Distracted Reporting

08/28/2017 07:47 pm ET Updated Aug 30, 2017

On Friday, President Donald Trump attempted a trick many previous U.S. presidents have used to good effect, and so far at least it seems to be working out for Trump quite well. The trick is to get sensitive news out late on a Friday, in the hopes that the American public (and the press) will be so distracted by the weekend that the story will have much less impact than it normally would have. Really bad news is usually released right before a three-day holiday weekend, so it'll have even less reach and an even-smaller impact. Trump took this to another level last Friday, by releasing some contentious news right in the midst of the biggest hurricane to hit the U.S. in over a decade.

So far, as I said, it appears to be working just fine for Trump. The media has been so consumed with reporting on the ongoing Harvey disaster that they have had little time or energy to focus on much of anything else. In the meantime, though, a lot has been going on.

Consider all that has happened since Hurricane Harvey made landfall. The initial White House announcements intended to be buried by the storm reporting were led off by the first Trump presidential pardon, given to a man convicted of ignoring a federal court's instructions to respect people's constitutional rights as sheriff. Not all people, mind you, just Latinos. If Harvey had not happened, this would be the biggest news story around, and would be tied in to Trump's attitudes on race in general. Since the news broke during the storm, though, it has been no more than a footnote ever since. Mission accomplished, as the White House might say.

On the same day, Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka was unceremoniously shown the White House door, which wasn't too surprising since he was an acolyte of Steve Bannon. This is more proof that General John Kelly is taking charge of the White House staff in a way that Reince Priebus never did, and will further shift power away from what might be called the alt-right faction within Trump's White House.

Also on Friday came the news that the White House had made Trump's transgender military ban a reality, by issuing an official letter spelling out how the new policy should work. Previous to this point, the idea had been nothing more than a pair of early-morning tweets from the Tweeter-in-Chief. The Pentagon refused to do anything about these tweets, instead demanding more substantial policy guidance, and last Friday, they got it. Again, this should have been a major story, but it got all but swept away by the storm.

Over the weekend, much other political news was made, which for the most part was not adequately reported on. There were major demonstrations and counterprotests in San Francisco and Berkeley, but these got nowhere near the attention the protests in Boston did last week. Trump's own cabinet members and top advisors are beginning to repudiate Trump's stance on Charlottesville, which in normal times would be a firing offense (for most any president). Also, Trump announced the reversal of a policy Barack Obama instituted, which will now allow surplus military equipment to be sold to police departments once again.

In international news, the town of Tal Afar was retaken by Iraqi forces, further shrinking the Islamic State footprint in that country. Only two remaining Islamic State areas of control remain in the country, one surrounding Hawija and one on the border with Syria. North Korea, meanwhile, continues to launch missiles and just sent one over Japan. Remember the breathless reporting from a few weeks ago over each and every North Korean missile launch? This weekend's launches will doubtlessly get significantly less media coverage in America.

Today, we've got new revelations about the Trump campaign and the Trump business organization dealing with the highest levels in Moscow, right up to when the primary season started in 2016. The media may continually get distracted by every Trump tweet in sight, but obviously the F.B.I. and Special Counsel Bob Mueller are staying focused, behind the scenes.

Also today, Washington will see a "1,000 Ministers' March For Justice," organized by Reverend Al Sharpton, which is intended to be a strong moral rebuke to President Trump. This march was long planned to take place on the anniversary of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have A Dream" speech, but after Trump's inadequate reaction to Charlottesville, it couldn't be more timely. In normal (non-hurricane) times the media usually marks this anniversary even without a moral protest march against the president by over a thousand religious leaders from all faiths.

That's all a lot of news since Friday, you've got to admit. Each one of these stories would, in quieter times, dominate headlines and television news for days. But in the middle of a hurricane and flooding disaster, they are barely mentioned.

The media loves "big stories," and a monster hurricane is the biggest of the big. There's always a chance, after all, that the media will all have front seats to a human disaster story right after the natural disaster story. To put this another way, the media are more than ready to report on another Hurricane Katrina fiasco, should one develop.

So far, this hasn't happened in any large way. So the media has to be content with filling up the minutes and the column inches with as many personal and heartwrenching stories as they can, lightly seasoned with fresh "boy, that guy in the truck trying to drive through 12-foot-high water is an idiot" film, if they've got any.

The media's storm reporting has left a lot to be desired, this time around. When the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency or an official from the Homeland Security Department appears on television, somehow the reporters never get an answer (if the question is even asked, that is) about how the White House budget proposal would slash the funding for their agencies. The officials want to talk about what's going on, and not whether gutting their budgets might lead to a much different (and more inadequate) response to future disasters. The reporter's job is to connect these dots, and make the point that if government agencies are critical right now in the middle of a disaster, then they will be equally critical during future disasters, but with far less money -- but that point never seems to get made, somehow.

Now, I don't want to appear too callous, and I do realize that disasters of this widespread scale are indeed the most newsworthy thing around when they happen. People in Texas are hurting, and they will be hurting for a while -- just as people in New Jersey endured with Superstorm Sandy, and just as the survivors of any hurricane or other natural disaster have to cope with. It's an enormous human interest story, which is why it dominates the airwaves and the headlines for days on end. That's all perfectly understandable and reasonable.

But dominating the news is one thing, and "completely pre-empting any and all other news" is another. Normally, when a big natural disaster hits, politics takes a back seat, from the president on down. The political world becomes focused on responding to the disaster and attempting to make the system better for when future disasters strike.

That's not exactly happening now, although it still might once Congress returns to do its business. Instead, we've got a president who is actively using the media's distraction with the hurricane to bury what would normally be very important political stories. Team Trump knew full well the level of distraction the hurricane would cause in the news, and they decided to exploit this fact to their advantage. Conservatives used to loudly complain about a quote from Rahm Emanuel: "You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before." Trump doesn't complain, he emulates.

Admittedly, though, my complaint is less with the Trump White House and more with the media itself. Some of the news that got buried this weekend came directly from the White House, but a lot of it did not. It didn't matter to the media, though, because all of it was perhaps not ignored but definitely reported with a much lower profile than it would have had, absent the storm.

The media has a literal field day when they get to report on disasters' aftermath. They get to break out the hip-waders, stand on beaches in hurricane-force winds, shove cameras in the faces of devastated crying people, and (nowadays) also get to use drones to get dramatic aerial footage for the viewers at home. Plus all those "guy in the flooded truck" videos, for comedic relief. Sure beats sitting in a studio somewhere parsing what Trump's first pardon means to the Constitution and to the rule of law, doesn't it?

 

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