which has a special connection to him and his family — and he’s continued to help raise more than $2 million for those affected by the wildfires.
Loved this NiemanLab look at a journalism school learning from taking lessons from a rural weekly newspaper.
New Ad Fontes Media analysis of the most unbiased and accurate media outlets — NewsNation is tops in cable outlets.
Debate #1 of the 2024 cycle is in the books — and Fox News scored a very impressive rating for it, despite Trump’s absence.
Great Catherine Rampell column on a new paper that shows the place where people from different socioeconomic backgrounds mingle the most… is Chili’s.
⏪ REWIND // FAST FORWARD: Obama’s Gay Letter Edition ⏩
⏪ Did you know that former President Barack Obama once wrote to an ex-girlfriend that he had gay sexual fantasies, and that this information was made public more than five years ago and basically ignored by most of the media?
⏩ It’s coming to light again now because the biographer who revealed it, David Garrow, was interviewed in Tablet Magazine this month — and the very lengthy article gets into that detail, and many others, about Obama.
The Columbia Journalism Review spent thousands of words dissecting the journalistic practices of “Cowboy State Daily,” a news outlet focused on Wyoming. Why? Well it’s clear from the beginning that CJR is very unhappy the outlet is funded by Republicans, and isn’t toeing the left-wing line on two very specific issues - climate change and trans rights. It’s a fascinating window into the roadblocks media companies are up against when they aren’t properly liberal — even an outlet squarely focused on serving Wyoming readers. I’ll stay on this story…
GREAT MOMENTS IN JOURNALISM
This tweet, and article, from CNN is actually a work of art. Here’s my favorite part: “For someone who uses the nounself pronoun ‘leaf,’ that may look like: ‘I hope leaf knows how proud we are that leaf is getting to know leafself better!’ or ‘Leaf arrived at the coffee shop before me; I was mortified to have been late to meet leaf.’” Got it?
Thanks for reading - and bearing with me through a busy month. Back again in a couple days though, with a new “Rabbit Hole” column on the gambling gamble for content companies like ESPN.