the national circus

Obama Is a Lousy Media Critic

U.S. President Barack Obama reacts while greeting members of the audience after speaking at the Chief of Missions Conference at the State Department in Washington
Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Obama’s media criticism, the GOP’s Second Amendment extremism, and the box-office success of Batman v. Superman

Addressing an audience of reporters and editors at a journalism prize ceremony this weekend, President Obama censured the coverage of the presidential campaign, saying that reporters’ inability to be critical of candidates, and their caving to the economic pressures of their industry, had tarnished the “American brand” in the eyes of world leaders. Do the president’s comments matter?

Presidents are notoriously thin-skinned and myopic press critics. Even John Kennedy canceled his White House subscription to the GOP-leaning New York Herald-Tribune in a moment of pique. Obama is no exception. His underlying theme, that the press helped enable Trump by not fact-checking his ludicrous claims and that it gave a free pass to Bernie Sanders (whose name went unmentioned) by not doing a reality-check on his policy wish lists, is false.

As the press critic Jack Shafer pointed out in Politico, the continuing drum beat that the media empowered Trump, a thesis particularly prevalent among liberal commentators echoed by the president, just isn’t borne out by the facts. If anything, as Shafer writes, the media all but “unified in an attempt to destroy him.” All the major newspapers, including Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journalhave been doing major investigations of Trump’s business interests and practices for months now. Fox News, in the on-air form of Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace, has been tough on Trump. National Review devoted an entire issue to pillorying him; most major conservative pundits rail against him as much as their liberal counterparts. And while much is made of Trump’s $2 billion bounty of free media, the truth is that he gets a lion’s share of television time and other so-called “earned media” because he earns it: Unlike Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, he never limited his exposure to the press but seized virtually every invitation handed him to go on the air and mouth off unscripted. Unlike most of his opponents, he was also canny enough to make news at his rallies — even if the news was appalling. As Shafer says, Trump is “the most charismatic and controversial candidate” in the field: “The idea that a hard-hitting cable news host can take down a demagogue is a fantasy that exists only in the dramatic works of Aaron Sorkin.”

The press is hardly flawless in its coverage of this campaign. It has consistently underestimated Trump’s appeal and success. But for Nicholas Kristof to piously claim, as he did in a Times column last weekend, that everyone in journalism should share in the “shame” of Trump’s rise is offensive. Though certainly Kristof deserves his share: Early this month, he wrote a column in which he interviewed an “imaginary” Trump voter rather than deigning to interview a real one. Had he talked to an actual Trump voter, he might have learned that investigative pieces about Trump University, fact-checking, and op-ed attacks are not going to deter any of them from rallying behind their man. As Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post put it in a column implicitly rebuking Kristof’s: “Blaming ourselves for Trump’s rise is just another way to ignore the voters who have made him a favorite for the GOP nomination.”

Early this week the Secret Service put an end to some Americans’ hopes that open-carry firearms would be allowed at the Republican National Convention, after a petition in favor of it (perhaps serious, perhaps satirical) had attracted more than 50,000 signatures. Will the failure of the presidential candidates to take up this cause affect how pro-gun voters see them going forward?

It should. In a year in which everyone is debating what constitutes “a real Republican,” surely there could be agreement on this point: The one stand that unites all Republican factions is a bedrock belief in an unbridled Second Amendment. Republicans support guns in schools. They support guns in church. They support guns at the mall. So of course they should support guns at their own convention. It makes no sense that Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich have all hedged on this issue. As the petition pointed out, Cruz and Kasich, in keeping with NRA doctrine, have both called for the elimination of “gun-free zones.” Trump has promised to end “gun-free zones” at schools and military bases on his first day in office. So why did none of these candidates stand tall for the freedom to pack heat in the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland? Rather than sign the petition, they came up with wussy excuses. Trump, for example, said he wanted to read the petition’s “fine print” — when has he read the fine print on anything?

It’s not too late for them to man up. Yes, the oppressive federal government, in the form of Barack Obama’s jack-booted Secret Service, has defiled the Second Amendment by disallowing firearms at the RNC, but the candidates can and should fight back. If Cruz could shut down the government to try to stop funding Planned Parenthood, surely he could use the same tactic to bring the Secret Service to its knees. Kasich, as governor of the state where the convention is being held, should take the fed’s curtailing of the Second Amendment to court. For his part, Trump can reject Secret Service protection at the convention and entrust his safety instead to his fearless campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who was charged with a misdemeanor (no doubt unjustly, just as he was yesterday) after bringing a gun into a House office building while working as a Hill staffer in 1999.

As Trump has said, there may be riots at the convention. True Second Amendment advocates say that the best defense against hooliganism is a good offense, so the more guns, the better. Live free or die.

Despite lousy reviews, Batman v Superman had a very good weekend at the box office, pulling in more than $400 million worldwide. What’s a reviewer to do when a movie is essentially critic-proof?

One unassailable point that Obama did make in his press critique was his observation that “the curating function” of journalism — the application of editorial standards by gatekeepers — “is diminished in this smartphone age.” This cuts both ways, of course. More undifferentiated crap than ever, from rumors to out-and-out falsehoods, can pass for “news.” But at the same time, news consumers have more freedom to assemble their news and opinion diet than they did in the distant age of print and three-network television. The fall of the gatekeepers has taken a toll even on the lowly field of arts criticism — a field in which I toiled for some two decades. It’s debatable whether critics ever had the power to make the hits or flops attributed to them in those days — I, for one, failed to stop Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Starlight Express despite throwing myself on its tracks — but now more than ever, everybody is a critic on any social-media platform he or she wants to be.

The mainstream-media critics hated Batman v Superman (Rotten Tomatoes average: 29 percent). Entertainment-industry reporters speculated that it would underperform at the box office on opening weekend. A viral video meme of “sad” Ben Affleck, looking forlorn as “The Sound of Silence” plays in the background, had nearly 20 million views on YouTube last time I looked. But none of this mattered as the movie itself closes in on a half-billion-dollar international gross in its first week.

Movie-ticket buyers, like voters, have their own ideas, and have no qualms about defying received opinion from the “experts,” whether in the media or elsewhere. The screenwriter William Goldman’s famous Hollywood axiom, “Nobody knows anything,” is more applicable than ever to our entire culture in this strange year of 2016.

Obama Is a Lousy Media Critic