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The Barbershop: Media Watch


Now we're going to head into the Barbershop. That's where we invite interesting people to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. And, this week, like so many in the last couple of years, there were so many consequential stories, as we just discussed - guilty pleas by those close to the president, big personnel moves at the White House. The cliche, which we actually repeat sometimes even though we know better, is that it's like drinking out of a firehose.

So, with all that, often, you know, it's time for some self-examination. How are we covering all of this? Is the media doing its job as it should be? So we thought this would be a good week to pause for a few minutes to ask two media watchers to give us their take on what's being covered and how. So joining us from our studios in New York is Margaret Sullivan. She's media columnist for The Washington Post.

Hello, Margaret. Welcome back.

MARGARET SULLIVAN: Hi, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: Also joining us via Skype is Charlie Sykes. He hosted a conservative political talk show for many years in Wisconsin. He's an author and political commentator.

Charlie, welcome back to you as well.

CHARLIE SYKES: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: All right. So where to start - it's two people who look at the news coverage broadly. And we know you both have your own personal views. I'm just going to ask, what was the most important story this week? Margaret, I'll ask you.

SULLIVAN: Well, I think it's a broad - it may not be one specific news event, but, as my colleagues at The Washington Post wrote in a story that just posted a couple of hours ago - I'm just going to read the first sentence - (reading) two years after Donald Trump won the presidency, nearly every organization he has led in the past decade is under investigation.

So I think all these threads coming together this week makes it the story of the week.

MARTIN: Charlie, what stands out to you this week?

SYKES: Well, ironically enough, I had the same story in front of me.


SYKES: It is the momentum of the investigation, all of the accumulating legal troubles for the president. Not just Michael Cohen and The National Enquirer but, as Margaret just mentioned, I mean, nearly every organization he's ever run is facing investigation - the campaign, his businesses. The emolument suit is going ahead. The inaugural committee is now under investigation. His foundations are being probed in the state of New York. And all of this is happening even before the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives and launch their own investigations.

MARTIN: So, you know, a comment this week caught my eye - came from former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. He's also a former lieutenant governor of Maryland. He was on MSNBC with a panel of guests talking about President Trump's next chief of staff when he kind of - I don't know, threw a sort of a stink bomb into the whole thing. And he said, we've got to stop acting like we care. They were talking about this - the personnel moves. And he said, the reality is, this is an end of year Christmas show. This is better than the Rockettes in New York because everybody's now going hoo, hoo, hoo.

So, to paraphrase, I think what he was saying is that too much of the coverage to him strikes him as - like, it's like entertainment. And I'm just wondering if any of you agree with that. And part of the reason I ask is, you know, here again, there's chief of - there is - you know, today, we're talking about the news that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is leaving under a cloud of investigations.

You know, when I covered the White House, we were always told that personnel is policy, right? But then some people think that we spend just way too much time talking about these personnel moves, so now I'm going to ask you all what you think about that. Margaret, I'll go to you again.

SULLIVAN: So I think that it may be overemphasized - the sort of palace intrigue of who's in and who's out. But there is a broader story in the Trump White House right now, which is that the president seemed to have some trouble filling the role of chief of staff and now has appointed an acting chief of staff as John Kelly exits. So that - you know, I think it's not the best idea to get overly hung up on these personnel moves, but they do have a broader and deeper significance within this other thing that we're talking about. So I think it's a little bit of both, Michel.

MARTIN: And, Charlie, what about you?

SYKES: Well, I think it's an excellent question, and I'm guilty of this is as much as anyone else. But we are kind of like, you know, the dog that sees the squirrel - you know, squirrel. And we are constantly distracted, and we obsess about things that, quite frankly, most Americans could care less about. So yeah, we have been excessively caught up in the comings and goings internally.

And you do wonder, what are we not talking about? What is not being covered as a result of all of this? And you look back over the last year, and things like the disaster in Puerto Rico did not receive anywhere near, I think, the coverage that perhaps they deserve. So there's a whole world that's going on while we obsess about the Trump White House. Having said that, obviously, this is the drama of our time, and these decisions are, in fact, consequential.

MARTIN: Yeah. I guess we're not going to know whether we were right until it's all over. I mean, that's really...

SYKES: Right.

MARTIN: ...Not correct about the actual facts but the proportion that was given to all of these things. Not to let any of us off of the hook, but I do think it's important that we stop and pause and say, what should - are we talking about the right things? Well, finally, you know, the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard announced that it will be closing after 23 years. And one of the reasons the Weekly Standard stood out is that it has continued to be critical of President Trump even as a conservative outlet. And President Trump obviously knows this, saying, quote, "the pathetic and dishonest Weekly Standard."

So the question here, Charlie - I'm going to go to you first on this because you've been a contributing editor for The Weekly Standard, which I'm sure is, you know, just regally paid position. And - that was a joke. But the question that some people have is, is the Weekly Standard folding because it has continued to criticize the president? Is that the issue? Or is there something about this that isn't quite right? Is it - this is - you know, yet another sort of thing where that - within the conservative movement, one has to fall in line, or one goes away? What is your take on that? And other people say, look...

SYKES: Yeah.

MARTIN: It's just a business decision - that, you know, none of these opinion magazines is particularly profitable. Your take?

SYKES: Well, there's a little bit of all of those things. And, yes, I am a contributing editor, and I hosted up until Friday the Daily Standard podcast. And I'm a longtime friend of the editor-in-chief Stephen Hayes and with Bill Kristol. So this really, you know, hits very, very close to home. There's no question about it - this is a huge blow. It is so - it's hard to overstate how difficult it is to be in conservative media during the era of Trump without getting on board this Trump train. And so the moral courage of Steven Hayes and the other editors in pushing back against that and being an independent, fact-based rational voice really deserves a lot of credit.

So yes, we've lost a major voice not only on the right but I think in American politics because the Weekly Standard was an extraordinarily rich and deep and eloquent publication. Not to say that there weren't things that they were perhaps, like all of us, were wrong about.

In terms of the business decision, I do think that John Podhoretz writing in Commentary was right. This was not a natural death. This was a murder. This was a decision by the billionaire owners to essentially say, you know what? We're going to shut down this magazine. We're going to ignore alternatives. We are going to reject attempts to sell it to willing buyers in order to strip mine its assets to prop up a another, much more Trump-friendly publication that they are now investing in. So yes, it was. There are business issues there, but this was also a matter of choice.

And that's really what adds to the tragedy of all of this - and, of course, the incredibly callous and crass gloating by the president of the United States. You have some very smart, hardworking journalists that are now out of work the week before Christmas, and the president of the United States is celebrating that on Twitter.

MARTIN: So I do understand that they will be getting severance - not that that makes it any better. But Margaret, I'm going to give you the final word here. You have about a minute left.

SULLIVAN: Well, I think that Charlie - I wanted to bring up The Weekly Standard and to express my sympathy - and I guess really condolences might be the right word in the situation. It's a very sad development. And it echoes, in a way, what's happening in media throughout the country - you know, business decisions, not always for particularly elevated reasons, that are destroying voices, particularly in local journalism. So you're seeing the same. And Charlie used the word strip mining - strip mining of local newspapers that are so important to our media sort of ecosystem that are happening at the hands of global - you know, places like Alden Global Capital, which is a hedge fund. So it's really sad to see.

MARTIN: All right. We have to leave it there for now - lots more that we could talk about. And happy holidays to you both, if I don't speak to you again...

SULLIVAN: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: That was Washington Post...

SYKES: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: ...Media columnist Margaret Sullivan and author and political commentator Charlie Sykes.

Thanks so much for joining us.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

SYKES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.