TUESDAY, MAY 16, 2023
Our lives behind high walls: In our view, Howard Kurtz has always been a bit sharper than the average mainstream press bear.
It's never easy to ascribe cluelessness to Kurtz.
All the way back in 1999, when working for CNN and the Washington Post, Kurtz made three (3) separate attempts to explore an obvious question:
Why in the world was Candidate Gore getting such negative coverage?
In the fall of 1999, Gore was being widely trashed within the mainstream press for various aspects of his troubling wardrobe, but also for "not knowing who he is" and for having "hired a woman to teach him how to be a man."
In October 1999, then again in November, Kurtz posed that question about the Gore coverage to panels of mainstream reporters on two (2) separate CNN programs.
The mainstream reporters all agreed that Gore was receiving harshly critical overage from their own news orgs. But how strange! None of them seemed to be able to say why that was occurring!
(In May of that year, Kurtz had encountered that same stone wall as he wrote a lengthy report about the Gore coverage in the Post.)
At that point, late in 1999, Kurtz abandoned his search. We'll guess that he understood a basic fact:
What happens within the mainstream press corps stays in the mainstream press corps.
So it had been, a few years earlier, when Fene Lyons published his book, Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater The media to whom that title referred were mainly the New York Times and the Washington Post.
For that reason, the Times and the Post, along with their favorite reporters and friends, shut coverage of the Lyons book down. Such talk had to disappear!
We expect to have more on this ancient topic before the week is done. You see, a New Hampshire "town hall" on CNN played a key role in the history of that remarkable episode—in the story of how it is that George W. Bush found his way to the White House, with the U.S. Army then finding its way into that war in Iraq.
A CNN "town hall" in New Hampshire played a key role in that ancient episode! For today, let's return to the present tense, which finds Kurtz working for the Fox News Channel as the host of its little-watched weekly program, Media Buzz.
Credit where due! This past Sunday, Kirtz offered some sound observations about CNN's more recent (ersatz) "town hall."
The program wasn't a real "town hall" in the traditional sense of the term. All in all, that designation was a bit of corporate branding.
CNN had decided who would be allowed to attend last Wednesday's "town hall." CNN had also selected the questions those people would ask.
Receiving the questions was Donald J. Trump, with Kaitlan Collins serving as moderator.
Citizens, listen up! In this report for Mediaite, Ken Meyer describes the way Kurtz began his Media Buzz program this Sunday.
In our view, Kurtz offered some sensible observations—and he posed an excellent question:
MEYER (5/14/23): Fox News’ Howard Kurtz denounced the “circus atmosphere” that enveloped Donald Trump’s CNN town hall with Kaitlan Collins.
Kurtz started MediaBuzz off on Sunday by showing Collins in several intense back-and-forths with Trump over his lies about January 6th and the 2020 election. Kurtz brought Robby Soave and Ameshia Cross on to discuss a town hall which he called “unwatchable at times.” He asked his panelists, “Did CNN underestimate the challenge of fact-checking Donald Trump in real time as he steamrolled Kaitlan Collins—a sharp and poised but relatively young journalist?”
In our view, the town hall program really was "unwatchable at times"—and in our view, the program did feature a "circus atmosphere." Later in Meyer's report, he reported some other assessments made by Kurtz and his guests:
MEYER (continuing directly): Soave acknowledged criticisms of the town hall’s format, since it led to audience cheering on Trump’s counteroffensive against Collins’ fact-checks and hard questions. Kurtz went on to ask, “what did CNN expect?”
Cross said Collins “did the best she could with the hand that she was dealt…but she lost control of that room very, very quickly” when faced with Trump’s torrent of lies and attacks on his foes. When Kurtz took the wheel again, he spotlighted the moment when Trump refused to apologize to Mike Pence over the events of January 6th “because he did something wrong.”
“The ‘wrong’ thing is that he didn’t overturn the results of the Electoral College,” Kurtz said in rebuttal. He then offered his assessment of Collins, saying she “was in a tough position, but she’s not there to debate him. But it looked that way, especially with the crowd, the pro-Trump crowd, you know, hooting and hollering whenever he made a point that they liked.”
Concerning Collins, Kurtz said this: she "was in a tough position, but she’s not there to debate him." He noted the "hooting and hollering" which helped put Collins in that "tough position," and he asked an obvious question:
What did CNN expect?
What did CNN expect? We have no idea. What CNN got was an example of the public discourse which now exists, now that our nation's various tribes are living inside their various silos, in a state of segregation-by-viewpoint, behind some very high walls.
Earlier, Kurtz had posed a different form of that question. That question went like this:
Did CNN underestimate the challenge of fact-checking Donald Trump in real time?
We're going to guess that the answer is yes. Beyond that, we'll offer this:
With our population (or populations) segregated in the manner described, there's really no way to "fact-check" someone like Trump—or to fact-check our own blue pundits as they advance the claims and Storylines our own blue tribe most likes.
Yesterday, we showed you what happened in one instance as Kaitlan Collins, battling gamely, tried to fact-check Trump. As we showed you yesterday, the lengthy exchange began like this, then went downhill from there:
COLLINS (5/10/23): When it comes to big questions about what your immigration policies would look like if you are re-elected, some of your Republican rivals have criticized you for not fulfilling the promises that you made on the campaign trail, like finishing the border wall. So how do voters know that you would get those done if you are re-elected?
TRUMP: I did finish the wall. I built the wall—
COLLINS: You didn't finish the wall.
TRUMP: I built hundreds of miles of wall and I finished it, and then I said, we have to build some more...
Trump said he did finish the wall, and then he built more wall.
Collins said he didn't finish the wall. Before the lengthy exchange was finished, other disputes had occurred:
Trump had said that he finished the wall. Collins had said that he didn't.
Trump had said that the 2020 election was rigged. Collins had said that it wasn't.
Trump had said he'd built hundreds of miles of "new wall." Collins had said it was 52 miles.
Eventually, Trump referred to "the game" the dishonest Democrats play. Instantly, Collins said that this discussion wasn't a game.
In that last remark, Collins was clearly wrong. Given the current state of our discourse, all such discussions are mainly a game—and whatever CNN may have imagined, it isn't remotely possible to fact-check someone like Candidate Trump during a live event.
Gamely, Collins tried to fact-check Trump's claim that he had finished the border wall. She said he hadn't completed the wall—that he had only constructed 52 miles of "new" wall, a term she didn't find time to explain as the real-time battle occurred.
For the record, this may seem like an utterly simple factual question, especially for those of us who live within blue tents. Plainly, the question is much less complex than many other questions around which our national discourse revolves.
That said, consider this:
Back in December 2020, Robert Farley conducted an extensive fact-check of this topic for FactCheck.org. Farley really got into the weeds. At one point, he even offered an extensive discussion concerning what Candidate Trump had actually promised.
Did Trump ever pledge to "finish the wall?" Sub-headline included, here's what Farley offered:
What did Trump promise?
Although the 2016 Republican platform stated, “The border wall must cover the entirety of the southern border and must be sufficient to stop both vehicular and pedestrian traffic,” that’s not actually what Trump talked about during the campaign.
At the time, Trump consistently talked about needing 1,000 miles of wall. Here are just a few examples over a 10-month period during the campaign:
“Here, we actually need 1,000 because we have natural barriers. So we need 1,000.” —Trump during the third Republican primary debate, on Oct. 28, 2015.
“Now, it’s 2,000 miles but we need 1,000 miles of wall. Nothing. It’s nothing. I will have the most gorgeous wall you’ve ever seen. Someday, when I’m gone they’ll name it the Trump wall.” —Trump during a campaign speech in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on April 21, 2016.
“We have 2,000 miles [of border] of which we really need 1,000 miles [of wall] because you have a lot of natural barriers—lot of natural barriers. So you need 1,000. —Trump at a rally in Abingdon, Virginia, on Aug. 10, 2016.
Given that Trump inherited about 650 miles of barriers, that would mean building another 350 miles (in addition to any replacement fencing).
But once Trump was elected, he began to move the goal posts—from 1,000 miles to 900 to 800 to 700 and even less...
Oof! As Meyer went on to note, Trump had even said this during his time in the White House:
“We do not need 2,000 miles of concrete wall from sea to shining sea—we never did; we never proposed that; we never wanted that—because we have barriers at the border where natural structures are as good as anything that we can build,” Trump said in remarks from the White House on Jan. 25, 2019. “They’re already there. They’ve been there for millions of years. Our proposed structures will be in predetermined high-risk locations that have been specifically identified by the Border Patrol to stop illicit flows of people and drugs.”
Long story short:
According to Farley, Trump hadn't promised to build a wall which would "cover the entirety of the southern border." We blue voters may tend to think otherwise because, from our vantage point, it makes the story a whole lot better about what he eventually did.
According to Farley's presentation, it's also true that President Trump ended up building much less "new wall"—wall where no barrier previously existed—than he had said he would.
It's hard to justify Trump saying, at the town hall, that he did "finish the wall." Indeed, almost as soon as he made the claim, he began to contradict it.
That said, Collins had seemed to be working from an inaccurate notion of what Trump had originally pledged. In the hurly burly of the "town hall," with the attendant hooting and hollering and with Trump quickly inserting the new claim that the 2020 election was rigged, there was no way that Collins, or anyone else, could ever have explained what a journalist could sensibly mean by saying that Trump didn't "finish the wall."
Donald J. Trump didn't finish the wall? According to Farley's extensive fact-check, he hadn't necessarily / exactly said that he'd do some such thing! But even here, where the factual issues are relatively simple, there was no earthly way to clarify the point about what Trump had done as president in the course of a raucous "town hall."
Trump had created a bogus impression by saying that he did "finish the wall," but Collins had perhaps created a bogus impression by introducing the topic in the way she did, then by saying he didn't.
Meanwhile, as soon as the "town hall" was done, members of our blue and red tribes repaired to the warm cocoons of their respective tribal news orgs, where they would almost surely be treated to the formulations and stories their separate tribes like.
In fact, little discussion of the border wall emerged from this "town hall." Depending on which tribe you're in, you've likely heard other aspects of the town hall discussed.
In our view, Kaitlan Collins battled gamely all through the event. Sometimes she performed extremely well, at high speed. Faced with an impossible task, sometimes she pretty much didn't.
That said, our nation has long since passed the point where serious fact-checking can be conducted in real time during live events. In truth, this has been true for a very long time, going back before we split into strictly segregated red and blue tribes, with other subgroups complicating the picture even more.
That said, we do live within such tribes today. We live inside extremely well-constructed silos which stand behind high walls.
The walls in question are very high. Tomorrow, we'll look at what our two tribes have heard, within the past day, about John Durham's new report.
Meanwhile, how about it? Did Donald J. Trump ever "finish the wall?"
That question involves a relatively simple set of facts. But the way we live our lives today, even that question could never be fact-checked in a way on which tribes would agree.
Tomorrow: "You must be seething," Brian Kilmeade said